By Tony Briggs
Women have complained for years about their husbands or boyfriends who, when lost on a roadtrip, steadfastly refuse to stop to ask for directions. The men are always certain they can find the way - eventually.
It's a genetic thing.
These days, that's less of a problem, thanks to female guidance of a different sort - the electronic voice of a GPS.
Once the exclusive domain of wealthy gadget freaks, portable GPS devices are so cheap now, there are few who cannot afford one. The most basic units sell for less than $100 yet can still reliably direct you from point A to point B anywhere in the United States.
If you are willing to spend a little more, you can get a GPS with lots of additional features that make it even easier - and fun - to get to your destination.
I've been using car-oriented GPS units since the days when most still relied on small, primitive, difficult-to-read black and white screens. Today, larger high-resolution color screens are the norm along with a host of features never dreamed of earlier, including voice prompts that tell you how far it is to the next turn and which road to turn on. For some reason, those voices used to always be female, but many newer models not only allow you to pick the gender but also the accent (British, Australian) or foreign language. Even celebrity voices are available on some models.
There are so many choices today, however, it can overwhelm a novice. So here's a shopping primer to help you choose the one that best suits your needs.
I would stick with one of the three major players: Garmin, Tom Tom or Magellan. The one you choose is a matter of personal preference, but I personally like Garmins the best.
Which screen size?
Options include 3.5-, 4.3- and 5-inches, measured diagonally. The 4.3-inch models are the most common and should be your first choice, unless you have a hard time seeing or the GPS will be mounted far away, such as in a very large truck or RV. Then opt for 5-inch models. Skip the smaller screens if possible.
Which voice prompts?
The cheapest models will give you generic voice prompts: As in "Turn left in one mile." GPS models with a text-to-speech feature will announce street names: "In one mile, turn left on Nova Road." Text-to-speech technology has improved in recent years and is the best choice for most users.
Do I need traffic information?
Many GPS units receive live traffic information to warn you of delays and detour you before you get stuck in a traffic jam. These units generally cost a little more but the traffic information is provided free for the life of the unit. The trade-off is you sometimes have to put up with small ads that pop up when you are stopped. In my experience, the traffic information provided by GPS units is often wrong. But when it's right, it can save you time and frustration. If you drive in areas where congestion is common (I-4), it's a feature worth having since it doesn't add much to the price of the unit.
Do I need lifetime maps?
The map and point-of-interest databases used by your GPS are generally about a year old (or older) when you buy it, but can be updated. Some companies charge for each update and they do not come cheap - up to $100 each. That's why I recommend buying units with lifetime maps so you update as often as new information is available. You pay a bit more on the front end but less than it would cost the update the maps later. Be aware you will need a computer and fast Internet connection to do the updates.
Do I need the voice-recognition feature?
Some of the more expensive GPS units respond directly to your voice commands. This is a great convenience and is much safer than attempting to input information into the GPS using the touch screen while driving. Voice recognition technology is not perfect - don't expect your GPS to respond as fluidly as HAL in the movie "2001: a Space Odyessy." But it's much improved over the very first models a few years back. To save money, wait until companies close out older models with voice-recognition technology. I recently purchased a Garmin voice-control model for about $130, a real bargain.
What other features should I look for?
As you move up the price scale, you generally get more features. They include such things as Bluetooth, which allows you to link your cell phone to GPS for hands-free calls; Lane Assist, which warns you which lane you need to get into for an approaching turn; Junction View, which provides a photo-realistic view of an upcoming interstate interchange to make it easier to navigate; and live information on such things as gas prices; weather and movie times. Each user must decide which of those features is important and buy accordingly. Top-of-the-line portable GPS units with all of these features and voice control generally sell for about $400, but prices drop quickly after a new model is introduced.
What about vehicles with built in GPS?
My advice is to avoid them, unless you have money to burn. The option is usually $1,000 more, many times the cost of portable GPS unit. Factory GPS has some advantages, notably a larger screen and integration with other vehicle features, including radios and backup cameras. The downside: You can't move the unit from one vehicle to another, or a rental car, as you can with a portable GPS; map updates are much more expensive than those with portable units. Technology moves quickly. You can buy a new portable unit every couple of years and pick up the latest and greatest technology for a lot less than the cost of a single built-in unit.
The author has been a technology columnist in the Daytona Beach area for more than 20 years.