Skip to main content

The Fastest Way From Here to There — GPS Navigation Systems

Isn't satellite technology wonderful? Originally developed for the Department of Defense, it has given us civilians' 500-channel television, phone service anywhere on earth and, finally, in-car navigation systems. These handy GPS "nav" systems have become standard fare in many luxury vehicles and are readily available as options on many mainstream cars. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, a constellation of nearly 30 satellites orbiting Earth, which can provide your precise location anywhere, anytime and under any atmospheric condition.

Navigation systems are for more than just finding your way in unfamiliar environs. They can be a significant time saver by helping you avoid congested traffic. They can help you find a gas station whenever you run low, a restaurant when you're hungry or another "Point of Interest" (POI) that you might otherwise miss while driving.

Typically, nav systems are installed at the factory, at a price tag of $1,500-$2,500 (or higher if the nav system is part of a larger option package). While you wouldn't choose a car for its nav system alone, there are differences to the nav systems between makes, and sometimes even different models, so you really should test-drive a car that has one if you're thinking of purchasing the nav system as an option. There are also in-dash "aftermarket" navigation systems that cost less, but it is almost always more complicated to install aftermarket products, so take that into consideration. Portable navigation systems have become increasingly popular because they can be moved from vehicle to vehicle and are priced less than in-dash systems. Mobile phone-based navigation is also now available.

We'll cover all of these types, but here are some questions to consider when purchasing any GPS navigation system:

  1. Screen appearance. How big is the screen? Is it in color? Is there glare? How is the resolution? Can it be read in direct sunlight? Is it clearly readable from both the driver and passenger seats?

  • What kind of "real estate" does it consume? Most car manufacturers build the nav system into the "center stack" — the midsection of the dashboard where most of the controls (A/C, audio, etc.) are located. Usually, at least some of the audio and climate controls are incorporated into the navigation unit, which could potentially make it more difficult to use these basic systems. Increasingly, though, auto manufacturers are finding more logical and space-efficient ways of integrating these controls. A few cars have nav displays that pop up from the top of the dash to save valuable center stack space, as in the Cadillac CTS. The Chrysler Pacifica offers a nav system screen in the gauge cluster, and some Mercedes vehicles display nav instructions in the instrument cluster —unique solutions that we feel let you keep your eyes on the road where they belong.
  • Touchscreen, joystick or dial? Although some people may find joysticks and dials faster to manipulate, the editors prefer the touchscreen for its straightforward interface.
  • Is it DVD- or HDD-based? At least 80 percent of today's nav systems are DVD-based, replacing the earlier CD-based versions that required you to change CDs for different areas of the country. If you're buying a used car, in particular, be aware of the differences. Now more automakers are moving to mapping software on a hard-disc drive (HDD) rather than on a DVD-ROM, which provides faster map-access speeds and often share space with music files.
  • How do you update the mapping information? While major highways rarely change, local roads do so more often. What do you need to do to get the latest map in your car? Will you need to visit the dealer, or contact the navigation company directly? Check the nav system's manual to be sure.
  • Is your home area covered in the map? This is crucial if you live well outside a major metropolitan area.
  • How easy is it to use? This is the critical question, since there are vast differences depending on personal preference. Take it for a "test-drive." How long does it take you to punch in your destination? Most nav software narrow the options as you type new letters, eventually offering you a small menu of choices and making inputting much quicker. How long does it take for the unit to locate you on its map, to react to your commands, to map your route? Is it too slow? Some systems also offer voice activation, but you'll want to verify how well it works by giving it common commands.
  • What features do its mapping capabilities have? Some navigation systems allow you to "overlay" POI information on the map to show you, for example, gas stations or restaurants. And some will even show the brand of the establishment in the form of a logo. Check whether a system has POI overlay and how useful and easy to use it is. Does it give the phone number for a POI and allow you to call directly from a Bluetooth phone connected to the car? How easily can you store locations (your home address, for example) for use on the next trip? Does it give you the option to use highways or local roads? Does it have 3-D capability (often called "bird's-eye view") which can be easier to read than a 2-D map? Does it show 3-D building icons to help you better get your bearings? If you're buying an SUV, does the nav system have an off-road mode that gives latitude, longitude and altitude readings? And does it allow for "breadcrumbing" so that you can backtrack? What else can it do?
  • How well does it keep a signal? Again, this differs from system to system. Like a cell phone, nav systems can "drop" your signal. Will it hold your vehicle's position as you go through a tunnel (traditionally the bane of satellite-based systems)?
  • How does its automatic rerouting capability work? Let's say your planned route on the highway suddenly looks like a parking lot, and you decide to take the side roads. Or you make a wrong turn. Does the system quickly give you an alternate route to your destination, or does it keep giving you irrelevant voice prompts?
  • Can the voice guidance be clearly heard? Voice prompts should tell you, turn by turn, how to get to your destination, and come through the vehicle speakers. Are the voice commands clear enough to hear on a busy highway? Can you easily adjust the volume?
  • Does it offer real-time traffic info? Some nav systems offer the ability to receive real-time traffic info via either satellite or an FM radio. Not all of these are the same; the price of the monthly subscription varies and they only cover certain metro markets. If this is important to you, make sure you understand what they system can and can't do it in your area.
  • Aftermarket SystemsLet's say you don't have two grand to drop on a factory-installed nav system. There are excellent alternatives in the aftermarket arena (anything installed after the vehicle leaves the factory). Aftermarket systems usually offer the latest features since carmakers have to contend with long product lead times, and they can cost less. First, though, you must choose between an in-dash, portable and a mobile phone or PDA-based system. Note that stand-alone in-dash systems usually have bigger screens, and phone-based systems the smallest.

    In-dash systems also typically offer the latest features, but are the most expensive. Plus, they almost always have to be professionally installed and can't be moved from vehicle to vehicle, which is what has made portables so popular.

    Portable systems sit on the dashboard instead of being installed in it, though some can be mounted from the windshield. And they can be used in a variety of vehicles.

    Mobile phone and PDA-based systems can be a relatively low-cost option for navigation, although with mobile-phone systems you have to pay a monthly subscription fee. For example, Verizon's VZ Navigator costs $9.99 a month or $2.99 for a 24-hour period; you don't have to pay for equipment and can use your existing phone if it has a GPS receiver.PDA systems attach to your device itself, unless they are Bluetooth-based. If you already have a PDA that you are comfortable using (or you plan on getting one), this might be a great option for you.

    PDA navigation units include an outboard GPS receiver and antenna, while the map information appears on the PDA's screen. The GPS software needs to be installed on your PDA, and maps must be loaded from an included CD-ROM. You must use a stylus, of course, to enter your destinations and commands. (We strongly suggest you park your car before doing so.)

    There are GPS units for almost every kind of PDA Bluetooth PDA nav systems communicate with the device wirelessly, so you can put your PDA anywhere — you can choose to mount it, or not. How can Bluetooth help you with GPS? First, any time you need to update or change software or maps on your GPS unit, it can be done wirelessly. Second, you may be able to search and input addresses from your PC's personal address book.

    If you're considering a portable, mobile phone or PDA- based nav system, some of the questions above still apply, but here are a few more:

    1. Where will it attach to your car? This is a safety issue. Portables must be positioned out of the path of airbags and typically sit on the dash or attach to the windshield. This means your view of the road might be blocked. Moreover, in an accident, these units can get knocked around the cabin, potentially acting as dangerous "missiles."

  • How will it attach? Suction cups, mounting screws... there is a variety of ways to install these units, some less complicated and permanent than others. Check out the installation instructions before making a purchase.
  • Can it get a good signal from that location? This could be tricky and require some adjusting.
  • What other accessories are required to make it work well? One of your best bets for buying an aftermarket nav system is to first do your research at a Web site specializing in GPS, such as The GPS Store, which features both a general and automotive-specific GPS guide. The PDA Buyer's Guide site has unbiased product reviews and an excellent page on how to evaluate GPS solutions for your PDA.
  • What's New in Navigation The latest navigation systems offer a two-way connection so that you can send information to the outside world instead of it just being beamed into your car. TeleNav recently introduced its Shotgun portable that uses a cellular connection to provide more accurate real-time traffic reports and also let users send directions to the system from a home computer. Best Buy's Insignia brand portable nav systems also use a cellular connection to perform a Google Local Search for services in an area as well as send directions from Google Maps to the devices when via a PC.

    BMW also recently added Google Local Search to the navigation systems in all of its 2009 vehicles except for the X3, and if a Bluetooth phone is connected to the nav system the number of a business found in a search can be called with just a push of a button. The BMW Search feature can be added as part of the company's BMW Assist Convenience Plan for $199 a year.

    Going forward, expect to see more of these so-called "location-based services" incorporated into navigation system, as well as social networking applications that will let you find out where your friend and family are if they're also using a connected nav system.

    Hmm... sounds a lot like something you'd find in space, doesn't it?

    What our partners recommend

    BMW 2023 3 Series

    BMW Summer On Sales Event