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GPS Shopping Guide

In today's day and age, maps have become a thing of the past when traveling by vehicle or on foot. From being embedded in cell phones to automobile units and the many handheld models on the market, GPS units have come a long way in just a few short years and have revolutionized the way we use technology to get us from place to place.

Most GPS units are designed for specific applications, such as driving, boating, or hiking, and each type of model comes in an array of different styles, forms, and price ranges. There are dozens of brands on the market and if you don't have a GPS unit yet, chances are you are thinking about purchasing one.

However, shopping for an affordable, quality GPS unit can be an overwhelming experience. Luckily, Dealio is here to simplify the process for you and supply you with a wealth of important information about GPS systems and their many features. Browse through our step-by-step guide to find all the information you need to know in order to make an educated purchase.

What is GPS?

GPS, or Global Positioning System, is a network of around 30 satellites orbiting the earth. The technology was developed by the United States military in the Cold War era at a cost of over $10 billion. Fortunately, the government made the technology available to civilians in 1980 for free, so there are no service charges associated with GPS.

Unlike cell phones, where you must purchase the phone and pay a monthly service fee, you only need to purchase a GPS unit to take advantage of this great technology. With the help of satellites orbiting the earth, GPS pinpoints your position on a digital map so you know where you are, where you are going, and where you have been.

Interestingly enough, GPS units only work if you have a clear view of the sky, or in GPS lingo, a "clear line of sight". Trees, underground tunnels, buildings, and other overhead distractions can affect the performance of any GPS. When the view of the sky is clear, however, GPS can perform a multitude of helpful tasks including:

  • Voice-guided directions for in-car GPS models
  • Re-routing your course if you get lost while driving
  • Pointing out nearby gas stations or restaurants while driving
  • Tracking where you've hiked, how far you've gone and at what average speed you are traveling
  • Communicating with others to help you pinpoint exactly where they are
  • Plotting onshore and offshore maps so you can identify fish hotspots for marine applications

Which Type of GPS Do You Need?

To narrow the focus of your search, first identify which of the three GPS units is best suited to your needs.

(1) Automobile GPS

Garmin Nuvi 660

Automobile GPS units are ideal for people who are constantly on-the-go; or people who travel to unfamiliar places and require help finding locations such as offices, convention centers, gas stations, restaurants and so on. An in-car GPS unit will help you get where you need to go, help plot the fastest course and steer you in the right direction in case you make a wrong turn.

Automobile GPS' come in a few different forms. In-car navigation systems come standard with some high-end cars and SUVs, and they are ideal if you use your own car as your primary means of road travel. If you tend to use different cars for travel, a stand-alone GPS may be your better choice. These mount to your dashboard and are easily transferred between cars. Another option is a module unit, which plugs into a handheld Palm or PC. This type of GPS is a convenient add-on to your existing Palm or laptop PC as you can take it wherever you go.

Cost: Generally, automobile GPS units cost an average of $150, while the highest end models can cost an upwards of $1500.

(2) Handheld GPS

Garmin eXplorist 200

Handheld GPS units are small enough to hold in your hand or compact enough to wrap around your wrist. These are better suited for hikers, mountain bikers, or other mobile activities. These units come as stand-alone models or as module units, which can be plugged in to your handheld Palm.

Cost: The lowest price GPS in this category is around $50, while top of the line models can run as high as $2000.

(3) Module GPS receiver for use with a Palm or PC

Garmin eXplorist 200

If you already own a laptop PC or Palm, you can purchase just the GPS receiver, which plugs into your computer via your USB or serial port. These GPS' tend to be the least expensive, and they are very convenient if you frequently carry a Palm or laptop PC.

Cost:Generally, these GPS' range from $50, while the higher end models cost around $300.

GPS Features

Once you have figured out which GPS unit is best for you, the next step is to understand the different features that are available.

(1) Included Database

Some GPS units have databases that store maps and cities within the actual unit, so you don't have to upload them manually before you travel to new places. If your GPS does not have an internal database, you must upload specific maps based on the specific regions you plan to travel in.

(2) Memory Capacity

GPS units can store only a certain amount of data, which directly translates to the coverable map area it can track you on. Obviously, GPS models with the most memory capacity will give you a larger map, while GPS models with lower memory capacity will require you to load specific maps based on the specific regions you plan to travel in.

(3) Number of channels

Magellan Maestro 3100

The number of channels used by your GPS receiver is directly related to its accuracy. For example, if you have a 12 Channel Receiver, then you can receive data from 12 different satellites at once. Of course, the more channels your GPS has, the greater its accuracy. The Magellan Maestro 3100 uses 20 channels and therefore has wealth of tremendous reviews for its map accuracy.

(4) POI-Point of Interest

Many GPS units have preloaded POIs. If you are going to a museum or other well-known areas, the addresses are preloaded so you don't have type in the address. Compare GPS units to find how many POI's come standard. Some have many, others may not.

(5) Routing

We all know the fastest route from point A to point B is a straight line. Unfortunately, mountains, rivers, or other obstructions prevent us from following this path, but GPS can map out the fastest possible route taking into consideration these obstacles. This feature is especially important on handheld GPS units. Many automobile GPS units now feature traffic routing which checks traffic conditions and directs you to alternate routes in case of an accident or other delay.

(6) Tracking, AKA the "Breadcrumb Feature"

Some GPS can record your exact travel path, which is ideal for backtracking to where you began.

(7) Acquisition time

Some GPS are better than others when it comes to acquisition time, which is the time is takes for your GPS to calculate its location when you turn it on initially. In general, the longer your GPS is turned off, the longer the time it will take your GPS to calculate your location (cold acquisition), while the shorter your GPS is turned off, the shorter the time it will take your GPS to calculate your location (hot acquisition).

(8) Sunrise or sunset time

Based on your position, some GPS can display the sunrise and sunset time for a given day. This can help you plan to maximize activity in available daylight, or just catch a great sunset.

(9) AMPS

Some GPS come fully equipped with AMPS (Analog Mobile Phone System), which gives you the ability to communicate with others.

The Best GPS For Your Needs

Now that you understand some of the basic features, you can compare GPS units much easier. A few extra, fancy features many users enjoy are:

(1) Day to Night Screen - The screen's brightness will adjust to the light level in the car. See the Garmin Nuvi 350

(2) MP3 and Photo Compatibility - The TomTom GO 920 runs pretty high, but is one of the best GPS for photo and music compatibility.

(3) Rechargeable Through Car - Some GPS run on batteries, others can be charged through your cars outlets.

(4) Vocal Direction - Voice guidance will help make driving easier. You will not need to look at the GPS,rather it will tell you what to do. The StreetPilotU c550 has been commended on for its voice guidance.

Garmin Nuvi 350 TomTom GO 920T Garmin Streetpilot

The best way to find a GPS unit that's right for you is to buy and test. Because of many retailers' flexible return policies, one suggestion is to buy a couple, test them all out and then keep your favorite. Either way, we are living in a mobile world and getting lost can be a thing of the past. Maps are great, but they are difficult to navigate on small scales and hard to look at when you are on the road. With these new GPS, you can get where you want to go, fast. And since the maps are constantly updating through the satellites, your product is sure to stay up-to-date for many years to come.