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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.

This GPS is fast and accurate and includes lifetime map updates. In the second-tier grouping sit two models: The Garmin Nuvi 50 (starting at $80 new/$75 refurbished) is a road-worthy companion with a 5-inch screen but no lifetime map updates; the TomTom Via 1405TM (starting at $110) lags on speed but delivers on features such as on-demand map updates and traffic alerts. By contrast, the Magellan RoadMate 5230T-LM (starting at $140) comes up short on accuracy and all too frequently loses the satellite connection necessary for positioning.

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.

Review continues below

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