There have been plenty of ways to add Global Positioning System navigation to cars, but most require their own road map to set up. Either you'd need one directing you to the bank that might loan you money to buy one of those pricey built-in systems carmakers offer, or a guide walking you through a complicated process of loading separate maps covering distinct parts of the country on an aftermarket GPS unit.
A pair of new, compact models, however, store maps of the United States and Canada on miniature hard drives, at prices a shade over $1,000 each. (A built-in system can easily cost twice as much.) They can also be moved from one car to another with little effort.
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Consider the Magellan RoadMate 700 (www.magellangps.com). I took it from its box, turned it on and left it on the dashboard for a minute. While the GPS unit located the satellites that provide its navigational signals, I set up its suction-cup mount on the windshield, then clicked it into place. In less than 10 minutes I was ready for my jaunt to Lynchburg, Va., for the holidays.
When I got back, the Garmin StreetPilot 2620 (www.garmin.com) had arrived for testing. Setup was just as quick. The unit sits in a "bean bag" holder that sticks to the dashboard via friction and includes a convenient remote control.
Both units allow you to navigate almost anywhere in the United States (the Magellan device excludes Alaska and Hawaii). Neither requires you to festoon your car's cockpit with cables and clutter; both plug in to your 12-volt outlet.
Both offer a wealth of way-finding features; they will find the shortest or fastest route to a point, then locate ATMs, restaurants and grocery stores en route. Most important, you can use these units wherever you might drive without loading extra maps.
That said, they do exhibit significant differences. The RoadMate 700 was easier to use. Its color display resembles a paper map and accepts touch input, with other functions controlled by a cluster of buttons to the right. Entering your destination is intuitive; you need only enter enough information by tapping letters on an onscreen graphic to allow the unit to search within a locality for a list of matching places. (To state the obvious, don't do that while driving.)
Once you've chosen your location, the device issues voice commands from a speaker on the rear of the unit. Unfortunately, some of its software doesn't work as well as it should. Its shortest route frequently isn't -- it won't get you lost, but it won't get you there as quickly as it might.
Garmin's effort is somewhat less intuitive but worked better overall. You enter letters on the remote as you would on a cell phone's keypad, and I found myself inadvertently pressing the wrong key.
The StreetPilot, however, did a better job of finding more-efficient routes and adds such convenient features as a multi-stop capability to figure out the best route for people with complicated itineraries. GPS veterans can switch to a traditional navigation display (one that displays a compass rose and readouts for speed, direction, altitude and distance covered) instead of a map view.
We did experience a few glitches with both units; they each tended to lose their contact with the satellites briefly but frequently, perhaps because of the reduced size of their antennas. And both missed the same streets, probably a fault of their mapping providers. (Both Garmin and Magellan include free updates, which can be downloaded on a PC and transferred over with an included USB cable).
Their prices are certainly not cheap compared with most other gadgets you might use in your car, even after rebate. But they're far cheaper than a built-in GPS unit.