Getting started

If you often travel to new places for work or pleasure, have trouble reading maps, or simply hate to ask for directions, you might consider a global positioning system (GPS) based navigator for your car. Once you put in a destination, the system will plot a route, give spoken turn-by-turn directions, and show your progress along the route. Most personal navigation devices (PNDs) let you choose your routing preferences, including the shortest distance, the fastest time, or even routes with no toll roads. Some portable units offer special routing options for walkers or bicyclists to avoid highways and not limit pedestrians due to one-way traffic. And some devices even offer a choice for the most fuel-efficient route.

A navigator can quickly find a variety of points of interest (POI), including gas stations, ATMs, hotels, tourist attractions, and more. Typically, you can search for a specific point of interest, browse ones that are near your current location, or look up ones in a different area. You can even choose a nearby restaurant by the type of food you wish to eat. Once you've located what you want, the system can calculate a route to get you there and often provide contact information, should you wish to call ahead.

In today's competitive market, GPS prices have come down to the point where even budget units include features previously available only on more expensive models, such as the ability to speak street names, issue speed warnings, and provide reality view, graphically representing major intersections. Higher-priced models can include such features as an FM receiver for traffic information, a wireless FM transmitter to integrate with the car's audio system, and Bluetooth connectivity, which can be handy for hands-free phone operation. Services such as traffic, weather reports, and Internet searches are widely available, although they can require a subscription. Free traffic information is also increasingly common, though it is sometimes supported by small, onscreen advertising.

Extra features aside, our testing has shown that all GPS navigators will typically get you to your destination, but not always by the most efficient route. While there is no substitute for local knowledge of roads and traffic situations, some devices add intelligence through historical traffic data and the ability for users to modify maps.

How to choose

Before you buy a GPS navigator, think about your typical driving conditions, how often you're in unfamiliar areas, and the features that are most important to you.

Next, focus on how well the system works for navigation. The highest-rated models we've tested make it especially easy to enter destinations and give the most helpful directions. Look for a GPS guide device that scored well for ease of use. Some interfaces are more intuitive than others, and low-scoring units can be awkward, slow, or both. Then consider what, if any, extra features you want. We'll take you through these steps and introduce functions to consider in this GPS buying guide.