While a smartphone can be a reliable option for directions, sometimes drivers are better off relying on a system specifically designed for navigation. And no, we arenot talking aboutthe built-in systems on new cars. The best car GPS units allow drivers to see the route ahead and receive accurate directions, even in remote locations with limited cell phone reception.
Car GPSs are an extremely versatile product and often come loaded with a number of special features including large screens, Bluetooth hands-free options, voice prompts,off-road mapping capabilities, an internal compass and more. Whether you're looking for reliability, durability, versatility, great value, or an easy-to-use option, we've taken a look at the best car GPS systems available on the market today. Read on to see which GPS is best for your next road trip.
Garmin DriveCam 76
Starting with a 7-inch screen and lifetime map updates, it also offers voice activation, driver alerts, smart notifications and Bluetooth functionality. On top of that, it also has a dash cam, collision warnings and can be used with a backup camera.
- The display is clear, bright and easy to read.
- Dash cam with forward collision and lane departure warnings.
- Directions are easy to follow and programming via touch screen or voice is easy.
- It may take a while to download updates, and to use traffic alerts, you need to download an app.
- It offers much more than navigation and priced accordingly.
Garmin DriveSmart 86
Large 8" touchscreen works in either direction, free lifetime updates and real-time services such as live traffic, construction and weather. It has Bluetooth calling, WiFi updates and voice-activated navigation.
- The ability to use in portrait mode may be more intuitive for iPhone generation
- Great navigation functionality, but also adds Bluetooth and voice control for older vehicles.
- National parks and databases with points of interest are preloaded
- To get traffic updates, you need to pair it with your phone.
- Phone navigation apps are constantly updated, these are certainly not that often
Rand McNally TND550 V2
Focused navigation system intended for professional use, so it may be what serious road trippers are after. Logs hours and fuel economy and calculates most efficient routes.
- A SatNav focused on getting you to your destination efficiently
- Lifetime map updates mean your lifetime, not some fly-by-night company
- The driving log is useful for business travelers for tax purposes
- Some owners report that upgrading to a better USB charger is a necessity
- You'll have to come up with a cool trucker handle to use instead of your first name
As it is typical forDrevetsGuides, I started with my own experience using GPS navigation systems, including in-dash systems, smartphone-based and stand-alone, as you see here. Admittedly, I haven't paid this much attention to devices like this in a long time. Like most people, my smartphone has become my go-to for everything, including navigation, but a road trip last summer taught me a lesson about google maps and being out of cell service.
I dove back in, reading user reviews on forums and brushing up on hands-on reviews both written and video. It turns out that most of the big players have given up stand-alone. The market is now populated by Garmin, the dominant brand for consumers, Rand McNally is focused on professional drivers, and countless companies selling the same electronic devices with different plastic cases, or sometimes the same case just a different logo. While some of the prices make these GPS's very attractive, almost disposable, the idea of it shutting down in the middle of nowhere seems to miss the point of having it. So my focus is on the best systems offered by reputable players.
Reviews and recommendations
Benchmark in consumer navigation with integration of weather, traffic, points of interest, all preloaded
Includes a dash cam with forward collision and lane departure warnings
Maps and associated information are updated over Wifi
This is an advanced system that offers much more than navigation, and that is reflected in the price
Updates are not necessarily fast, but can be done overnight with the car in the garage
It's not often that the most expensive product in one of our guides gets the nod for Best Overall. DriveCam 76 offers so much functionality that I just couldn't pass it up. If you want a dedicated navigation system, it's probably because you spend a lot of time on the road and your car is either an older model or a base model that doesn't have the latest infotainment amenities. This device not only gives you top-of-the-line navigation, but adds things like Bluetooth connectivity for communication and entertainment.
The navigation comes with maps, points of interest and other non-real-time information pre-loaded, so it all works without the need for a mobile connection. Connecting via your mobile phone, it adds live traffic, weather, petrol prices and even traffic cameras. The user interface is easy to use and allows voice control.
What really sets this device apart is the addition of a dash cam. Not only will it record while you're driving if you need a detailed account of a traffic incident, but it also gives you forward collision and lane departure warning. There is also a version of this navigation system available that allows you to bundle a backup camera with it. Or, if you decide, you can add the backup camera later. This is not necessarily a cheap piece of electronics, but the value is definitely there.
Provides all the information and research functionality you expect from a smartphone, but in a package designed to be used while driving
Switching between horizontal or vertical orientation allows for better fit in a variety of cars
Bluetooth connectivity adds calling and texting capabilities to older cars
Full functionality requires association with an app you must install on your phone
You don't want to leave that big 8-inch screen in your car when it's parked in public
If all the extra camera functionality in DriveCam isn't for you, Garmin still has you covered. The DriveSmart I've chosen here is quite a bit cheaper than our overall picks, but has an even bigger screen with the bonus feature of working in either landscape or portrait orientation. The screen is eight inches, diagonally, with 1280x800 resolution. That's a little bit better than half the resolution of a comparably sized iPad, but you're not going to seeStar Trek: Strange New Worldson this screen.
The DriveSmart range comes in 5-, 6-, 7- and 8-inch versions with a significant price drop with each size drop. They will all provide you with a history database of things to see along your route, a national park directory, use of TripAdvisor, points of interest for food, shopping, services and live fuel prices. Other live data includes traffic, construction, closures and even traffic cameras.
The system includes North American maps preloaded along with updates that can be downloaded via Wifi connection. Although the DriveSmart systems do not include a dash cam, they can be used with a backup camera, which is available separately. As mentioned earlier, there isn't much choice in the navigation market these days, but Garmin isn't using that as an excuse. These systems are still reliable, easy to use and constantly updated.
Features like a navigation system made by a legendary map company should, no nonsense
The additional tools for logging mileage, fuel consumption and even maintenance schedules are a great tool for business travelers
Lifetime map updates from a company that has been making maps for 150 years
Being a focused tool means it is not intended for the average consumer
Some routes and points of interest will be aimed at professionals rather than road drivers
Those of us who have been driving since before the advent of GPS know the name Rand McNally from the old school form of navigation, a paper map. Rand McNally makes a variety of systems for professional drivers and even systems for fleet management. For its customers, time really is money, so everything related to navigating efficiently is a priority. With that in mind, you can probably guess that this Rand McNally GPS system is a little more focused than your average consumer device.
Whether you're pre-planning a route or figuring it out on the fly, you'll still find a user-friendly interface that allows for quick programming. You'll also get points of interest to help you find food and services along the route, but unlike the consumer-focused Garmin, you won't get national parks or historical landmarks. What you get are software tools that help you track mileage and fuel consumption to help with cost-effective trips. The TND550 also lets you keep track of maintenance based on mileage and time.
This model is only a 5-inch screen. Rand McNally offers larger versions, but the price is significantly higher than a comparably sized Garmin. But users don't choose this because of a beautiful screen, it's about utility. You still get Bluetooth connectivity with your smartphone and you still get weather data. The kind of person who will enjoy this device is the kind of person who has an iPhone with only one screen full of apps.
The best overall price goes toGarmin DriveCam 76simply because it does so much while still offering a great GPS navigation system. If you're a fan of paper maps or are the type of person who enjoys tracking things like average speed, fuel economy and the science of travel, please consider our honorable mention,Rand McNally TND550. I feel that both of these devices have their ideal customers, although the TND550 is far fewer among the non-professionals out there.
Features to consider
One of the main reasons to buy a GPS device is that it has preloaded maps so you can use the device without cell service. Many will also allow you to download maps for other countries, such as Canada and Mexico. Some even have microSD card slots where you can add even more cards. Yes, you can preload maps on your smartphone, but how many of us do that?
Voice activation is an important feature because it's much faster and safer to tell a GPS device where to go instead of manually entering your destination. It may take several minutes to enter an address before leaving the driveway. With the best voice-activated GPS, you can dictate a location while driving.
The best voice-activated GPS will audibly tell you which lane to be in when turning or exiting a highway. It will also provide an on-screen image of the action you are about to perform, so you have enough warning to change into the correct lane.
Frequently asked questions
You have questions.The drivehave answers.
Do GPS units come in languages other than English?
Many GPS units have multiple language options, allowing users to switch from, for example, English to German, Chinese, Spanish or Arabic. You can also download maps for other countries, but there may be a fee.
Can you use a GPS device as an odometer and speedometer?
Most modern GPS systems will not only give you your current speed, many will also give you the speed limit for the road you are on. Systems like the Rand McNally above will help you keep track of your mileage and even have tools to calculate fuel economy.
Can a GPS device map a 2,800-mile route from New York City to Los Angeles?
Many units should be able to handle such a long trip. However, it will depend on your route settings and any stops you program into it. If the device cannot calculate the entire route, you should divide it into smaller segments.
When should I update my GPS device?
Most GPS units should be ready to use right out of the box. However, even if they are relatively current, there will likely be updates available.
Does the GPS unit drain the car battery when the car is off?
It depends on your vehicle. Some accessory ports remain on when the vehicle ignition is turned off. A GPS device can drain your battery a bit if you keep the device plugged in and not using your vehicle.