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GPS Devices: The Right Device for Any Situation

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Globe figureFrom Google to Garmin, there are now all sorts of devices that help you navigate between two points and search for a location.

Phil Baker travel-tested all the types and reports on the good, the bad and the ones that you shouldn’t leave home without.

Google Maps on the iPhone, BlackBerry, Smart Phones

Pro: Google offers clear maps — satellite and hybrid view — and highway traffic conditions updated in real time. Best of all, it’s free, including highway traffic, and its maps are always up to date.

Con: This is a map, not a “true” GPS. That means you won’t have turn-by-turn instructions and no voice prompts telling you if you’ve veered off course.

PND (Personal Navigation Device)

You’re probably familiar with these stand-alone handheld GPS devices from companies such as Garmin, Magellan, Tom-Tom, and others. Prices can vary wildly, from $200 to $800 depending on the model, the size of the touch-screen display (3.5 to 4.3 inches, generally) and other bells and whistles.

Garmin NuviPro: These are true GPS systems that provide a complete navigation system including turn-by-turn spoken directions, warnings of upcoming turns, and a built-in database of airports, shopping, dining, etc. They are small enough to be portable with a built-in rechargeable battery, as well as mountable on the car’s windshield or dashboard, powered with auto adapter. It’s easy to take with you when traveling and, once it’s calibrated, you can plug it into any car adaptor. Most of the newer models are small, flat and pocketable, and some can even guide you both in a car and on foot. Some include or allow add-in maps for Europe and other international destinations at substantial extra cost.

Con: Many have silly built-in extras such as photo album and music player instead of more useful features such as local radio station listings. One useful feature, real-time highway traffic information, will cost you monthly fee. Batteries are non-replaceable and only last for a few hours between charging. When mounted in the car can obstruct vision and has a cord running to car adapter. The built-in database and maps are often difficult to update. Cheaper models from companies other than the leaders often have difficult-to-use interfaces.

Cell Phone Navigation

GPS Navigation Cell PhoneThis is a seemingly perfect marriage since cell phones are always connected and can provide the latest maps and highway traffic. Such software comes from companies such as Telenav and Networks in Motion and sold through major carriers such as Verizon, Sprint and ATT.

Pro: There is no equipment cost; instead, you pay $5-$15 per month for the service from your provider. Data and traffic info are always up-to-date in real time. You’ll hear spoken directions and turn-by-turn directions. Addresses can be called in, typed in or accessed from your phone’s built-in address book, which means that there is no need for carrying a second device. This software works whether your phone is in your hands, sitting on the passenger seat or in a cradle on the dashboard. Some cell-phone navigation systems even work indoors using cell towers to supplement your position.

Con: It requires a phone with built-in GPS capability. Bring your charger along because it drains the phone battery rapidly. Their small cell-phone screen means that there is less map detail compared to PNDs. You can only receive traffic information for highways.


Though this is similar to the TomTom and Magellans of the world, this newly released device is in its own category: it’s essentially a two-way PND for the car. It’s the only device that provides local traffic on all major local roads as well as highways. You can expect to pay about $399 plus $10/month with two-year plan.

Dashboard Dash GPSPro: It’s the only device to provide local street traffic information. It provides alternate routing that takes into account traffic conditions. (Many other devices may show highway traffic, but don’t use it in routing calculations). You can search for locations using Yahoo Local, and you can send addresses and links directly from the device from a Web site before you leave the house. All the maps and features can be updated over the air.

Con: This device is still big and bulky, i.e. it’s twice the size and weight of the other PNDs. Because of its size, it’s good for in-car use only—you certainly can’t tote it around in your pocket. The quality of the local traffic information is dependent on how many units are in use in your area.

My advice: If you want a portable device that you can use for frequent traveling, particularly to new cities and to use on rental cars, go for the lower-cost models from Garmin, Magellan and TomTom ($200-$350).

If you want to have a GPS for occasional use only, try the offerings from your cell phone carriers.

And if you want one for primarily local commuting, look at the Dash. If you have a cell phone that works with Google Maps you can download it for free quite easily.

But one caution: Google Maps is hard to turn off and who knows what it’s doing in the background?

By Phil Baker, originally published in the San Diego Transcript. Visit Phil’s blog at

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Previously by Phil Baker:

The Best and Worst in Travel Tech Today

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Don’t Leave Home Without ‘Em: Top Travel Gadgets

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