Sizing up reviews for automotive GPS
This report on auto Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers covers devices for in-car navigation. These differ from handheld GPS receivers meant for hiking and camping. Automotive GPS systems have much larger screens, spoken directions and highway maps. Car GPS units are larger and heavier than handhelds, and they aren't known for long battery life. However, all aftermarket auto GPS units are somewhat portable, with some marketed as crossover devices. See our companion report on handheld GPS to learn about units designed primarily for outdoor pursuits.
We found several rich sources of automotive GPS reviews. ConsumerReports.org has tested just about every auto GPS unit on the market -- 137 in all. PCMag.com and GPSTracklog.com, a GPS enthusiast website, don't test quite as many units, but they include a lot more detail than ConsumerReports.org, testing and explaining all of the important features.
Other top testers have slacked off on their GPS reviews, though. CNET, GPSMagazine.com and GPSLodge.com once led our sources with up-to-the-minute, comprehensive tests of every important new GPS device on the market -- but as people have increasingly abandoned standalone GPS units and turned to smartphone GPS apps (discussed below), these sources have let their GPS reviews languish.
For years, Garmin has dominated the top picks, but this is the first year that Garmin runs away with every single Best Reviewed and runner-up spot in our report. Top U.S. testers still occasionally recommend GPS units from TomTom, Magellan and Motorola, but none gets more than one or two recommendations. And this year, all of the top owner-reviewed models at Amazon.com and Newegg.com are Garmin units.
Should you skip the GPS unit and just get a GPS app for your smartphone?
More people are skipping car GPS receivers, The New York Times reports, and getting turn-by-turn directions from smartphones instead. The Times wonders whether smartphones are "sending GPS devices the way of the tape deck."
"More than 40 percent of all smartphone owners use their mobile devices to get turn-by-turn directions, according to data from Compete, a Web analytics firm," the Times reports. "For iPhone users, the figure is even higher, eclipsing 80 percent."
And while smartphone sales keep rising, GPS device sales have plummeted, the Times says. Smartphones can now look and perform a lot like traditional car GPS units, thanks to apps from major GPS makers. The Navigon Mobile Navigator (*Est. $50 for U.S. maps) and TomTom for iPhone (*Est. $50 for U.S. maps) both get good reviews, as do some cheaper apps like the MotionX GPS Drive by Fullpower (*Est. $3 per month or $20 per year). Garmin held out for years, but it now offers the Garmin StreetPilot app (*Est. $40 for U.S. maps) for iPhone and Windows phones.
Android phones come preloaded with Google Maps Navigation for free -- an app with "all the features you expect from stand-alone GPS units," ConsumerReports.org blogger Dirk Klingner says, plus two big-deal features that usually cost hundreds more on Garmin and TomTom units: voice commands, so you don't have to take your hands off the steering wheel or your eyes off the road, and -- naturally -- the ability to search Google to find your destination, rather than relying on a finite (and possibly outdated) points-of-interest database. See our companion report on the best GPS apps.
So, which should you choose -- GPS app or dedicated GPS unit? It depends how much you rely on your GPS, says Fletcher Previn at GPSMagazine.com, one of our top expert sources.
"GPS software for smartphones has improved a lot in recent years and is now a viable option for many customers (I myself have GPS software loaded on my phone, and have used it when traveling without my dedicated GPS)," Previn says.
Still, top-rated GPS units like the Garmin nuvi 3790T (*Est. $250) offer "a far superior experience with more advanced routing logic and more complete feature set," Previn says. "Those looking for occasional GPS software to use in a pinch might do just fine with their cell phone. Those who rely on GPS more often, or are looking for the very best technology, will be better served with the 3790T. It's also worth noting that GPS navigation on a cell phone can quickly rack up data usage charges for those without an unlimited data plan."
CNET, in an article titled "GPS or Smartphone?" adds that smartphones usually have smaller screens than GPS units (making maps harder to see) and using your phone as a GPS may run down the battery. Don't forget to factor in extra costs -- like a windshield mount -- if you're planning to use your smartphone as a GPS navigator.