A good navigation system should make it a breeze to find your way to places you've never been before. And if you want to stop for a bite to eat or need to fill up with gas along the way, a nav system will you show you some along the way. But with an ever more complex set of functions available, picking the right system can be as confusing as negotiating the streets of a strange city during rush hour.
BestReviews has been researching the market to find answers to all those questions you have before you buy. We discuss the important considerations in the following navigation system buying guide, including some recommendations to help you decide.
Considerations when choosing navigation systems
Most navigation systems are easy to mount in a variety of positions, including on your dash or windshield. Most use your lighter socket for power, but some can also use USB.
The main physical difference is screen size, which you measure diagonally. Early models were 3.5 and 4.3 inches, and you can still find these although they tend to be cheap and quite basic. More common are models that measure 5.0, 6.0, and 7.0 inches.
It's tempting to think that biggest is best — that more screen real estate means better clarity. However, while a 7.0-inch screen is fine for a truck or big SUV, a large screen can be a bit too obtrusive inside a small vehicle. As a result, 5.0- and 6.0-inch models are popular in sedans and compacts.
Not sure? One solution is to print out a screen image of each size and see how they look in your vehicle.
Navigation system features
Touchscreen: On older models, destinations had to be entered on a keyboard. That's still an option, but modern touchscreens with pinch-to-zoom and swipe technology (like on smartphones), make finding locations more intuitive.
2D and 3D maps: The option of switching from 2D to 3D maps gives you a more realistic view of your surroundings — particularly helpful in cities. You can quickly identify your location using individual buildings rather than guessing how far along a particular street you've come.
Audio guidance: Visual guidance has always been supplemented by voice, but directions now have a more human feel using landmarks and more informative terminology rather than just “next left” or “second right.”
Alerts: Numerous alerts are available onscreen and spoken, from speed warnings to telling you when you're entering a school zone.
Road conditions: A major advance on the basic direction-finding function is the ability to track things like traffic and road work. It isn’t available with basic models, but it’s well worth considering if your travel is time sensitive. Some versions rely on linking a smartphone to your GPS while others are built-in. We prefer the latter.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth compatibility can allow you to use your phone to display weather or other information via your navigation screen. High-end models can also show caller information and answer if required.
Voice control: This can be a huge benefit, allowing you to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road even when you need to change your route. The technology is getting better all the time, but it still has some way to go. If it's included, that's great, but it's not a feature we would prioritize just yet.
Updates: You'll pay a little more for a navigation system that offers free lifetime map updates but it's an option we would always choose, especially for commercial travelers. Given how often road systems change, it will soon pay for itself in the time it saves you. Updating generally requires linking to a PC or laptop — and patience. It can be annoyingly slow!
Navigation system prices: You can find a cheap navigation system for around $35, but at that price the technology is usually outdated. It’s not worth it when for only $50 or $60 more you can buy a good-quality entry-level GPS from a name brand. From $90 to $230 you'll find the majority of navigation systems, and at the upper end of that range you'll get superb, feature-packed devices. They might be last year's models, but the differences between them and the newest version are often minor. In fact, we'd check specifications very carefully before spending $400 or more for the latest model.
Q. How often do I need to update my navigation system maps?
A. Manufacturers recommend you register your device when you receive it. They can then let you know when map updates are available. Frequency tends to be approximately once every three months.
Q. Do I need a separate external antenna for live traffic updates?
A. This used to be the case, but now it's either built into the body of the GPS device or you link your smartphone to it.
Navigation systems we recommend
Best of the best: Garmin Nuvi 57LM
Our take: Superb all-round performance and remarkable value.
What we like: Clear screen and excellent maps. Good lane guidance. Visual and spoken alerts. Decent voice activation. Live traffic without smartphone.
What we dislike: Data entry can be frustrating. Poor smartphone app.
Best bang for your buck: ATOTO A6
Our take: Basic but effective GPS that’s unlikely to let you down.
What we like: Uses Android Marshmallow OS that allows for plenty of customization and easy user interface. Integrates with car's audio system. Low cost.
What we dislike: Some people prefer a bigger screen. Cheap screen protectors.
Choice 3: TomTom GO 600 Portable Vehicle GPS
Our take: Fast and clever, but interface needs improvement.
What we like: Rapid connection to satellite. Big, bright screen. Great 3D mapping.
What we dislike: Touchscreen is sometimes challenging. Must link smartphone for full features. Poor voice control.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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