The Best Portable Car GPS Navigators Of 2010

by Justin Thomas •


In the past five years or so, one of the handiest applications of GPS technology has been the development of portable GPS navigators designed to go into a car to help a driver navigate as she drives.Portable car GPS devices have a screen that shows, among other things, a map of where the driver is, and often are equipped to provide spoken turn-by-turn directions to a destination. Most of these portable GPS navigators allow for map software upgrades, and many offer customizable interfaces to allow a driver to optimize what information he can get from the unit, and how it is displayed.

TomTom Portable GPS Navigators

TomTom GPS Navigator

TomTom was one of the first portable GPS navigation systems widely advertised in the mainstream. TomTom, like most of the manufacturers of portable GPS units designed for cars, has several different systems with various features and a fairly broad price range. The TomTom ONE 125 3.5-Inch Portable GPS Navigator, retailing for just under $100 new on Amazon.com, is a unit one would consider a “starter” unit. It is pretty well-packed with features, and will serve the needs of anyone who needs basic mapping technology, but it does lack some of the bells and whistles of more sophisticated devices available on the market.

The TomTom ONE 125 comes pre-loaded with mapping software and is essentially plug-and-play, though there have been complaints by consumers that the unit is not charged right out of the box. The unit has a touchscreen display and offers spoken turn-by-turn directions. The directions will be given in one of more than thirty languages, including Latvian, Croatian, Finnish, Thai, and Catalan.

One of the coolest features of the TomTom ONE 125 is called “Map Share,” which enables you to rename streets, add points of interest, note when the road is different in reality than the mapping software reflects, and otherwise tweak and customize routes. You can make your tweaks available to other users, and other users’ tweaks and changes are available to you. This allows you to keep your maps fresh and up-to-date without laborious (and sometimes expensive) mapping software updates. Additionally, you can look up the address of a point of interest on Google Maps or Mapquest and then transfer the information from your computer to the GPS unit via USB. The TomTom ONE 125 has a “Help Me” menu that lets you quickly and efficiently (with one touch) access the information for local emergency providers.

The advantage of buying a less-expensive GPS model is, obviously, that it costs less. Often you get plenty of features for basic needs in a base-level model. But if you buy a “starter” unit like the TomTom ONE 125, there will always be features missing that more expensive units will have. One biggie that the TomTom ONE 125 is missing is an SD card slot, meaning that you are limited to using the unit’s internal memory for add-ons (like a subscription for traffic info, not included in the basic unit purchase) and new maps. The software interface and both the 2D and 3D maps are not as polished as some other, more expensive units. There is no Bluetooth capability with this unit (though other TomTom units, like the TomTom ONE XL, do offer Bluetooth connectivity). The unit, at 3.5 inches, is not the largest on the market (the above-mentioned TomTom ONE XL is 4.3 inches). The GPS signal on the TomTom ONE 125 can be a little spotty in some areas or on cloudy days, but that is a complaint that has been made about many models, both basic units and more expensive units. That seems to be the nature of the GPS beast, and holds true for handheld models as well as dashboard-mounted models.

Garmin Portable GPS Navigators

Garmin is a well-known maker of GPS receivers and has been for a while. I picked up the bright yellow Garmin e-Trex handheld unit for Geocaching years ago, well before car GPS units became known, much less ubiquitous. The Garmin nüvi is the line of GPS receivers the company makes for cars.

garmin-nuvi-360The Garmin nüvi 360 GPS Navigator is a mid-level car unit priced at around $150. It is smaller at 3.5 inches, and this model has Bluetooth for hands-free operation. That the unit is Bluetooth-enabled lets Garmin market this GPS unit as a “personal travel assistant,” which means, essentially, that you can make mobile calls through your nüvi 360 with your compatible Bluetooth-enabled mobile device. Other multitasking features of this particular GPS device include an integrated mp3 player, audio book reader, and JPEG viewer. There is also a travel alarm clock and a currency converter integral to the Garmin nüvi 360.

The Garmin nüvi 360 does, of course, sport the standard features one expects from a GPS device. You can view 2D and 3D maps of where you’re going, use the touchscreen to make menu selections, get automatic routing for wherever you’re trying to go, and get spoken turn-by-turn directions. The device also has an anti-theft feature that enables the owner to lock the unit with PIN. As well as having a USB interface cable, The Garmin nüvi 360 also has a slot for an SD card, which the TomTom ONE 125 does not have.

The Garmin nüvi 360 gets high marks for working as a GPS receiver; it locks onto satellite signals satisfactorily when the antenna is raised. The pre-loaded software includes maps and points of interest (POIs), and while the POI list included is not comprehensive, it does list a fair number of places you would expect to be listed as a POI.

The internal speaker for the Garmin nüvi 360, if you wish to use it for its mp3 or book-reading capabilities, is not particularly good, though the operation of these extras does seem to work, and might be efficient for people who don’t have an iPod or another mp3 player to travel with. The unit does sync up nicely with compatible mobile devices to make Bluetooth-enabled hands-free operation easy and intuitive. You can make phone calls manually, call from your address book, or call POIs.

Battery life on the nüvi 360, while not bad, is not superlative. While operation is intuitive, the primary complaint with the unit seems to be its small screen size. The mapping software that comes pre-loaded may not be completely up-to-date, and there are occasionally glitches wherein the mapping software is not 100% accurate. Map upgrades are available from the manufacturer, but they are not cheap, which can be a rude awakening after paying more than a hundred dollars for the unit itself.

Magellan Car GPS Navigators

magellan_roadmateMagellan, another well-known maker of GPS units before portable car units became popular, makes several lines of well-received car GPS receivers. One high mid-range unit is the Magellan RoadMate 760 Portable GPS Navigator, which currently retails new at Amazon.com for about $199, down from a jaw-dropping $899 per unit.

The Magellan RoadMate 760 also has the standard map displays, spoken turn-by-turn directions, and touchscreen interface. What sets The RoadMate 760 apart is that it boasts a large (20 GB) hard drive that reduces how often you’ll have to connect it to your computer, though it does have a USB interface if you do need to sync it up. Magellan claims that this large hard drive enables you to have most, if not all, of your mapping software loaded all at once on your portable unit. Other units with smaller internal hard drives may limit how much of your acquired mapping software will fit on the unit, meaning that you may not be able to get all your North American maps on the unit, for instance. (In my experience with car GPS units, this has not been a problem, even for units with smaller hard drives and no SD card slot, but then, I haven’t used a car GPS to drive across the country, when having more detailed maps of a larger area might be useful.)

The Magellan RoadMate 760 is user-friendly, letting the user pretty much plug-and-drive because of the pre-loaded software and a simple interface, and it has nice features such as increased speaker loudness once the car is driving above 45 miles per hour. The POIs loaded into the unit are pretty comprehensive.

Some of the complaints about the Magellan RoadMate 760 include the fact that its signal drops sometimes, especially when tall buildings obstruct the satellite signal. There is an external antenna you can buy to alleviate this problem, but it does not come standard. The screen can be difficult to read on a sunny day. And there have been customer complaints about the windshield mount, which tends to let the unit jiggle around. Some users have had problems with the unit’s operating system, which is prone to freezing up. However, despite these issues, the unit gets very high marks for both its user-friendliness and its navigation abilities.

Magellan also makes lower-end car GPS units (the Magellan Maestro 3100, selling for about $140, which actually is better-received than the more expensive RoadMate 760 for a nifty “where am I” feature that locates your position on the map, its re-routing capabilities to get you around slow traffic, and its superior GPS signal accuracy) and higher-end models (like the Magellan Maestro 4040 4.3-Inch Widescreen Portable GPS Navigator, selling for about $440, beloved for its larger screen visible in full sunlight, and for Magellan’s generally great user interface). Magellan’s higher-end GPS units tend to be slightly better-priced than comparable higher-end Garmin units, like the Garmin nüvi 660 4.3-Inch Widescreen Bluetooth Portable GPS Navigator. And though customers seem to be more overwhelmingly happy with the high-end Garmins, users who have Magellan units seem very pleased with them, sometimes even after having owned a Garmin.

TomTom seems to make a more economical, but perfectly usable line of GPS receivers for cars, which may be a more efficient purchase for users who want a basic, functional GPS unit for their cars (though TomTom, too, offers more expensive, feature-loaded GPS units, like the TomTom GO 930T 4.3-Inch Widescreen Bluetooth Portable GPS Navigator with Traffic Receiver). Magellan units will probably be a good choice for half-Luddites who want an easy experience with their gadgetry and who don’t want to have to tinker much to make the technology work for them. Many of the Garmin car GPS units offer integrated features beyond GPS capability that would be a good choice for someone interested in a device that offers all-in-one features.

You aren’t limitedplenio, of course, to the big three names in mobile GPS technology. The Plenio VXA-2100 7-Inch Portable GPS Navigator, though a less well-known brand, offers a wide 7-inch screen, fantastic signal-finding speed with a SIRF 3 GPS receiver, and extras like an mp3 player and video player, on top of the usual portable GPS features, for a significantly lower price tag than the better-known brands with similar features. The Plenio sells for less than $300. The screen, however, is a lower resolution than some of the other wide-screen units, and its GPS-specific feature-set is more basic than the more expensive high-end models other manufacturers offer. Despite the big screen and the somewhat heftier price than other entry-level models of GPS, the Plenio would still qualify as a starter-unit.

GPS on Smart Phones

htc-fuzeSome smart phones, like the HTC FUZE Phone by AT&T, are compatible with subscription-based GPS navigation software like Telenav. This is what I, personally use in my car, and I like it a lot, even after having used dedicated car GPS systems like the Magellan my dad swears by. While it isn’t as packed with features as a unit meant to be solely a car GPS system, it fits my needs well, and includes the spoken turn-by-turn directions (the feature I love most about mobile GPS) that Google Maps for smartphones and iPhones does not include.

Choosing the most efficient and best-fit GPS unit for your needs is a choice that will vary according to your intended use for the unit, how much you’re willing to spend, and how much you love fiddling with technology. There is a pretty broad range of options to choose from, and to suit most pocketbooks and technological levels.

Comments 3

  1. Car GPS reviews

    Its excellent.Thanks to leave a lot of detail here.
    If you spend much time driving in unknown territory, i.e if you rent cars in big cities, a good portable GPS makes an awesome difference.Car GPS reviews are the most reliable source of information that provides all the latest info about different car GPS systems. I did some research and finally decided to buy this unit, and after using it for a couple of weeks, I am really happy with it.

  2. Neil (Sydney, Australia)

    Quite a good overview as far as it goes. However in leaving out the (I believe) well thought of Mio range of GPS units I wonder whether you’ve been a little subjective (how difficult it is not to be) or selective in the makers you’ve chosen to review. I cannot glean from your website where you’re based (I’m guessing USA). I suppose the favourite in-car GPS units vary depending on where in the world you are located.

    I’ve just discovered MetaEfficient today. I haven’t yet found a statement on your website that states your mission. Hopefully you might aim to be the best provider of unbiassed and complete information in your field. May you go from strength to strength.

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