How Can a Navigation GPS Help You?
The top performers in our review are Rand McNally Overdryve, the Gold Award winner; Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT, the Silver Award winner; and Garmin nuvi 2589LMT, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a navigation GPS to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Navigation GPS units are small, portable devices that can give you accurate and specific directions, even in areas without cell service. They are superior to smartphone apps, as they don’t use data or tax your smartphone’s battery. Whether you need simple directions to a job interview or step-by-step navigation on your road trip across the country, the best GPS devices help you get there efficiently – and they come with a handful of additional features that can make driving more enjoyable.
You can type in or, with some premium models, speak aloud your desired destination and it will give you turn-by-turn directions. All of the units we tested also provide a visual approximation of your journey, showing you a representation of the road you’re currently on and things like upcoming turns, your current speed and the time and distance remaining until you reach your destination.
Navigation GPS devices typically attach via a suction cup to your windshield or dashboard, and draw power from an internal battery or a cigarette lighter adapter. Unlike with permanent, in-dash navigation GPS units, you can simply unplug a portable GPS and move it from car to car, or hide it in your glove compartment or bag if you’re worried about thieves.
In contrast to a smartphone navigation app, you don’t have to be in an area with cell service in order to get turn-by-turn directions from your GPS device. This is because these units come with preloaded maps in their memories and get their location information directly from GPS satellites, which have better coverage and more precision than cell phone providers do. To learn more about auto GPS units, check out our additional articles or in-depth comparison reviews on the 10 best car GPS units on the market.
Every GPS system that we reviewed comes preloaded with maps of the United States. They also have micro-SD card slots into which you can insert additional map cards; otherwise the device may give you the option to download additional maps for other North American regions, such as Mexico, Canada and/or Puerto Rico. Having preloaded maps lets you travel with peace of mind that you’ll be able to have navigation, even if you’re in an area without cell service.
It's also important that you look for a GPS with lifetime map updates. This means every year, or sometimes up to as many as four times per year, you can go onto the manufacturer’s website and download updated maps so that you’re always using the most up-to-date routing information. Most GPS base models do not have this feature, but for a small price increase, you can easily opt for a model that automatically updates all the maps for you. Automatic reroute is an essential feature found on every decent car GPS. If you take a wrong turn, or if there’s a toll road or construction, the unit should recalculate your route based on your updated location.
A speed limit indicator is another important feature. The device tells you not only the speed you’re travelling at, but also the speed limit of the road you’re on. Some units even have an audio alert that will notify you if you’re speeding. This can help you avoid speeding tickets caused by informing you of speed limits on roads you’re unfamiliar with.
You’ll also want to make sure your GPS has a powerful battery so it can work even when unplugged, or if your car doesn’t allow for charging through a DC outlet. Most of the devices in our comparison can run unplugged for up to two hours, although there are a few options near the top of our lineup that can run for longer.
The best navigation GPS units have a host of features that, while not necessary, greatly enhance your navigation experience and make it a smoother one overall. The most important of these is voice-activated navigation. This is one of the biggest advantages smartphones have historically had over dedicated GPS units because it’s much quicker than typing in a destination. Several models we reviewed have this feature.
Additionally, 3D maps are an especially help feature if you frequently drive in cities. Tall buildings, bridges and other objects are modeled in three dimensions, making them much easier for you to recognize than they are on a traditional two-dimensional map. Most models already have this feature.
Another premium feature that you should look for is a built-in traffic receiver. This enables you to check traffic conditions without having to consult your smartphone.
Navigation GPS: What We Tested, What We Learned
The two most important things we evaluated through our testing process are how accurate and responsive the GPS units were, and how easy to use they were. We tested the GPS devices by driving around on rural and city streets as well as the freeway, planning multiple stops along the way. We looked for devices that gave clear directions with plenty of notice, that provided clear visuals on-screen, that alerted us to traffic and that showed a variety of points of interest such as gas stations, restaurants and hotels. We also noted how easy it was to navigate the device interface along with how easy it was to input an address and start navigating.
Navigation: The More Tools the Better
From the must-have essentials to the fancy add-ons, ease of use is by far the most important feature any navigation GPS can have. A device can be pretty to look at, or claim to let you send a text message via Bluetooth with your smartphone, but if it isn’t intuitive, doesn’t provide ample step-by-step directions or makes it difficult for you to input an address, it isn’t worth the cost. The best car GPS devices use crystal-clear icons and labels that make it easy to choose an action, and also have simple destination address input options.
Aside from having an intuitive and capable interface, the next most important feature for navigation GPS is voice dictation. Poking around on a GPS device is no different or less dangerous than texting while driving, so a unit with voice-activated navigation is a wise choice.
A good GPS should also tell you verbally what lane you should drive in and which you’ll need to be in when making a turn or exiting the freeway, as well as showing a visual lane assist picture on the screen at all times so you have plenty of time to get to that lane without feeling rushed. Some units also track and display the speed limit of the road you’re driving on, which is especially useful when you're driving in an unfamiliar area.
Design: Big Screens and Batteries Are Required
The average range of screen size for GPS devices is 3 to 7 inches, measured diagonally. While smaller devices can be stored easily in your purse or glovebox, larger screens make it easy to see navigation and other options at a glance while you’re busy driving. Additionally, while driving on the freeway, as soon as the appropriate exit approaches, a large visual alert appears on-screen. Because this takes up about one-third of the screen, having a larger screen means you can easily see the visual alert while still viewing other information.
Additionally, the best GPS screens have a resolution of at least 480 x 272 pixels, though higher resolutions – such as those above 800 x 480 pixels – give you a crisper picture that is easier to view at a glance. Only one product in our comparison, the OverDryve, has a true high-definition display resolution, 1280 x 800.
If possible, you should opt for a capacitive touchscreen over a resistive one. Capacitive screens are great to have because they are highly accurate and sensitive, and they enable you to make pinch-to-zoom gestures just as you would on a modern smartphone – an ability you don’t get with resistive touchscreens. Because capacitive displays respond to the electrical conductivity of your skin, you don’t have to press the screen hard to get a reaction. Resistive screens, on the other hand, rely on blunt pressure, so you can use any object to touch the screen, such as a stylus or your finger even with gloves on. These screens require more force to get a reaction, and they typically have slower reaction times. Resistive screens have lower resolutions than capacitive screens and typically can’t get as bright.
Consider your car and personal needs and weigh them against the expected battery life of each GPS device. While all of the units we tested come with DC adapters, which let you power them by plugging them into your car, not all cars have this feature. Additionally, not all GPS units come with a USB cable that allow you to charge them via computer port or wall outlet. So consider what you have to work with and whether a device is compatible before purchasing. If your car won’t work with a DC adapter, you’ll want to opt for a device with a long battery life.
Help & Support: Get Help Anytime, Anywhere
Whether the product is a lemon, or you can’t figure out what a particular button does, you should be able to easily get in contact with the manufacturer one way or another to get your issue resolved. All of the manufacturers featured in our comparison offer at least two ways to contact their customer support team directly, and a few even have three – live chat, email and telephone. They all have online informational resources available as well, such as tutorials, user manuals and FAQs sections. All of these products come with a one-year warranty.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with the product. For our tests on navigation GPS, we purchased the devices just as a consumer would. The manufacturers have no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings are not shared with them prior to publication.
Navigation GPS: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three products in our review rose up above the rest – Rand McNally OverDryve, Garmin DriveSmart 70LMT and Garmin nuvi 2589LMT. Their powerful abilities to navigate efficiently and accurately, as well as their ease of use and overall design, are what won us over.
Rand McNally’s OverDryve surpassed every other device we tested because of its intuitive design, efficient and accurate navigation, ease of use and plethora of other features. Garmin’s DriveSmart 70LMT is a close runner-up to the OverDryve, but its lower-resolution screen and short battery life hold it back. The Garmin nuvi 2589LMT is our third choice. It’s feature list is virtually identical to that of the DriveSmart, but its screen has a lower resolution and is 2 inches smaller than the others.
If frugality is of upmost importance to you, the Garmin nuvi 57 is a great budget GPS option for you. Costing just under $100, it’s on par with most units in our comparison in features. It has many essential features but lacks premium tools that differentiate the best car GPS units from the competition.
While everyone used to use maps, most now opt for a dedicated GPS unit to guide them from place to place. Some also provide features such as a dash cam, back-up camera, traffic updates and weather reports. They work nearly anywhere since they don’t require a data connection, and you can update them on a regular basis. With options for every budget, and features for all needs, you can easily find a car GPS unit that fits your lifestyle.
Contributing Reviewer: Suzanne Humphries