Goodbye cumbersome road maps and thick road atlases, hello digitally guided navigation thanks to GPS. Once a luxury, GPS units are now common in cars—whether it’s a built-in GPS navigation device that’s integrated into the dashboard, a standalone unit that affixes to the dash with an accessory or a smartphone that carries a GPS application. These are the three main ways to get hassle-free driving directions in your car, and each has its own pros and cons.
Built-in GPS Systems
The number one advantage of a built-in GPS system is ease of setup—there is none. Built-in GPS systems will come pre-loaded on a new car, either as a standard or upgrade option. They come preconfigured by the dealer and ready to go. In addition to being completely foolproof to start, built-in GPS systems are finely attuned to your car’s audio system (i.e. it knows to mute the stereo when announcing turns) and often will have a larger screen that integrates nicely into the rest of your controls.
The downside of all of this is cost. Because it’s an upsell, it’ll cost you more to get a built-in GPS system when you get a car off a lot. Plus, all you get is a GPS system—you don’t get the subscription for free. Usually, the dealer or manufacturer will hook you up with a few free months of GPS service, just so you can get hooked on it. But after that, you may have to pay a monthly fee to remain connected.
Another inconvenience: no portability. Unlike a smartphone or standalone GPS unit, you can’t take your GPS out of your car. This may be more secure in terms of theft deterrence, but when it comes to traveling (i.e. renting a car) or upgrading your GPS’s maps and software, this becomes an issue.
A standalone GPS is often the least expensive option. You can get a decent GPS unit from a namebrand manufacture—such as Garmin, TomTom or Nuvi—for about $50. However, you usually get what you pay for. The lowest end standalone GPS units provide driving directions with turn-by-turn voice prompts but no text-to-speech features and limited traffic reporting. For example, if you are turning left on Ohio Street, your GPS will simply announce “Turn left ahead” rather than “Turn left onto Ohio Street.” If you don’t enjoy taking your eyes off the road, this could be a major liability.
That being said, paying a little more for your standalone GPS has its rewards. For more expensive units ranging into the $200 to $500 range, you can get great features such as live traffic reports, alternate routes and other premium features.
Standalone GPS units are also easier to take with you and can usually plugged into a computer for updating. Most GPS units do not require a monthly subscription for basic driving directions.
Smartphones, and even some regular feature phones, now have GPS and aGPS built-in. There are some clear advantages to using your smartphone as a GPS rather than buying a separate unit. For one, it’s most convenient—you always have it with you and it’s easy to take from car to car. Plus, the aGPS technology—which uses cell phone towers to get a quicker fix—often outperforms standalone GPS units for driving purposes.
With smartphones, you have two basic options: pay a monthly fee (about $5 a month) to your cell phone provider for access to their proprietary navigation software, or buy a third-party app that includes GPS and driving directions. In this area, the “you get what you pay for” adage remains true. You can find software that retails for about $99 on your smartphone and easily rivals any standalone unit you’d buy for the same price. Or you can go with a free app, such as Waze, which is less robust in terms of map accuracy and responsiveness, but passable all the same.
Remember: you may have to buy a mount for your smartphone as well as a car charger (GPS apps take a lot of battery). This can cost you an additional $50 or so in terms of accessories, but it’s a must—looking down at your phone and fiddling with a touch screen in your lap is extremely dangerous while driving.