Things to look for when buying a GPS

I get a lot of questions from friends and acquaintances about GPS devices, I guess since they are just small handheld computers. I think I bought my first GPS in 2007 or so, and after using one for about four years, I can certainly relate to the things I like and dislike about particular models.

I will say that if the price is right, it’s nice to buy one. I’d rather have an imperfect GPS than none at all. I know my neighborhood better than my GPS does, and maybe better than any GPS does. But when I get into areas I don’t know, it’s nice to let the GPS navigate me around and keep me from getting lost. The GPS may not pick the very fastest route to get me there, but when I found myself landing in Washington D.C. at 4 AM back in July (I’d been scheduled to arrive at 3 PM), you’d better believe I was glad to be able to rely on the GPS to get me to the hotel.

And this just happens to be a good time of year to buy one.
I’m not going to recommend one particular brand over another, because there’s really no way any brand is going to consistently give you better results. Mapping and route planning are tricky problems for software to solve, and since a lot of that stuff is patented, that makes it even tougher. You either license your competitors’ patents and take a price disadvantage, or do things differently and deliver slightly different results.

But here’s what you should look for.


Not all units will have this feature, but if you find yourself fighting traffic often, you’ll want it. My GPS doesn’t have it. My next one probably will, since I drive a lot in St. Louis, which has frequent traffic problems, and travel regularly to Baltimore, whose traffic problems seem to make St. Louis seem tame.

Free map updates

The maps on my GPS are, shall I say, dated. A map update will cost $70, and that update was released in early 2010. I’m not sure I want to pay $70 for something nearly two years old. Now, availability of free map updates doesn’t guarantee they’ll keep making new maps available for the rest of your life, but I could have easily spent $140 keeping my GPS up to date. So, given two comparable units, one with free map updates and one without, I’d gladly pay extra for the free map updates. Especially if the price difference is $20 or $30.

Screen size

You can get a 3.5-inch GPS really cheaply these days. I wouldn’t, though. I have a 4.3-inch GPS and the screen isn’t bad. Would I buy a 5-incher next time? I’d think about it.

Why even buy a GPS when you can use your phone?

Some people say not to even buy a GPS these days, and to use your phone instead. Well, if you have a car charger and an unlimited data plan, have at it. But GPS functions pull down tons of data and drain the battery like nobody’s business. When I can get a good GPS for $100 on sale, I’d rather have that GPS. Then I don’t have to carry an unlimited data plan. About three months of not carrying an unlimited data plan pays for the GPS.

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