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. Garmin's newest models, the Garmin Speak and Garmin Speak Plus (both
of which are covered below), have Amazon Alexa built in, so you can tell Alexa
to turn down your house's thermostat, reorder toothpaste, etc. while you're
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?
Should 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).
- Automatically reroute if you take a wrong turn.
- Speak 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.
- Understand voice commands, so you don't have to type. However, voice
recognition is often omitted in lower priced car GPS units.
- Provide lane guidance, telling you which lane you'll need to be in at an
- Detect 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 altogether.
- Automatically dim the screen (or switch into night view) when it gets
make it easier to view.
- Navigate walking, bike and public transit routes.
GPS systems do have some advantages:
- Bigger 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 thieves, though.)
- Battery life. Navigating can quickly drain your smartphone's battery.
- No 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.
- One-box 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.
- Easy -- 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 plug-and-play.
Bottom line: The
experts at Wirecutter 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."
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. Consumer
Reports is no longer testing GPS units, but in their last review, all but one
of the eight recommended models were Garmins (a Magellan navigator squeaks into
seventh place among GPS units with larger screens). Wirecutter does still test
GPS systems, and Garmin GPS models again nearly sweep the awards (a cheap
TomTom unit is the budget pick).
Our research indicates that for most drivers, the (Est. $200) offers the best combination of features and performance. Wirecutter recommends
it for anyone who has an extra $80 to spend over the entry-level (Est. $150) (discussed below).
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). Built-in Wi-Fi allows 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). "While road-testing the DriveSmart 51
LMT-S, we found these extra features worth the extra money," Wirecutter says.
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 latest 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 Wirecutter 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
Owners mostly like the DriveSmart 51 LTM-S – but when they
complain, it's often because they're surprised that the advertised "lifetime
traffic" isn't actually baked into the unit (as it was on earlier Garmins). Some
don't have a smartphone, or don't particularly want to waste their smartphone's
data and battery on traffic info, or resent having to buy an extra $70 cord if
they want to avoid using a smartphone with the unit. Some owners say once they
do pair their smartphone with the Garmin, it will randomly drop the connection
(severing their traffic info), or that the Garmin "grabs" all phone calls and
flashes every email notification they get all over the navigation screen.
Several owners also complain about buggy units, or that the Garmin makes lousy
route choices. Still, happy owners well outnumber unhappy ones, and the DriveSmart
51 LTM-S earns a 4.3 star score at Best Buy based on around 425 user reviews.
Need a backup camera? Like all other Garmin units in the "Drive" series,
the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S can also pair with the (Est. $155).
fancier car GPS units cost extra
If you need or want a bigger screen, the (Est. $250) 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 generally like the DriveSmart 61 LMT-S: They award it 4.6 out of 5
stars at Best Buy, for example, based on nearly 1,300 reviews. Complaints
mirror the smaller DriveSmart 51's – buggy software, bad routing, and the
extra gear required to get traffic info.
Garmin offers two more high-end traditional auto GPS models. The (Est. $330) builds on the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S,
adding a slimmer design, higher-resolution multi-touch screen and powered mount.
However, Wirecutter thinks that the (Est. $300) is a more compelling upgrade pick. It skips the DriveLuxe's
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,"
Wirecutter says. In addition, like the other Garmin "Drive" series units, it's
compatible with Garmin's wireless back up camera.
Like the other Garmin "Drive" models, owners give both of these upscale versions
mostly good reviews – with the same complaints as the cheaper versions.
Best cheap auto GPS
If you can do without some of the niceties in the GPS models profiled
above, the (Est. $150) 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 Wirecutter, 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, such as the Gamin
BC 30, 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, too.
If you don't care about traffic at all, you can save a little bit more
by opting for the (Est. $120). 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 optional backup camera. However, while lifetime map updates are free,
there's no way to add traffic data, and the unit is not compatible with the GTM
Speak puts Alexa on your windshield
Want Amazon Alexa for your co-pilot? The (Est. $150)
and (Est. $230) (which adds a dash cam) have
Alexa baked right in. You'll be able to navigate and chat with Alexa at the
However, these Garmins require a
smartphone with a data plan to work – and they don't look like any GPS
device you've ever seen. For one thing, there's no map screen. The Speak looks
exactly like a tiny black Amazon Echo Dot stuck to your windshield. You say,
"Alexa, ask Garmin to find (blank)," and the Speak responds with spoken
turn-by-turn directions. Visual cues? Well, you get a light-up arrow and a distance
number (e.g., left arrow, 0.5 miles). That's it. No street name.
If you hardly ever glance at your
GPS's map while you're driving, no problem, testers say – the spoken
directions do include street names, and they're clear and easy to follow. But
others find the lack of a map unnerving.
"We want our screen back," says
Digital Trends' Terry Walsh, echoing the sentiments of owners who say they
tried the Garmin Speak but quickly reverted back to Google Maps on their
phones. True, a tiny map does pop up on your phone while you're en route, "but it
doesn't show your location on the map," PCMag's John R. Delaney points out.
The Garmin Speak comes with a
magnetic mount and power cable; the dash cam-equipped Speak Plus also comes
with a microSD card to record footage. Unlike other Garmin models, the Speak
models won't work with Garmin's backup camera.
While using your smartphone data
is optional with other Garmins (save for the models that lack traffic
capabilities altogether), the Garmin Speak requires your smartphone's data
connection to work. The more Speak functions you use (streaming music from
Amazon or Pandora, navigation, etc.), the more of your phone's data you'll
The Garmin Speak and Speak Plus
work fine in expert tests, but at the same time, reviewers wonder if they are
necessary. Free smartphone apps already let you navigate (with spoken
turn-by-turn directions) and chat with Alexa anytime you want. "Whether you
need a dedicated, $150 microphone hooked up to your smartphone to perform these
tasks, I'm not so sure," Walsh says.
Walsh gives the Garmin Speak a
mediocre 2.5 out of 5 stars. PCMag's Delaney gives it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Owner
reviews are unenthusiastic: More than one in four Amazon reviewers slaps the
Speak and Speak Plus with the lowest possible 1-star rating. The most common
complaints? The Garmin units drop their connections or won't respond to
commands, owners say.
Expert & User Review Sources
Among credible experts, only Wirecutter has, to date, reviewed a
number of the latest GPS models, including the Amazon Alexa-enabled Garmin Speak models. Its test is comprehensive, including driving over 1,200 miles of
roads of all types. PCMag and Digital Trends also publish thorough
tests of the Garmin Speak. Otherwise, we looked to reviews of earlier
generation GPS systems, which are helpful as those are very similar to the
latest models. Consumer Reports no longer tests GPS units, but its last
review as well as a buying guide remains on line. We also studied owner-written
reviews at Amazon and Best Buy; 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.