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Car GPS buying guide

What to know before shopping for car personal navigation system
High-tech companies have a way of cramming more user-friendly features into smaller and smaller packages. Portable GPS (Global Positioning System) units are a prime example of this trend. A popular alternative to in-dash navigation systems, quality GPS devices not only aid travelers but also travel well themselves.

Some of the earliest handheld models were designed for lost backcountry travelers who compared the readings on the unit to a topographic map to determine where they were in relation to the rest of civilization. Not exactly a navigation system that could be used to hike out of an urban traffic jam.

Once car navigation systems were introduced as optional equipment on high-end autos, the tech wizards went a bit crazy. Today, those built-in systems are programmed to do everything short of flossing your teeth. But, there is hope for the directionally challenged among us who drive more basic vehicles with glove compartments loaded with old, misfolded maps or an outdated Thomas Guide in the trunk.

Portable GPS devices are a fraction of the in-dash systems while still incorporating many of the same features and options. If the only thing between you and one of the portable, compact GPS devices is figuring out what's out there and what you really need (particularly if your mobile phone app is not quite what you think you need), read on.

Do you need a GPS?
Drivers come in all shapes and sizes. Some cruise to the grocery store once a week; others head for the hills every chance they get. Some bring tuna sandwiches and bottled water to tide them over until they get home; others consider exploring new places to eat. Obviously, the former may not need a GPS, whereas the latter may find it indispensable. Others, such as contractors and salespeople who spend most of their days on the road, may need a GPS to help them find unfamiliar addresses with ease.

Having a GPS also comes in handy if you’re on a road trip. It's much easier to enjoy the sites – and get to them – without having to read the fine print of a paper map. Whatever your reasons, wherever you travel, here is some advice on what to look for when shopping for a personal GPS device.

Portability
Portability is key as GPS devices come in a range of sizes. While many people today have a GPS app on their mobile phones, others still prefer a portable GPS device. For them, the critical factor is really the screen size and programming keypads that accommodate an adult finger. The larger models measure about 7 inches (measured diagonally), but at that size and weight, their portability is compromised.

The beauty of a portable device is obvious. You can move them from one car to another, or take them along on bike rides or on long walks through new towns. They also pack conveniently in a suitcase for use in a rental car.

You can program your destination and parameters into the portable unit at your leisure rather than only while in the car. "Consumer Reports" advises a screen size of 3.5 inches – that's big enough to see, along with a keypad big enough to use, and still be highly portable.

In-car GPS mounting
Unless you can guarantee you'll never have to come to a quick stop or swerve sharply to avoid an accident, forget the beanbag-mounted GPS that sits on top of your dash. A much more stable system is one that sticks to the windshield with a suction cup (unless you live in California or Minnesota, where anything windshield-mounted is against the law). The angled rigid arm is the best of the windshield mounts. The alternatives – ball-in-socket or gooseneck – may end up jiggling and bobbing.

Charge it
Most portable GPS systems include a rechargeable battery with a varying amount of life – some up to four hours. All can be plugged into your vehicle's 12-volt socket. The rechargeable systems are more versatile, especially if they include an AC power adapter.

Map data early
These GPS devices include limited map databases. If you want to expand a specific database, you have to download additional maps via the Internet, a process incompatible with spontaneity. But if you buy a GPS today, it should include maps of the United States already installed.

Voice directions
If you're looking for a solid system that fits a not-so-solid budget, the GPS ability to actually navigate is what you need to concentrate on. Look into text-to-speech capability, especially one that tells you the actual street to turn on, rather than an innocuous "turn left." The discomfort of an electronic voice giving you directions can be overcome when you realize you can keep your eyes on the road instead of squinting into that 3.5-inch screen.

Bluetooth
For those who need to use cellphones while driving, Bluetooth compatibility is a necessity (especially since handheld cellphone use is becoming illegal). Drivers can make and receive hands-free calls through the unit's speaker and microphone, and view their telephone book and access caller ID on the screen. Your GPS can locate a restaurant at your destination, then the Bluetooth system can call for reservations. This certainly beats looking at a topographic map and stopping to call from a phone booth – if you can find one.

Entertainment at hand
If your budget includes some extras, or your driving habits require them, your car GPS can turn into a tiny entertainment system. Some of the more practical features include real-time traffic reports available to subscribers through cellphone networks, FM signal or satellite radio. This service isn't universally available – currently only in major cities – but that's where you'd need them. An additional receiver may be necessary, so ask questions and read the car GPS' manual to fully understand what additional features are compatible.

Another option to consider is a "detour" button that gives you alternate routes around traffic jams or road problems.

You can go whole hog and get a GPS device that can store and play preloaded audio files, show videos or display photos – all downloaded into the hard drive or on an SD card. And, someday soon, we'll probably even find a unit that will actually floss your teeth, or just remind you to do it yourself – all without getting lost.