Whether you're driving across the nation or across town, it's nice to have a good navigator at your side. Several companies currently make GPS systems, but three dominate the category: Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom. Each offers several models at a variety of price points and with a variety of different features, but all display maps and bark directions. If you have a clear idea of the features you want, you'll have a choice of models costing less than $150. So, next time you hit the road, make sure you have a good, cheap GPS system riding shotgun.
Cheap GPS Systems Buying Guide
We found several cheap GPS systems that could get us almost anywhere. The Garmin Nuvi 40LM (starting at $90) is our top choice for road travel.
|Best GPS Screens|
We also identified two non-traditional but cheap GPS systems that bear scrutiny. If you like the great outdoors, the Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour GPS (starting at $80) is a hand-held device that gives directions with a digital compass and keeps you from getting lost off-road. It also includes cool extras, such as a thermometer and altimeter and lets you upload data to a computer to create a map of where you've been; this is the best example of a cheap personal GPS system. Microsoft's Streets & Trips 2013 with GPS Locator (starting at $40) is basically a software package that turns a laptop into a very cheap GPS system. Reviews say it's a worthy route planning tool but doesn't offer the features or convenience of a stand-alone GPS system.
For any GPS system, cheap or otherwise, speed and accuracy are the two fundamental requirements. The best cheap GPS systems acquire a satellite signal fairly quickly (30 seconds or less is ideal, although many take longer) and then hold onto it. They also provide precise and correct directions, leave plenty of time to act on them (oops, just missed that turn-off), and recalibrate swiftly if you err or change course. And finally, a good cheap GPS system should be user friendly, with a screen and graphics that are easy to read and an interface that's easy to use while driving.
Common features in cheap GPS systems include several million points of interest, speeding alerts, turn-by-turn directions, and spoken street names (for example, saying "turn left on Maple" rather than "turn left at the next intersection"). Lane guidance is another good feature, one that shepherds you into the correct lane before an upcoming exit or turn. Some cheap GPS systems support free lifetime map updates and provide traffic or construction alerts. The models we researched are portable, which means they can go with you regardless whose car you're traveling in or which streets you're walking down. (Heads up here: Battery life with the rechargeable lithium ion batteries used in the car-oriented GPS systems is limited to a couple of hours; the hand-held Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour runs on three AAA batteries.)
Pricier GPS systems have the same features as budget devices, and then some. They often come with larger, higher resolution screens and, depending on the model, extras such as voice recognition, MP3 playback, and Bluetooth support. But frugal consumers can live without these bells and whistles. The current crop of best cheap GPS systems covers the basics well and even includes features once found only on higher-end units.
The budget GPS systems worth buying should have fast satellite acquisition, provide correct directions, and redirect you quickly should you wander off track. GPS reviews indicate that the models on our list generally rise to the occasion.
GPS Speed.Most entry-level GPS systems need a bit of time to warm up when first turned on; that is, the unit has to power up and then acquire a satellite signal. It's common for this to take a while with the day's first outing, but subsequent satellite locks should occur more rapidly. The device also should provide spoken instructions in a timely manner and swiftly recalibrate if you've made a wrong turn or purposely deviated from the original route. Tip: If the system seems particularly pokey on any given day, reboot; GPS reviews say this often works wonders.
The Garmin Nuvi 40LM (starting at $90) scores well in GPS reviews for these performance measures. An expert at GPSTracklog.com says the device connects with a satellite signal fairly quickly and the near silence about this topic in user reviews suggests it isn't a nagging concern. We did find one post at Staples, however, reporting that 10 minutes passed before the unit locked on a signal and then proceeded to lose it. And while many reviewers say spoken directions arrive in due time, we noted a few comments indicating the opposite -- slow on advance notice and slow to recalibrate when you've strayed off course.
Another Garmin product we liked, the Nuvi 50 (starting at $80 new/$75 refurbished), is plenty spry even though it's nearing the end of its run. (The newer Nuvi 52 starts at $140). The touchscreen is nicely responsive, as is typical with Garmin products, experts note, and a GPS review at CNET reports that satellite is acquisition is very quick after a slightly sluggish start on the initial power-up. At Amazon users report the Nuvi 50 finds destinations swiftly and adjusts when you've strayed, although a few assert it doesn't always provide the most optimal route.
The TomTom Via 1405TM (starting at $110) falls behind the best-in-class on speed and responsiveness. GPS reviews at Amazon fault it for slow satellite lock-in, lag when recalculating routes, and a sluggish touchscreen. A field test by GPS TrackLog found that the Via 1405TM failed to correct when the driver purposefully ignored the directions, but the next time that destination was keyed in, the unit displayed the route the driver had chosen. Frustration with this model is not universal, however, and other GPS reviews are more enthusiastic, in part due to the rich feature set.
Reviewers are disappointed with the spotty performance of the Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM (starting at $140). An expert GPS review by PC Mag lists a lengthy route-recalculation process and frequent loss of the satellite lock that requires several minutes to re-establish as reasons not to recommend this model. PocketGPSWorld.com likewise considers the RoadMate 5230T-LM "barely acceptable" due to its slow processor and interface.
The Microsoft Streets & Trips 2013 with GPS Locator (starting at $40) turns a laptop into a GPS system. But this unusual set-up, which requires running the laptop in the car, garners a mixed reception. An expert at PC Mag encountered problems with the GPS locator but concedes that may reflect a conflict with his laptop rather than a general shortcoming of the locator itself. Users' GPS reviews at Amazon say the locator grabs the satellite connection quickly, but some consider the software outdated, citing problems such as slow routing, incompatibility with Windows 8, and system crashes.
With its off-the-beaten-track purpose, the Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour (starting at $80) is something of an outlier in this bunch of budget GPS systems. Designed primarily as a navigational aid while in the backwoods or boating on the open waters, it has the luxury of time that road-oriented GPS systems don't; in other words, a hunter can afford to wait until the unit finds a signal but a driver barreling down the highway needs information ASAP. Indeed, the GPS review in Backpacker says the BackTrack D-Tour takes up to 10 minutes to lock on a satellite from deep in a forest (the regular GPS being tested needed just two minutes). Users apparently aren't bothered by the delay, as their GPS reviews don't mention it.
Accuracy is a hallmark of the best GPS systems. And that depends on both the onboard maps as well as the internal software that controls the GPS navigation.
GPS Maps.Any system worth its salt should include preloaded GPS maps of the continental U.S.; all the road-oriented models we researched do so -- and then some. The Garmin Nuvi 40LM and Nuvi 50 include GPS maps of Hawaii and Puerto Rico; the TomTom Via 1405TM covers Canada and Mexico; the Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM contains GPS maps of all 50 states, as does Streets & Trips 2013 from Microsoft, which throws in Canada for good measure.
Additionally, some systems accept periodic map updates. Among those we researched, the Garmin Nuvi 40LM, TomTom Via 1405TM, Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM all feature free lifetime map updates, available for download up to four times a year. In comments posted online, users express grateful appreciation for this feature, noting how it helps alleviate travel anxiety and adds significant value to the product. The TomTom Via 1405TM even lets users "correct" maps by noting changes like closed roads, and then share with others.
GPS Accuracy.Finding your way around a new location is difficult enough, even with GPS maps. The last thing you need is a device that steers you wrong. The majority of experts and users report that the models on our list pass the accuracy test, at least most of the time.
The two Garmin systems we researched, the Nuvi 40LM and Nuvi 50, usually manage to get you there, according to reviewers. Most users of the Nuvi 40LM report getting correct directions to their intended destination, although some report glitches. One post at Walmart, for example, tells of having been directed into a woody area without any roads, and another user suggests keeping the car stocked with paper maps as back-up insurance. The Nuvi 50 also wins points for GPS accuracy, although some users grumble about being sent on unnecessary detours or not being told to just turn around after going a bit too far. Experts consider the GPS accuracy provided by the Nuvi 50 to be "spot on," even in the downtown warrens of a large city.
Despite critiques on the speed and responsiveness front, the TomTom Via 1405TM fares well on GPS accuracy. Users like the maps and turn-by-turn directions, and one post at Newegg says this system reliably gets you to the end point without the last-minute adjustments needed with other models. That said, we detected some grouchiness about routing that isn't always the most efficient.
The Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour is noted for GPS accuracy and reliability. Instead of GPS maps or spoken directions, this hand-held unit guides users back to their original starting point -- trail head, hunting stand, car in a mega-mall parking lot, etc. -- by tracking their outbound route. At review sites like Gander Mountain and B&H users enthuse about the practicality and dependability of its GPS accuracy, and take comfort in the measure of safety it provides. And while the BackTrack D-Tour is no substitute for a map of the territory being explored, it ensures you won't be left wandering aimlessly through the forest.
The same can't be said for the Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM. Experts at GPS Tracklog and PC Mag gripe about routing errors and out-of-date information about local landmarks. And while Microsoft Streets & Trips 2013 is touted by experts for GPS accuracy -- especially when seeking the most efficient route -- and is well-liked by many users, some complain that the GPS maps are just not as current as those offered by the competition.
Best GPS Screens
Like most electronics products, GPS systems evolve quickly. Screen quality and the features once found only in higher-end models, such as text-to-speech and lane assistance, are filtering down to the entry-level sector. Consumers get more bang for their buck now than they could just a short while ago.
Best GPS Screens.A GPS that's hard to read and operate is a useless travel buddy. You want to be looking at the road, not squinting at a GPS screen. Users tend to prefer larger, widescreen displays for in-car GPS systems and most budget models feature a 4.3- or 5-inch touchscreen. Stand a few yards outside the cheap price range, though, and you can put your hands on a model with a 6-inch display, like the TomTom Via 1605TM (starting at $180). A hit with experts at PC Mag and with users on BestBuy.com, this best GPS screen boasts higher-than-average resolution, vivid images, large buttons, and loads of information but remains easy to scan visually.
Still, screen size on the models we researched seems more than sufficient. As examples of the best GPS screens, consider the following: The Garmin Nuvi 40LM's 4.3-inch display is cited by experts and users for its manageability and realistic-looking views of the road. The Garmin Nuvi 50 gets a shout-out for budget pricing on a 5-inch display that's reasonably resistant to glare, is free of clutter, and can be swiped to show more icons. Users mostly praise the bold graphics and easy-to-read screen on the TomTom Via 1405TM, although some carp about screen glare.
Other GPS systems we researched sport screens that don't meet best-in-class standards. The 5-inch display on the Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM incorporates a simple, user-friendly interface but experts consider the graphics to be quite bland. Microsoft's Streets & Trips with GPS Locator relies on a laptop display, but experts complain that the interface is cluttered and difficult to manage, an assessment echoed in user comments posted at Staples.
For a system that backpackers, hunters, travelers, boaters, and bikers can call on in the field, the best GPS screen is a small, no-frills affair like you get with Bushnell's BackTrack D-Tour GPS. This model features a simple grayscale screen without much in the way of graphics save for a digital pointer that serves as the guiding compass. Reviews at Amazon say the D-Tour screen is easy on the eyes despite its diminutive 1.6x1.6-inch size.
GPS Lane Assistance.Lane assist, which guides you into position before in preparation for a big move, is a popular feature found in all the car-oriented GPS systems we looked at. If you use a GPS without lane assist, you may find yourself in the far left lane of a four-lane highway when the unit suddenly announces: "Turn right in one mile." Clearly, scooting over three lanes in such a short distance in heavy traffic can be hair-raising, not to mention dangerous. A related feature, commonly referred to as "junction view," visually represents upcoming exits and intersections so there are no surprises. The Garmin Nuvi 40LM and 50, TomTom Via 1405TM and Via 1605TM, and Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM include some type of junction view.
GPS Points of Interest.Points of interest (POI) are just that -- locations you may want to be aware of, such as restaurants, hotels, gas stations, parks, museums, and the like. A GPS that can call up this data is a handy substitute for the traditional travel guide and is useful even on home turf. A car GPS without millions of POIs is little more than an electronic compass with graphic images of streets and roads.
The GPS buying guide in Information Week recommends looking for a system with at least 4.5 million POIs. The only GPS system in our review that fails to meet that mark is Microsoft Streets & Trips, which includes about 2.5 million POIs. The other units we researched hold at least double that amount. The Garmin Nuvi 40LM and Nuvi 50 also let you customize the list by adding your own POIs.
GPS Frills.More and more extras are showing up in more and more budget GPS systems. The Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM, for example, delivers spoken landmark guidance in addition to spoken turn-by-turn directions, suggests the best nearby parking garages, and for the first year of ownership provides alerts for traffic cameras. The TomTom Via 1405TM and Via 1605TM draw on a proprietary database of travel times to send you on the fastest route. And most devices now issue a warning when you've exceeded the speed limit.
GPS Systems Mounting Hardware.One of the great advantages of a portable GPS system is being able to move it from car to car, and several reviews we read comment on this. When you affix the GPS to its mount, the system should stay put and the mount should be easy to install. In general, the mounting hardware for windshields seems to be sturdier and more reliable than dashboard mounts. All the car-oriented units we researched can be mounted to a windshield. Complaints about mounting hardware are rare, making this a feature that GPS makers seem to have gotten right across the board.
- Cheap GPS
- Discount GPS Features Comparison Table
Bushnell BackTrack D-Tour GPS Review