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June 1, 2007

GPSmagazine Father's Day Buyer's Guide 2007

GPSmagazine.com's Father's Day Buyer's Guide

Giving dad a GPS this Father's Day? Buying a GPS can be a complex and daunting task. Be sure to check out GPSmagazine's Father's Day 2007 Buyer's Guide and make sure you buy him the right one.

Recommended GPS Units for Dad

If Money is No Object
nuvi 660

If money is no object, it’s hard to beat the performance, features, and ease-of-use of the Garmin nuvi 660. The release of the nuvi 680 (which is identical to the nuvi 660 in every way except for the addition of MSN Direct for looking up local movie listings, weather, gas prices, etc.) has driven down the price of the nuvi 660 to an estimated street price of about $600. That’s still on the higher-end of the GPS pricing spectrum, but in exchange you’ll get a first-rate GPS unit that uses SiRF’s highly sensitive 20-channel indoor GPS receiver, a super-bright 4-inch widescreen display, Bluetooth, a photo viewer, MP3 music player that's integrated with the navigation system, real-time traffic data (comes with 3 months of service for free, then it’ll cost you $60/year if you want to keep using the service), text-to-speech for announcing street names, and an integrated FM transmitter that lets you hear voice prompts over your car’s stereo speakers. As if that wasn’t enough, you can also link the nuvi 660 to your Bluetooth compatible cell phone and use it as a hands free speakerphone. Garmin is the market leader in GPS navigation devices, and with good reason. In our tests, the nuvi 660 produced routes that were consistent with Yahoo and Google maps, and superior to those generated by TomTom.

If Ease of Use Is Your Main Concern
Garmin StreetPilot c550

If ease of use is your primary concern, Garmin’s StreetPilot c550 is the GPS for you. Turn it on and you’re presented with two large buttons: “Where To?” and “View Map”. GPS navigation doesn’t get any easier than this. You’ll still get lots of nice features, like full maps of the US and Canada, Bluetooth for hands-free speakerphone, text-to-speech, a photo viewer, MP3 player, real-time traffic data (requires a $60/year subscription), and Garmin’s excellent routing engine. Unlike the more expensive nuvi 660, the StreetPilot c550 has a smaller (2.8") screen, a less stylish form factor, and no FM transmitter. The StreetPilot c550 has a street price of around $499.

If you don’t care about text-to-speech or Bluetooth, the Garmin StreetPilot c530 is also an excellent unit that can be found online for around $375. It’s just as easy to use as the c550, but lacks Bluetooth, has no MP3 player, and no Text-to-Speech.

Best Mid-Range GPS
Magellan Maestro 3140

Priced around $399, Magellan's newest offering is the Maestro 3140. An updated interface, Bluetooth for hands-free speakerphone, new 2007 NAVTEQ mapping data, high quality routing engine, AAA TourBook data, 4.5 million POIs, Text-to-Speech, multi-destination routing with route optimization, and traffic upgradeable make the Maestro 3140 a whole lot of GPS for under $400! Maestro is easy to use and packs many useful features only available on Magellan units.

If You're On A Tight Budget
Magellan RoadMate 2000

If $200 is absolutely all you can spare, the Magellan RoadMate 2000 is a good unit at a great price. You won’t get anything fancy, like an FM Transmitter, real-time traffic, or Bluetooth, but you do get a high performance GPS (powered by SiRF’s Star III chip), Magellan’s excellent map display, and turn by turn guidance. The RoadMate 2000 has a smaller POI database than more expensive units, and a shorter battery life (3 hours), and lacks text-to-speech, but it does provide solid basic navigation at an unbeatable price.

If You Want A GPS For Driving, Hiking, & Boating
Magellan CrossoverGPS

If you’re the James Bond type who needs a GPS for the car, the boat/yacht, trails, and Geocaching/hunting, then there’s only one GPS for you: Magellan’s CrossOver GPS. The CrossOver is a ruggedized waterproof GPS that does it all. The unit comes preloaded with street and topographic maps, and can be upgraded with maps for boating. Magellan also sells an optional real-time traffic kit (a new windshield mount with the traffic antenna built in). When not being used in the great outdoors, the CrossOver does text-to-speech automotive directions, and benefits from Magellan’s excellent routing engine and NAVTEQ’s maps. The CrossOver GPS has a built-in MP3 player and photo viewer, is rated to IPX-4 waterproof, and is protected by a slip-resistant rubber jacket. The CrossOver can navigate streets, trails, lakes, and oceans, and sells online for around $399.

Best Motorcycle GPS
Garmin zumo 550
For those on two wheels, Garmin's zumo 550 provides all the features of a top automotive GPS (SiRF, Bluetooth, real-time traffic & weather capabilities, text-to-speech, preloaded maps of North America AND Europe, MP3 player, and more), and customizes Garmin's interface so it's glove-friendly and has left-handed controls makes to easy to operate while driving. The zumo is in a ruggedized waterproof case (rated to IPX7 - submersible in one meter of water for up to 30 min.). The zumo comes with a motorcycle mount with universal mounting hardware, and has a street price of around $700.

Thinking of buying a different GPS? Be sure to check out the Complete GPSmagazine Buyer's Guide for a full list of GPS units and ratings.

What to Look For in a New GPS

SiRF SiRF – Make sure your new GPS uses SiRF’s high performance receiver (officially called SiRF StarIII). This new chip significantly enhances GPS signal performance, making it possible to get solid reception behind talk buildings, canyons, under tree cover – even indoors!

NAVTEQ NAVTEQ Maps – It goes without saying that one of the most critical elements of a navigation system is the quality of the maps. The two main suppliers of mapping data are NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas. Both companies have made great strides in this area, but NAVTEQ is still the best choice for North America. As of this writing, NAVTEQ’s maps are more accurate and complete than Tele Atlas.

Number of POI’s – In GPS speak, a "Point of Interest" is a business address saved on the GPS. You can think of the POI database as a pre-loaded yellow pages. Most modern GPS devices come pre-loaded with a Points of Interest database, allowing you to find nearby businesses, such as restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and more. Some less expensive GPS units ship with as few as 750k POI’s, while more expensive units can have up to 8 or even 10 million.

Routing Quality – Even if two GPS units have identical maps installed, they may choose very different routes. That’s because there’s a lot of math and algorithms behind how GPS devices figure out the “best” route to your destination. Is a particular street closed after business hours? Will you arrive only to find your destination is on the left side of a busy street, and you have to make a U-turn or go around the block? Is a given highway known to be congested at this time of day? Is a slightly longer route actually a shorter drive time? These are all factors that GPS manufacturers must tackle, and some do a decidedly better job than others. This is the least well understood aspect of GPS devices, and not something advertised on the box. Be sure to check out our reviews and find out which GPS devices get this right. In general, Garmin does the best job routing, followed by Magellan, and then TomTom.

Ease of Use – How easy is the GPS to use? Could you loan it to a friend and have them use it without any help from you or the instructions? Before buying a GPS, test it out (or read our in-depth reviews on this site) and try to input a destination address, search for a POI (point of interest), and take a look at the map screen. These are the basic functions you’ll want to check out to test ease of use.

Mounting Hardware – It sounds like a minor issue, but all too frequently even the most promising GPS can turn into a lemon when the mounting hardware doesn’t work well. Beenbags, windshield mounts, flex-arms, and adhesive mounting discs are just some of the various methods companies use. Look for a mount that doesn’t vibrate while driving, stays connected to the windshield, and is easy to dock/undock the GPS.

Nice to Have’s – Depending on your budget, features you may want (but aren't critical for basic navigation) include:

  • Larger Screen - Many GPS manufacturers now sell 4-inch widescreen GPS units. Though not essential, the wider screen does make things easier to see. Those looking for more portable units that can easily be stowed in a shirt pocket may prefer the more standard 3.5" display size.
  • Text-to-Speech - TTS, or Text-to-Speech makes it possible for the GPS to announce actual street names. So instead of hearing "Turn Right Ahead", you'll hear "Turn Right on Main Street".
  • Bluetooth - Bluetooth enabled GPS units can be paired to a Bluetooth enabled cell phone for hands-free speakerphone.
  • Traffic - Real-time traffic data is available on some GPS units (requires an annual subscription fee of around $65) and allows the GPS to make routing decisions based on current traffic conditions, avoiding accidents and tie-ups. Note that traffic coverage is generally only available in metropolitan areas, so be sure to check the coverage map before subscribing if your GPS supports this feature.
  • FM Transmitter - GPS units that have an integrated FM transmitted can route the GPS' audio to your car's stereo speakers via the FM radio (similar to many iPod car adapters that do the same thing). Quality varies, and long trips will almost certainly require you to change channels a few times to find an unused frequency on the FM dial. If your GPS has an audio out jack, you're better off using a cassette adapter or auxiliary audio hookup.

Thinking of buying a GPS not reviewed on GPSmagazine.com? Be sure to use the criteria listed above to make sure you buy the right GPS.