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Paper maps were fine in their day--but like the wind-up watch, the tube TV, and crank windows in cars, they're past their prime.
Today's navigation tool, the portable GPS device, can do things that paper maps are incapable of, such as automatically showing your exact location anywhere on the globe, providing precise turn-by-turn instructions on how to drive from any Point A to any Point B, identifying where the nearest gas and coffee stores are, and warning you when traffic problems make a detour highly advisable. (PC World has reviewed and ranked 5 of this season's top GPS devices.)
It's like having MapQuest right on your dashboard or in your pocket. When you're venturing into alien territory, a GPS device can give you greater security and confidence than you'll ever get from paper.
You can find GPS capabilities in a variety of products today, including many smart phones. Purchasing a GPS-capable phone (and a subscription to your carrier's GPS service) can be a less-expensive alternative to buying a stand-alone GPS device. But this guide will focus on dedicated GPS devices, including those designed for in-car use and those that are primarily for hiking and outdoor activities.
We strongly advise you to read the entire guide so that you can figure out which type is most suitable for your purposes; but if you want to jump right in, you can find an array of excellent GPS products here.
Before You Buy
The prices of GPS devices vary widely, depending mostly on the units' screen size and features. Some automobile models with small screens and basic mapping features cost around $100, while top-of-the-line models with big screens, multimedia capabilities, and even Internet connectivity can top $500. Simple handheld GPS models with 3.5-inch screens and basic features start at about $100; high-end models with more-sensitive receivers, bigger screens (4.3 inches and up), integrated traffic service, Bluetooth connectivity, and the ability to connect to your car stereo can cost as much as $600.
Before buying a GPS model, ask yourself the following questions:
How often and how far will I travel? If you tend to take short trips, repeat the same commute, and need directions only occasionally, buy a GPS device in the $100-to-$250 price range. As exciting as GPS may seem in theory, you need to figure out whether you'll use it enough to justify the cost.
If you expect to use it daily (for sales calls, for example) and you have complicated travel itineraries, you'll find that a GPS unit quickly becomes indispensable. In that case, buy the best one you can afford.
Where will I attach it in my vehicle? Though car GPS devices are meant for mounting in your vehicle, actually doing that may not be easy.
Most automobile GPS kits include a mounting bracket with a suction cup designed to stick to your windshield or a flat surface on your dash. The catch is that in some states (including California) windshield mounts are illegal. Another problem: Not all dashboards are flat, and many have pebbly surfaces that prevent suction-cup mounts from adhering to them. Some GPS kits include a flat disc that is designed to adhere to your dash, allowing the suction cup to stick.
Another option is a mount that fits into the air-vent grille in your dashboard. But these, too, can be problematic because the mount and the unit will block at least some of the airflow from the vent. Furthermore, light though most units are, they may be too heavy for a vent mount to support steadily.
Another approach is to hold the mount with weighted beanbags, but you'll need a flat, horizontal surface to place them on.
How critical are frequent map updates? If you expect to use your GPS device primarily to find convenient java shops during occasional travels (or retail outlets that you've never visited before), working with less-than-up-to-the-minute mapping data is probably okay. On the other hand, if getting from one place to another on time is essential, you'll want to update your mapping data as often as possible, even if you have to pay for it.