GPS Options: Many Ways to Find Your Way

Need to find your way?

You probably have a cell phone in your pocket that can help you with navigation. But will your cell phone do the job clearly and conveniently, or should you still consider using a dedicated GPS device?

I ran five navigation alternatives through the day-to-day challenges of guiding me along my way: smartphone navigation apps for the Apple iPhone and the Google Nexus One, variations of the TeleNav server-based navigation service for smartphones and standard phones, the Garmin Nuvi 265WT GPS device, and the two-way connected TomTom XL 340S Live GPS device (two-way connected devices provide access to live traffic info and to up-to-date local fuel prices, weather, and Google local search).

Illustration by Istvan Banyai
My conclusion: If you use any of these methods, you don't have to put up with getting lost anymore. Excellent turn-by-turn navigation with spoken street names is available via products and services ranging from simple cell phones to expensive dedicated devices. All of the devices I tried gave me very similar routes, and all of them successfully directed me to my test destinations. (That's hardly surprising, since the various devices rely on mapping databases supplied by either Navteq or TeleAtlas.)

So how do you choose the right GPS device?

Which approach is best for you depends on your circumstances and your tolerance for compromise. Dedicated GPS devices have several advantages, including larger screens, no monthly fee, and continuous availability. Moreover, a dedicated GPS product is better for people who conduct calls and navigate at the same time; most smartphones interrupt navigation to handle a phone call. Today you can get an acceptable dedicated device for less than $200, but that's still more than you'd pay to use your existing smartphone.
If you have a smartphone already and you rarely need help finding your way, buying a navigation app for the phone makes a lot of sense. But you'll lose the use of your phone for most other purposes while you use it for navigation, and you'll have to cope with a smaller screen.

If you're allergic to monthly bills, you won't be thrilled by server-based navigation systems or by two-way connected devices, both of which charge $10 a month for data services. Server-based navigation doesn't impose any up-front costs, but the service is limited and can be a hassle to use with a no-frills phone. Two-way connected GPS devices cost $200 or more, but offer many more features than server-based systems.

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