The tech help file: Which type of GPS device to choose?

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Saturday, September 25, 2010; 7:44 PM

Q: I'm about to get a new car and want a GPS device. Should I buy an in-dash navigation system, a stand-alone GPS receiver or a GPS-enabled smartphone?

A: When my wife and I bought a new car five years ago, we paid a premium for integrated navigation. I would not do that today; most built-in systems cost too much, lack real-time traffic data and charge too much for updates.

I wouldn't buy a separate GPS unit, either; I already paid for a smartphone that can do its job.

The cheapest and best phone-based directions - provided you have wireless coverage - come from the Google Maps software on most Android devices, which accepts voice input, provides accurate turn-by-turn directions and monitors traffic reports.

Google's software won't work in regions starved of mobile bandwidth. But that might not matter: If you're driving in a remote area, look up human-verified directions in advance instead of trusting computer guidance. (On ski trips to West Virginia, our car's GPS device suggests that we take mountain roads closed in the winter.)

Google has yet to update the iPhone's Maps program to add turn-by-by-turn directions. Instead, you'll have to pay extra for apps from such vendors as Navigon and TomTom. These programs have been upgraded from the mediocre releases I tested last summer - and since they store their maps on the iPhone, they don't need wireless service to work.

Add-on navigation programs are also available for BlackBerry and other smartphones. Or you can use carrier-provided services, although most cost $10 a month.

With any smartphone solution, you'll need a car charger. Also, don't leave evidence of your GPS use in the car, lest somebody try to break in. But you knew that already, right?

Rob Pegoraro attempts to untangle computing conundrums and errant electronics each week. Send questions to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or robp@washpost.com. Visit voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward for his Faster Forward blog.


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