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Car Tech 101: In-Dash Navigation Basics

How to Decide if a Factory Nav System Is Right for You

Even though portable navigation systems and smartphone nav apps have become popular, automakers are offering in-dash systems in more vehicles than ever before. The systems' prices have come way down, with some available for as low as $500.

If you're thinking of including in-dash nav in your next vehicle, here's what you need to know before you start shopping. Also, check out "How to Test-Drive a Navigation System," before visiting a dealer, and take along our Navigation Tech Checklist once you're there. Finally, the story "How To Tech-Test Drive — Without Dealer Interference" gives tips on how to avoid any hassles you may get from a dealership while you're testing technology in a vehicle.

Screen and Interface
One of the most important aspects of choosing an in-dash navigation system is screen size. That's the feature that separates an in-dash system from most portables and smartphone nav apps. Screen size can range from 10 inches in a BMW 7 Series to 5 inches in the 2011 Nissan Sentra. Regardless of size, make sure that the screen is easy to see, even in bright sunlight.

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If the display is a touch screen, ensure that it's simple to use and within your reach. Also keep in mind that touch screens smudge easily and need frequent cleaning. Whether a nav system is touch screen-based or uses buttons and knobs, you'll want to get a feel for how easy — or how difficult — it is to operate and for the time it takes to input information. Also note how long it takes the system to respond to inputs and to calculate a route.

Many navigation systems allow you to input destinations using voice activation. But voice input doesn't usually work well for entering long, complex addresses. So voice activation is definitely a feature you need to try before you buy if you intend to use it extensively.

Mapping Software and Graphics
A navigation system is usually only as good as its mapping software. So one of the most important aspects to consider is where the map data resides. Many systems store map data on a DVD that usually comes with the car. But roads change constantly, so DVDs quickly become outdated. Find out the cost of an updated DVD and how you are supposed to obtain it.

More modern systems store mapping software on a hard-disk drive (HDD). The advantage of this system is that it usually has a faster response time. But the information on a hard-disk drive also becomes outdated. And you have to update it via a DVD that you have to purchase and wait to have delivered.

The latest way to store map data is on an SD card, such as in Ford's MyFord Touch system. This approach allows you to add navigation after purchasing the vehicle simply by inserting an SD card into a slot in the center console. Each SD cards costs $795 and contains mapping and operating software for the nav system. Another advantage for close-to-home drivers is that you can choose to only buy mapping software for your area of the country.

Map graphics are another key feature to take into consideration. Some systems provide a more realistic map view than others. More advanced navigation systems have enhanced graphics, including a 3-D mode that provides details to help you get your bearings. In a big city, that might be key buildings in the area. Several systems include an aerial perspective, and allow you to adjust the angle of the view.

Just about every system has a way to adjust the scale of the map and allows you to switch the map orientation between "north up" and "heading up." Some nav systems have maps that are color-coded to show such features as parks and shopping centers. Others have icons for individual points of interest (POIs) or even branded POIs that show where the nearest Starbucks is located.

Destination Input and POI Info
Most nav systems provide various ways to route to a destination: by an address, an intersection, a POI, a point on the map or even a phone number. Most systems include an address book and allow users to set a "home" destination for quick routing. Some will locate and route you to emergency services such as police and hospitals in the area. They'll also include those services' phone numbers.

If you're making more than one stop, some systems will allow you to enter multiple destinations. And most systems allow entering "waypoints" if you plan to make stops before you get to a destination.

In addition to providing emergency-services information, a benefit of using an in-car navigation system is that it can help you find a business or service that you might need. Automakers usually tout the number of POIs in their system. While more POIs are always better, keep in mind that a POI database quickly becomes outdated. Sometimes a POI listing includes a phone number so that you can call ahead to ensure that a business' hours or other details are current. Some systems allow you to dial the number directly from a connected Bluetooth phone.

Routing Quality
You can get the locations of emergency services, restaurants or other information from a static map. But the quality of the nav system's turn-by-turn directions, and the ability to reroute you if you miss a turn, is the make-or-break feature.

Many systems give you a choice between different routes, such as the shortest or quickest. Others will let you tailor a route to avoid toll roads or freeways. Most systems will let you preview a route, breaking it down by each turn. And a system should also give you the ability to quickly and easily cancel a route.

It's crucial for the system to be able to anticipate and announce upcoming maneuvers. A system should give you plenty of warning and clear instructions on where and when to turn, using graphics on the screen and voice guidance that's delivered through the audio system. Many systems offer a split-screen mode when approaching a turn. It shows the route map on one side and the next maneuver on the other. Some also provide "lane guidance" to show you the precise lane in which you need to be. That's particularly helpful when you're negotiating a complex freeway interchange, for example.

Other Features
Beyond these basics, navigation systems provide various convenience features. A common one in most systems is "geo-fencing" that allows you to set up areas to avoid. For example, if you know construction is occurring along a certain roadway, you can set the nav system so it doesn't route you there.

Many systems also now include some form of traffic information, although many such services are subscription based. Maps usually use color-coding and symbols to indicate traffic flow on the map. Some systems will actively warn you of traffic along a chosen route. You can also usually view and get information on all traffic incidents in your area.

Some of the latest systems also provide weather reports, forecasts and warnings, but this too can be subscription-based. Ford's Sirius Travel Link system requires a subscription, for example. It includes a fuel-finder feature with the latest gas prices, movie listings, sports scores and even ski-area information. And while all systems let you search for restaurants in an area, those in cars from Honda, Acura and Mercedes-Benz also provide Zagat restaurant ratings.

Certain systems have a "send-to" feature that lets you transmit destinations found online to the navigation system, and some even let you do this from a smartphone app. Several systems let you send multiple destinations at once so that you don't have to input them one at a time while in the car. Systems from BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and GM (via OnStar) also allow you to contact an operator in a call-center to not only find POI info, but also send it to your car's navigation system.

Nav systems in some SUVs or trucks have off-road routing capability that lets you set GPS waypoints so that you can find your way even where there are no roads and signs. Nav systems from Land Rover also include topographic maps showing elevations and physical features of the landscape. Many systems include a "breadcrumbing" feature that graphically marks where you've been on the map screen in case you want to retrace your steps.

The Route to a System That's Right for You
Even though factory in-dash navigation systems have dropped in price, they're still high-ticket items, and are often bundled with other options as a package. You can spend lots of money on an in-dash nav system only to later discover it doesn't work the way you want or have the features you need. It's even more galling to find that a lower-priced portable or smartphone nav app does have those features. Use the information here and in our related Car Tech 101 articles to route you to a navigation system that won't put you on the road to disappointment.


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