What's the best way to navigate?
Car GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers are designed for in-car
navigation. You can spend anywhere from $100 to more than $300 on an auto GPS
navigator -- and they'll all get you from point A to point B reliably.
Pricey models add some useful extras. For
example, you can get an auto GPS system that understands voice commands (so you
never have to take your hands off the wheel) and boasts larger screen sizes, up
to 7 inches, so there's no more squinting to see routing. Some models include
extras that, while also useful, have little to do with navigation -- for
example lane departure warning systems and dash cameras.
Those little luxuries can make getting from
place to place less stressful -- but they'll cost you. At the lower end of the
price spectrum you get a car GPS with few niceties, not even traffic
information in the least-expensive options, but one that can still help you
reliably find your way. But if you've got a smartphone with a free navigation
app, do you really need a separate GPS navigator at all?
you skip the GPS unit and just navigate with your smartphone?
For years, car GPS sales have dropped as more
and more people get smartphones, which offer spoken turn-by-turn directions for
free. Free navigation apps like Google Maps were once pretty bare-bones, but
not anymore. Now, they're just as good as what you'll find in standalone auto GPS
units in most ways. Both can:
- Work without a data signal. Smartphone navigation used to conk out every time you
lost your data signal. But now, many apps can work offline. That means you can
always navigate with your smartphone, even if you lose your signal (or don't
have a data plan at all).
reroute if you take a wrong turn.
loudly and clearly. Standalone
car GPS units have good speakers. So do most smartphones, and if your car is
Bluetooth compatible, your smartphone and navigation app can speak through your
car's speakers instead.
voice commands, so you
don't have to type. However, voice recognition is often omitted in lower priced
car GPS units.
lane guidance, telling
you which lane you'll need to be in at an upcoming intersection.
traffic snarls and route
you around them -- as long as you are in an area where traffic information is
available. Again, some cheaper stand-alone GPS systems lack traffic capability
dim the screen (or switch into night view) when it gets dark to make it easier to view.
walking, bike and public transit routes.
However, dedicated GPS systems do have some
screens. Sure, you
could use a tablet with a free app to navigate -- but not everybody has a
tablet or wants to haul one back and forth to their car. If you tend to squint
at your phone's little screen, you can buy a 7-inch big-screen GPS navigator
and just leave it in the car if you want. (Beware of hot/freezing weather and
life. Navigating can quickly drain
your smartphone's battery.
phone interruptions. If you
answer a phone call while navigating with your smartphone, your GPS session
will minimize or pause. To call it back up while talking, you'll have to tap around
on your phone -- hardly safe (and in many areas, illegal) to do while driving.
solution. Car GPS
units come with a windshield/dashboard mount and cigarette-lighter power cable.
If you want these items to use with your smartphone or mini-tablet, you'll need
to buy them separately.
-- no tech know-how required. Maybe you've got an older relative who wants nothing to do with smartphones. Or
maybe you just hate messing around with apps, figuring out how to turn on voice
commands and spoken directions. Unlike smartphone apps, car GPS units are truly
Bottom line: The experts at TheWirecutter.com
say that "the best GPS devices can still make it easier to navigate to
your destination," but add that, "For day-to-day navigation, however,
a smartphone can work well for most people, especially if you have a car
charger and a car mount to keep it where you can easily see it."
The Best Car GPS
Experts don't spend tons of time testing GPS
units, but TheWirecutter.com does put the 2017 models to the test. Other than
that, we looked at reviews of predecessor models, which offer many of the same
features and similar performance to those currently offered. Ditto for user
reviews; feedback for current models is limited, but reviews from older -- and
in some cases still available -- models help guide us in our picks.
Garmin still makes the best car GPS
If you've decided that a stand-alone
auto GPS is right for you, it's no contest, experts and owners say: Garmin auto
GPS is simply the best. In one major car GPS test, the top six winners are
Garmins (a Magellan navigator squeaks into seventh place, trailed by a bunch of
other Magellan as well as TomTom models). In the most recent test at
TheWirecutter.com, Garmin GPS models again nearly sweep the awards (a cheap
TomTom is the budget pick).
Our research indicates that for most
drivers, the (Est. $230) offers
the best combination of features and performance. TheWirecutter.com likes it
very much despite some questions over the value of some features -- such as
voice control -- compared to a basic model. Its predecessor model (see below)
also scored very highly with experts and users.
The DriveSmart 51 LMT-S includes all of the features most people want -- a 5-inch color multi-touch
screen, free map updates for the life of the unit, voice commands (so you don't
have to type) and Bluetooth (so the Garmin can pair with your smartphone; you
can receive calls, texts and calendar reminders via the unit). Wi-Fi has also
been added to this year's model for easy map and software updates. The unit
also includes Garmin's DriveSmart features: warnings
for sharp curves, speed changes, railroad and animal crossings, school zones,
wrong-way driving on a one-way street, and driver fatigue (this warning kicks
in when you've been driving a long time without stopping).
There are two options for traffic
data. The 51-LMT-S is compatible with Garmin Live Traffic, which is delivered
via the Garmin Smartphone Link (Free),
an app available in both the Google Play and Apple App Store. Other pluses
include weather updates and even parking prices and availability trends for
on-street parking -- a real plus in busy cities. The app is free to download
and use, though a few features, such as access to live traffic camera feeds,
require a one-time fee to access.
The other option is Garmin's more
basic Garmin Traffic service. It's a free service, and uses no wireless data so
a smartphone isn't required, but Garmin has removed the formerly built-in
receiver for that from its 2017 models. That means that those that want use
Garmin Traffic instead of Garmin Traffic Live will need to buy the (Est. $70). The GTM 36, which also
includes a car power cord, has been on the market for several years as a
"fix" for otherwise functional Garmin GPS models with traffic
receivers that had ceased to work and has relatively good user feedback for its
performance. It's a one-time purchase, with no fees or subscription required.
But, as TheWirecutter.com notes, using
Garmin Live Traffic does offer some significant advantages. Traffic information
delivered through Smartphone Link covers a wider area than that delivered
through Garmin Traffic, though neither is as comprehensive as what you'll find
using some smartphone apps, such as Google Maps or Waze. In addition, Garmin
Live Traffic information via the app updates every minute, while the more basic
Garmin Traffic service updates every five minutes. You also miss out on some of
the other goodies, such as parking information.
The 51 LMT-S's predecessor model, the (Est. $195),
remains available at retail at the time this report was prepared. It has an
onboard traffic receiver for the more basic Garmin Traffic service, but lacks
Wi-Fi; otherwise it is nearly identical to the new model, including
compatibility with the Garmin Smartphone Link. Both Garmins can also pair with the (Est. $150).
Bigger, fancier car GPS units cost extra
If you need or want a bigger screen, the (Est. $270) car GPS is pretty
much the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S with a 6.95-inch,
higher-resolution touch screen. That's almost as big as an iPad mini -- and it
really is easier to see at a glance than the 51 LMT-S, reviews say, especially
if you've got bad eyesight or a big vehicle.
Users at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com liked
last year's model, the Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT, which
is no longer for sale at major retailers. Some felt the giant screen
overwhelmed their cars, blocked their view, hogged the dashboard or reflected
too much glare, but others were happy with the big display.
Garmin offers two more high-end auto
GPS models for 2017. The (Est. $330) builds on the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S,
adding a slimmer design, higher-resolution multi-touch screen and powered mount.
However, TheWirecutter.com thinks that
the (Est. $300)
is a more compelling upgrade pick. It skips DriveLuxe goodies in favor of a built-in dash cam that continuously videotapes your drive
(providing valuable evidence in case of a crash) and provides camera-assisted
driving help, such as forward collision and lane departure warnings. "These
active safety features are becoming common in new cars, and the DriveAssist offers an easy, affordable way to add them to
an older or more basic car," TheWirecutter.com says. In addition, like the
Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S, it's compatible with
Garmin's wireless back up camera.
Neither of these upscale GPS models
has amassed enough owner reviews to be helpful, but the models they replace --
the (Est. $300) and (Est. $230) -- both earned 4.2 out of 5
stars from owners at Amazon.com, with 85 to 100 reviews posted. Both of these
older models are Garmin Smartphone Link compatible, but also have built-in
traffic receivers. Both still had at least limited availability at retail at
the time this report was created.
Best cheap auto GPS
If you can do without some of the
niceties in the GPS models profiled above, the (Est. $170) is
a great lower-priced option. It includes most of the features found in Garmin's
more upscale models, including Garmin Live Traffic compatibility.
Fans include TheWireCutter.com, which
names it the best car GPS (on the basis of performance and value) in its latest
update. "The Drive 51 LMT-S is the least expensive Garmin model we tested,
but it has a clear 5-inch screen and all of the essential features we expect in
a good GPS device, without the extras that many people can do without,"
Eric Adams and Rik Paul say.
You do give up a few features,
however. The Drive 51 LMT-S lacks voice commands, for example, and the touch
screen is not multi-touch, so you can't pinch to zoom in. The GPS system is a
little less sophisticated, as well -- you can only program 100 waypoints versus
the 1,000 waypoints you can program into the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S -- though it is otherwise just as functional and reliable. The Drive
51 LMT-S is compatible with a wireless back up camera, however, and if you want
to skip using Garmin Smartphone Link and a smartphone for traffic data, it's
compatible with the Garmin GTM 36 Traffic Receiver.
If you don't care about traffic at
all, you can save a little bit more by opting for the (Est. $150). This very basic GPS unit
has the same core functionality as pricier models. It boasts the same,
bright, easy-to-use, 5-inch touch screen, and the same impeccable navigation.
It speaks directions using landmarks, and it issues all of Garmin's driver
warnings (sharp curves, driver fatigue, school zones, etc.) It has lane assist
to guide you into the correct lane for an upcoming turn, and you can hook it up
to Garmin's backup camera (sold separately). However, while lifetime map
updates are free, there's no way to add traffic data, and the unit is not
compatible with the GTM 36.
Expert & User Review Sources
Among credible experts, only
TheWirecutter.com has, to date, reviewed the latest GPS models. Its test is
comprehensive, including driving over 1,200 miles of roads of all types.
Otherwise, we looked to reviews of earlier generation GPS systems, which is helpful
as those are very similar to the latest models. ConsumerReports.org conducts the most comprehensive of those, ranking 14 car GPS units from Garmin,
TomTom and Magellan from best to worst. Editors rate the navigators' ease of
use, routing options, driving guidance, mount design, display quality and
traffic interface, and they also take price into account to pick their Best
Buys. We also studied owner-written reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com;
real-world users can judge signal strength, navigation prowess and long-term
reliability in ways that even the most hard-core expert test can't. Where
available, we considered feedback on current models first, but also relied
heavily on reviews of their predecessors as those are more plentiful and
reflect much longer usage.