The smartphone has replaced so many other devices and tools — cameras, notebooks, tape recorders — that I thought the answer was obvious when I asked Rik Paul, the autos editor at The Wirecutter, a product reviews website owned by The New York Times, if buying a GPS unit for the car made sense anymore. Boy, was I wrong.
I rely on a cellphone with Google Maps to find my way around. Why would I ever want to buy a GPS unit?
The major maps apps are excellent, with awesome traffic information. If I’m going for a short jaunt around town, I’ll always grab my phone. But for longer trips, especially, dedicated car-GPS devices have some advantages.
One big advantage is that GPS devices don’t rely on a data connection to plot a route. They have the map data stored inside. I’ve used my phone to navigate to a rural area — say, upstate Vermont — and since the app cached the original route, it got me there just fine. But when I went to navigate out, I didn’t have a data connection. So, I was out of luck.
There are some apps that let you download the route and map information so you don’t have that problem, but you have to plan ahead, whereas a GPS you keep in your glovebox is always ready to go.
OK, but what does a good GPS unit cost? Is it worth that much to avoid dead zones?
In our car GPS guide, we picked the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S as the best for most people, which costs about $170. There are less expensive ones, about $100. So, yeah, it’s an investment.
Still, having a GPS frees your phone for other uses, such as music or calls. And the latest GPS units are now multitasking in ways that a phone’s navigation app can’t.
For example, Garmin’s entire Drive lineup can connect to a backup camera. And there are higher-end “combo models” that integrate a dash cam. Traditionally, a dash cam is primarily for keeping a record in case of an accident, but some of these new GPS models can also provide some pretty advanced safety features, such as forward-collision warnings, lane-departure alerts, and even the ability to automatically send a text if there’s a crash.
Those are features we’ve come to expect from new cars, but up until now were difficult to find as aftermarket add-ons for older or more basic cars. These camera-based units don’t work as well as an expensive built-in system with multiple sensors, but they’re still handy features that can help combat distracted driving.
What about the color-coded roads on Google Maps that warn of delays? And the Waze app, which warns of the police and accidents ahead?
Phone apps definitely have better traffic information than GPS devices. That’s partly why I will grab my phone for around-town jaunts. The accuracy of Google Maps traffic is awesome. My wife will be checking it as I’m driving and will say, right around this bend, it turns red. And sure enough, the traffic slows way down right at that spot.
GPS devices provide traffic warnings, and a lot of them also now connect to a phone via Bluetooth for “live traffic,” but they don’t measure up to Google or Waze in that regard.
The better GPS units have better onscreen directions, especially at tricky interchanges, and they have more precise voice directions. While most navigation systems say “Turn on such-and-such street.” Garmins, for example, now say, “Turn at the traffic light” or even “at the red building.” This landmark-type voice guidance makes it easier to find your turn, especially when it’s not easy to see the street signs.
How do you test all the different GPS device models?
While we’ve compared the specs and features for more than 100 models, we’ve done three rounds of hands-on testing with about 20. Most of the nitty-gritty testing is done over weeks inside a car while we use the units for everyday driving.
At times, I have mounted three units on the windshield at once — one from each major brand — to see how they compare under the same circumstances. That’s a challenge. I now record those sessions with a GoPro camera, so I can better keep my eyes on the road.
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