GPS Buying Guide

GPS navigation systems have many more applications that most potential buyers would think. Of course, anyone that frequently drives to locations with which they are not familiar or live in a large city would benefit from a car GPS navigation system. However, GPS systems have many more applications including as an addition to a bicycle for woods or city travel, to stay safe while hiking and camping, for planning short travel routes when booking vacations and even to participate in a new hobby known as Geocaching - where members hide containers with special stories or items around the world and post the coordinates on a web site for others to find. A good GPS can even help you find new restaurants in your area and call ahead to place an order while you are on your way.

Whatever your reason for deciding to purchase a GPS navigation system, it is important to learn about the different products available, the features that you need for your desired uses of the GPS and the prices that you can expect to pay. Not to worry - GPS systems are very affordable with several quality GPS units priced at around $150.00. If you think about how useful a GPS unit could be when your car breaks down and you need roadside services, when you need to travel to new places or when you are visiting an unfamiliar part of the forest, a GPS unit can easily pay for itself in only a few incidents.

Using Your Smart phone as a GPS

It is important to address the growing trend of GPS simulating applications that can be purchased for smart phones like the iPhone or Droid. These can be a tempting solution for people that are interested in keeping all of their technology in one spot. However, you should be cautioned about using this technique. It can be very valuable to download a GPS application for your smart phone but there are some very important disadvantages to doing so. Most importantly, if you lose your 3G connection while traveling, the GPS will not work properly anymore. There are an abundance of areas in the United States and around the world that have no 3G connection available. This can be critical on camping trips or while driving.

If you plan to use your smart phone as a GPS while driving, remember that it is not specifically designed to be used as such, unlike car GPS navigation systems. Because of this, resetting your route or making quick changes to your trip can be very dangerous. In addition, many states have made it illegal for you to use a cell phone will driving. You can purchase a car mounting kit for your vehicle but, if you get a phone call, you may have a difficult time removing it and create the potential for a car accident. Finally, a GPS application on a smart phone cannot produce as accurate results as a true GPS unit.

While, in the event of an emergency, a GPS application on a smart phone can be a life saver, nothing beats the convenience of investing in a GPS navigation unit as a primary assistance device. Should your GPS or smart phone battery die, you will be glad that you made the additional investment.

How GPS Navigation Systems Work

Before you decide to purchase a GPS navigation system, it is important to understand how such devices work. GPS is short for Global Positioning System and it refers to the network of satellites that provide your positional information. The military originally launched these satellites as a way to track troop movements but eventually made the system available to the public. Currently, there are 24 satellites orbiting the Earth that act as the GPS network.

In the event that one of the satellites malfunctions, there are an additional three that can be used. these satellites find your position be comparing your device's distance with other satellite data and show the results as coordinates. Each satellite is powered by the Sun and orbits the Earth at around 12,000 miles per hour - allowing them to travel around the Earth at least twice each day. With this system, your GPS unit can be located provided that the sky is relatively clear.

2D and 3D GPS navigation systems work in the same essential way so, for the purpose of simplicity, 2D will be discussed here. However, it is interesting to note that, as GPS is used for space as well, all GPS satellites must calculate coordinates in 3D for pinpoint accurate results. A minimum of three satellites must be used whenever your coordinates are given. A GPS satellite records information within a circle and these circles intersect to give your exact location.

This means that satellites compare data on how far you are from each of them and form a circle with that distance doubled for the total distance across (radius). When two satellites compare, your location is narrowed into a specific area but your exact location is not yet determined. When the third satellite adds its calculations, all three circles intersect with the others at only one point, the location of your GPS unit.

Of course, the time it takes the signal to reach your GPS is an important factor to calculating accurate locations. In order to make GPS units affordable to the public, each satellite is equipped with an atomic clock (somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000) while a standard GPS has a simple, constantly resetting clock. The measurements would be inaccurate if they were simply sent to your GPS unit, your GPS recognizes these inaccuracies as being predictable and calculates them with the speed of light - automatically correcting the calculation.

Essential GPS Features - Automobile/Bicycle

There are major differences in what you need in a GPS navigation unit whether you would like one for your automobile or bicycle or whether you need one for exploring in the woods. The first features that are examined here are for the automobile. If you would like an all-in-one device that handles both aspects, consider buying a device from the Garmin Nuvi Series such as the Nuvi 500 (starting around $299.99).

Map Selection: There are two considerations here. Not only must your GPS unit be preloaded with current and accurate maps of the locations where you plan to drive (United States and Canada, for example) but it must be able to update, either wireless or through a connection cord. Most manufacturers recommend updating your car GPS unit at least once a year.

Words to Speech: Choose a car GPS system that uses a voice to give you instructions rather than just beeping and showing instructions on the screen. In addition, it is helpful to choose a GPS system that can speak street names. The Sony NV-U70 NAV-U is a good example of a GPS that performs this function - starting at around $299.99).

Important Location Database: A good car GPS navigation system will also come equipped with an important location database including gas stations, hospitals, restaurants, tourist attractions, stores, etc. Look for a GPS that has at least 5 million listings in their database. The Navman F15 (available only at the United Kingdom online Radio Shack store for £69.99).

Additional Features: When evaluating the other features of a GPS unit, it comes down to personal taste. Your GPS unit should connect to your automobile cigarette lighter and be equipped (or have accessories available) for your desired placement. Some GPS units use a suction cup to attach to the windshield, some use adhesion for the dashboard and some are designed to be mounted in your dashboard. The remaining features are up to you. Some GPS companies have begun to get very innovative with their product features. For example, some can play MP3s or radio stations and display stored pictures. If you would like this, be sure to choose one that can still do so while navigating.

Tomtom, a leading GPS receivers provider, has begun allowing their customers to download special voices for their navigation instructions, specifically Star Wars characters like Darth Vader, C-3PO, Yoda and Han Solo. The Tomtom XL 340 S Live series allows for this update as well as live traffic information, fuel price information and weather, among other features.

Essential GPS Features - Hiking/Camping

The same GPS that you use in your vehicle is not typically designed to be used while hiking or camping. To start, the battery life in a car GPS unit is typically very short - about 30 minutes. This is not nearly enough for hiking or camping. Just as knowing the coordinates of your location while driving would be little help unless you are a coordinate and mathematical genius, a GPS that only displays road maps would be of little assistance where there are no roads for several hundred miles. There are several very crucial features that you should look for when searching for a GPS unit for hiking or camping.

Battery Life: Choose a GPS device with at least 17 hours of battery life. If the GPS unit uses batteries rather than a battery pack, 17 hours still applies with power saving features. Carrying extra batteries for a GPS unit with a poor battery life can be annoying and they could easily get wet or lost. The Garmin eTrex H is a perfect example of an affordable yet powerful GPS unit with a long battery life. This GPS unit starts at around $90.00.

Navigation: Good hiking and camping GPS units include both a compass and coordinates locator (at the bare minimum) as well as software enabled for both nautical and road mapping. Some GPS units even include features that can map your exact journey in a line to show you your path and, of course, the exact route to use to retrace it if necessary. There are even top end GPS models that display topographical information, both as a standard map and in 3D. One such model is the Garmin Oregon 400T - starting at around $403.00.

Durability/Convenience: A reliable hiking and camping GPS unit must be both durable through rubber casing and protective design and waterproof. Your GPS needs to work even under the harshest conditions and an outdoor GPS that cannot take some damage or still work after being submerged for long periods under word is essentially worthless. In addition, choose a smaller GPS with an adequate screen (about 3 inches) in favor of a large and bulky one. A good outdoors GPS should be able to fit in your pocket easily. The Garmin Nuvi 550 (starting at $222.97) is a good example of a GPS that performs equally well in the car and wilderness.

Product Line Overviews

Provided here is information about some of the most popular lines of GPS products that you will encounter during your search. All of these companies manufacture fine GPS units so you can expect to receive a high quality product - the decision is simply which features you would like in your GPS.

Garmin Nuvi Series

The Garmin Nuvi series consists of GPS units designed for almost any application. Each line of the series is denoted by a different number to mark its relative function. For example, the Nuvi 1300 series is a line of affordable wide screen GPS units for automobiles while the 800 series is characterized by touch free voice recognition GPS units. If you are looking for extra features in your Garmin GPS device and a large screen, consider viewing some of the models from the Nuvi 1400 series like the Nuvi 1490T and 1450. Both include 5 inch screens and incredible street navigation features while being priced under $300.00.

Most Garmin Nuvi GPS units come equipped with a large database of important locations, favorite locations options, home setting features and customizable voice options. Many Garmin Nuvi units also include useful extras such as photo navigation and live traffic updates. The Nuvi 1490T includes built in Blue tooth wireless capability for hands free calls and a large 5 inch screen. The Nuvi 1450 is perfect for those planning chores or making deliveries as it allows you to input multiple locations and then plans the most efficient route between all of those points for you. It also includes a lane assist feature to tell you when to switch lanes for an upcoming turn or exit.


For people interested in GPS features for connecting their GPS with their vehicle, a Navman GPS unit such as the Navman 15 is a good option. This GPS unit comes with both a windshield and dashboard mounting device as well as the necessary cigarette lighter charger. Other key features of the Navman 15 include a 3.5 inch screen and easy to update maps of the United States and outlying islands. Of course, the Navman also comes with one of the largest databases of important locations on the market.

Sony NV Series

The Sony NV series includes units that focus on convenience. For example, you have options with NV units like the NV-U70 NAV-U to increase portability and customize options such as the voice you hear and the way directions are both spoken and displayed. Although preloaded with maps of the United States, this Sony GPS unit also has 1 GB of memory for downloading additional maps from around the world. One of the most innovative features of this Sony GPS unit is that it has a built in light detection feature that will change the brightness of the screen based on the amount of light in your vehicle with eight sensitivity levels. This is useful for going through long tunnels or during cloudy days.

The Sony NV series are typically well known for their easy to use and accessible mounting accessories.

Tomtom GPS Receivers

Tomtom focuses on creating GPS receivers for both the budget conscious and the customers that are not afraid to spend some extra money on incredible navigation features. For example, one of the most feature rich yet affordable Tomtom GPS receivers is the ONE 140S with a 7 million location important location database and a free map upgrade after a year. Best of all, the ONE 140S is priced under $100.00. The Tomtom GO 630 is priced at around $179.95 and includes both hands free calling and voice recognition capabilities for address input. This unit also allows you to view up to date traffic predictions and can plan routes to avoid traffic delays or jams.

The Tomtom EASE model is designed for users that are just looking for a basic GPS unit that does not skimp on any of the important features. As one of the most affordable Tomtom GPS receivers, the EASE  is priced under $100.00 and uses a simple menu and spoken street names rather than just saying that there is a turn ahead. For emergencies, the EASE comes with a preprogrammed menu that you can use for guidance to the nearest emergency location such as a police station, dentist, pharmacy, hospital and repair services. One of the best features of the EASE is that it updates the fastest routes based on your travel speed rather than the speed limits along your route.