Help-Key: How To Shop for a GPS Unit


If you love your GPS unit, you’ve got former president Ronald Reagan and some trigger happy Commies to thank for it. In 1983, a civilian airliner from the USA on its way to South Korea flew into Soviet airspace on accident. The USSR, in response, blew it out of the sky, killing hundreds. There was international outcry, of course, and calls were made to make sure it never happened again.

To do that, it had to be known why the liner was over Russian airspace. Turns out the autopilot was drifting off course slightly, and the pilots didn’t really notice. The autopilots used at the time utilize a compass and radar to know where it’s at and where it’s going. If one of these two things is off, then the plane’s off course.

In the aftermath, it was determined that there had to be a better solution, and there was one forthcoming. The US military had started work on a network of space satellites called NAVSTAR GPS that would allow American troops to know precisely where they are at any given moment.

To avoid another disaster, (or “massacre”,) Reagan announced that the GPS satellites would be made available for civilian use. But using GPS as a locator instead of compass headings and ancient navigational math, the probability of another incident like this would be much lower.

But now that it’s been years since The Gipper has granted us GPS access, it’s still a technology most of us don’t use. That being said, more newer cars are featuring integrated GPS, but what if yours doesn’t? Or what if you want to take it with you?

We’re going to look at the state of GPS and help you find the unit that’s right for you.

There are three basic classes of GPS on the market. The least expensive are lacking in sweet, detailed maps, but instead give you a general overhead view of your surroundings. In addition, you’ll get the coordinates and altitude, which you can use with a service like Google Maps to get your directions.

Some middle of the road GPS receivers have basic maps that show you, well, the basics. These maps aren’t “live”, and because they’re generally loaded via internal memory, the details are scarce. And forget dining suggestions and side roads.

Most newer systems feature either easy-to-update or live maps, and give not just the level of detail that can amaze even us geeks, but also directions with alternatives and suggestions. Most users are going to want a unit in this later category, as the price difference between the classes isn’t very significant.

So now that we know you’ll want a full-bore system, what else should you look for? Anyone who considers themselves part of the GPS community (it exists, trust us) will point out that the first thing to look for is a large display. Having detailed maps isn’t any good if you can’t see the details.

You’ll also want to read reviews, as many rate the receiver, which is at the heart of the unit. The better the receiver, the more places it’ll work. GPS uses radio to fix your location, much like cellphones. If you’ve got crappy reception, you’re going to get crappy data. This is a bad thing.

Those points being made, there are many units that run from $175 to well over $1500, so what are the differences? Well, let’s look at what you’ll do with it. If you’re a boater or pilot, think high-end. There are models made specifically for your industry, but that’s slightly out of the scope of this article, and there are others out there for you.

gps60.jpgAs a consumer, think about where you’re using it. If you hike, you’ll want a long battery life and ruggedized case, natch. If you’re using it for driving, you’ll want something with a larger screen that you can dash-mount.

Then look at the interface. Most electronics stores have units as demos, so go through each one and figure out which has the swank that fits you best. Things like gas stations and adult book stores should be able to be found with just a few clicks.

While checking that out, note the POI (Points Of Interest) that the database shows you. The more POIs, the more complete the database, and the more useful in the field.

Some units have voices. These are handy if you like to keep your eyes on the road, as they can give you audible turn-by-turn directions. Very handy, but a little more costly.

The directions are only as good as where you’re going, so check the features for partnerships with organizations like the AAA or Zagat’s, which have ratings to go along with where you’re going.

You’ll want one featuring traffic navigation. Trust me. By dialing into your local DOT’s traffic advisory broadcast, you can avoid all kinds of nasty traffic while the suckers sit still.

Many newer models feature Bluetooth. At first, you’re wondering what you could possibly want it for. Many Bluetooth cellphones have wireless dialing features. Pair the GPS receiver to your phone, and you can dial that restaurant you found by touching it on your screen. If you’re driving, it’s very handy indeed, and often overlooked. Make sure your phone has this feature, though, as many CDMA (Verizon, Sprint) phones do not.

But let’s say you’re the outdoors type. You’re not going to need a lot of these features, and the cheapest models are pretty stripped down. But one thing you’ll want to make sure you’ve got is a compass. It sounds like a no-brainer, but many base units don’t include compasses.

In the end, they’re by far some of the coolest devices on the market, and a big market it is. It’s expanded rapidly in the last three years to generate hundreds of devices, each different from each other. So do your homework, and feel free to reference this guide, it’s why it’s here.

oceanmaps.jpgAnd check your cellphone. Many on the market today include cellular GPS. Cellular GPS, also known as A-GPS, uses a combination of GPS signals from the satellites and cell towers to triangulate your location. That information is paired with data from the towers to give you driving directions or maps.

Some phones use tower-only GPS, which is cheaper but slightly less precise. It’s good enough, though, for most civilian uses.

By combining these signals with the EV-DO capabilities of newer phones, you get real time data on your handset. An example we like to use here is the popular Ocean by Helio, which smartly combines the GPS data with live Google Maps. Verizon’s Navigator service offers voice directions on compatible phones, as well, and is gaining in popularity, though they charge $3 a month to use it. But when you consider the average full-featured device runs $433, it’s really a bargain.