In their infancy, navigation systems were an expensive option reserved for luxury cars. Nowadays, navigation systems are ubiquitous. Not only can you get one on an economy car, but also there are alternatives ranging from portable navigation systems to applications for your smartphone.
Which one should you buy? What are the advantages of each setup? Which is less expensive? Here are a few things to consider so you can choose the system that's right for you.
Factory Navigation Systems
Pro: Integration — The factory-installed navigation system will appeal to car buyers who like a clean, high-tech, integrated look. These systems typically have larger screens and are designed to work specifically with the vehicle. This means that you can use such factory features as voice activation and steering wheel controls.
Pro: Warranty Coverage — Since the factory navigation system is part of the vehicle, it is covered by the bumper-to-bumper warranty. If anything goes wrong with the system, you can take it to any dealer for repair.
Pro: Theft-Resistant — Unlike a portable navigation system, which can draw the attention of thieves, you don't have to worry as much about someone walking away with a factory system. Thieves will have a much harder time stealing a factory navigation system than a portable unit that's stuck to the windshield with a suction cup.
Pro: Resale Value — Factory navigation systems also improve a car's resale value. Our used-car analysts say that visible options on used cars, like navigation systems, tend to hold their value in the used-car market and make a car more desirable to potential buyers.
Con: Price — The most obvious drawback for a factory navigation system is price. Factory systems can cost more than $1,000 — and much more than that when they are bundled with other accessories. In some cases, you cannot get a navigation system unless you buy the vehicle's highest trim level.
Con: Updates — Map updates can be pricey, too. If you want to update the maps on a factory system, you typically need to purchase a DVD, which can cost more than $200.
Con: Use Limitations — Some factory navigation systems do not let you input directions while the car is moving. This is meant to be a safety feature, but could be frustrating if you want your passenger to press the buttons. Most portable systems do not have these restrictions.
Portable Navigation Systems
Pro: Price — A portable navigation system is significantly less expensive than the factory system. Prices can range from $50 for a basic unit to more than $200 for a fully featured model with Bluetooth and live traffic.
Pro: Easier, Cheaper Updating — The maps on portable navigation systems are also easier and less expensive to update. Some current models come with lifetime updates.
Con: Mounting — Portable navigation systems are usually mounted on the windshield or the dashboard. That's not as tidy as a factory-installed system, and some people may not like the way this looks. More importantly, these easy-to-remove devices can attract thieves, so you'll have to make sure to hide yours or take it with you when you park the car. On the other hand, this portability can be useful for people who drive multiple vehicles.
Con: Limited Warranty — If your portable navigation unit malfunctions, you'll only be covered for about a year or however long the limited factory warranty lasts. On the other hand, you could buy another and still have spent less than you would have on a factory navigation system.
Aftermarket Navigation Systems
Pro: More Features — In-dash aftermarket navigation systems are geared toward techies and audiophiles who want additional features while maintaining the sleek appearance of the factory unit. These aftermarket navigation systems have entertainment features not found on most factory systems, such as DVD video playback, Pandora streaming and playlist creation for your iPod.
Pro: Better Screen — Since many aftermarket navigation systems have DVD playback, they typically have higher-resolution screens with animated menus and flashy colors.
Pro: Customizable — Aftermarket navigation systems are designed to be the centerpiece of an upgraded audio system that allows for user customization. Some models allow the user to customize the menu icons, colors and backgrounds. You can also add extra equipment such as a rear back-up camera.
Con: Price — A system can sometimes cost as much as the factory unit. The prices can range from $300-$1,300, plus another $250 for the cost of installation.
Con: Theft-Prone — Next to a portable navigation system, an aftermarket navigation system is the second most likely to get stolen. Thieves know how much these units cost, and how easily they can be removed.
Con: Not Fully Integrated — Although the system sits in the dash and is thereby more integrated than a portable unit, it will never look as if it were part of the car's design. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view. And while you've gained a bunch of new features, you will lose steering wheel functions such as volume and track controls. Some companies sell a special adapter that can restore that functionality. The part costs about $40, plus installation.
Smartphone Navigation Systems
Pro (and Con): Price — Factory-navigation skeptics argue that their smartphones are an alternative to an expensive factory system, saying that the phone already has a map application, and that's all you really need. And for those who want more, the average price of a smartphone nav application is low, from $10-$30. This may sound like the most cost-effective solution, but if you want to have an ideal setup, the price can jump as high as $130. Here are a few things you should consider before putting your smartphone on GPS duty.
Con: Distraction — Unless you purchase a car mount for the phone, it will most likely sit in a cupholder and you'll have to take your eyes off the road to check the directions. This can be just as much of a distraction as texting while driving. The mount itself can cost from $20 for a basic unit to $100 for a do-it-all mount that will charge the phone and boost the audio and GPS signal.
Con: Lack of Voice Guidance — Not all phones come with voice-guided direction capabilities. Voice guidance is a good safety feature, because it minimizes the amount of time you spend looking at the phone's screen. There are apps that can add this functionality, but they cost from $30-$50.
Con: Signal Issues — Some applications rely on a cell data signal for their map information. If you lose cellular coverage, you may find yourself unable to use the maps and directions. The more fully featured navigation applications have built-in map data, which would alleviate this issue.
Con: Battery Drain — Running a navigation application on a smartphone can sometimes take a toll on the battery. This makes carrying a phone charger more important and can be an added cost if you don't already have one.
Which Is the Best?
It may seem as though we're dodging the question, but the answer is really that it depends on your preferences. Some Edmunds editors love factory navigation systems, while others carry their portable systems with them from car to car. Take the factory navigation system for a test-drive before you buy a car and then weigh the pros and cons before making a decision.