Bleg: Tech Advice

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Since I’m constantly getting lost, and soon moving to a new city, I figure I should get some sort of GPS device. I’d use it almost exclusively in my car. So what should I be looking for? What are the major differences between a $160 device and one that runs more than $300?

Also, I saw an ad the other day for a charging pad like this one. Anyone own one of these? Is it worth the price? Seems like the travel version would be helpful. Wouldn’t need to remember to bring all of those cords.

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55 Responses to “Bleg: Tech Advice”

  1. #1 |  Rhayader | 

    Personally I’d stay with a cheaper, more basic gps unit. Pretty much any of them should do the important stuff adequately. That’s just me though.

  2. #2 |  alas-kan | 

    I have a Garmin 265 which works pretty well. You need a screen that is big enough to see without much effort, 4 or 5 inches at least. The more expensive ones have traffic alerts built in “for major cities”. Anchorage, Alaska did NOT make the list.

    I found voice commands less than useful. Either you have to run the radio on an unused channel or use the built in speaker which is too puny to overcome road noise.

    A SD slot is nice for loading other maps, I took mine to Italy last year and loaded the Italian road maps onto the SD card.

    Big screens means poor battery life, so it will probably just be a car device.

  3. #3 |  Joshua | 

    AFAIK, important differences are:

    1) screen size
    2) what information it’s able to pull off the airwaves — traffic data, weather, etc.
    3) map data updates

    FWIW, since I got the Google/HTC Nexus One cell phone, which has built in GPS and navigation system with audible step-by-step, I’ve really used my Garmin less and less. The phone has speech recognition, so I can say to it “Navigate to 1000 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC” and it will understand — much faster than typing it in on the Garmin. Plus it can pair with Google Maps so I can just look up by business name and get navigation.

    Good luck with your move!

  4. #4 |  Highway | 

    From the reviews I’ve read, a Garmin anything is better than anything else. Find the price point you want, and get that one. Even if it’s got fewer features than other brands, the mapping is better, and that’s the important thing.

    As for the charging pad, I sure wouldn’t have a use for it, doesn’t seem like it does much for you. Replaces 3 other cords with a big mat and cord and more accessories to buy (at 30 to 40 dollars each new device).

  5. #5 |  asg | 

    What the price difference gets you is, as #1 suggested, better map updates. Cheap GPS units will not update from the satellite as frequently; there is nothing more frustrating than being told to turn right .005 seconds before the turn appears, then waiting another 10-15 seconds for the route to recalculate because of the missed turn. High-end ones won’t have this type of delay.

  6. #6 |  Dr. T | 

    Even if you get a GPS, I also recommend buying a good, large scale, spiral bound city atlas. An atlas never breaks down, always can be browsed, and gives you a broader view than a small GPS screen.

  7. #7 |  André | 

    I have a Tomtom and it works fine. Because I drive an old car, the cigarette lighter plug doesn’t work, so I have to charge it at home or plug it into my laptop and then have the laptop run off its battery while charging the nav system. Having a GPS in general can send you on odd, round-about routes, but if you don’t know your way around, it’s truly a godsend. I seldom get the same suggestions from the Tomtom as Google maps (Google’s are better) but then, I own a cheap model.

    My advice is to get a smart phone with a built-in nav system instead of a standalone unit.

  8. #8 |  Mike | 

    I have a Garmin Zumo. They are very expensive, $700+, but well worth it. The unit is rock-solid.

  9. #9 |  Rich | 

    Go to Amazon and log in, then look at GPS units.

    In a matter of a couple of days you will start getting emails about specials on GPS units (assuming that my experience is typical).

    In the last few months, they seemed to have really kicked this up a notch.

    As far as the charging pads are concerned, I wouldn’t bother for just the GPS. Plugging it into the cigarette lighter seems to be all mine ever needs.

  10. #10 |  tim | 

    Stick with a cell phone like iPhone or a phone with Android with GPS capability. Dedicated GPS units go out of date quickly with no upgrade path and most screw you over on maps. I’ve even given up the dedicated GPS on my bike and I use my iPhone.

  11. #11 |  ceanf | 

    my two cents… the magellen GPS devices suck hard. they have clumsy user interfaces and are ugly all around. as for the price differences, the main difference for cost you will see has to do with screen size. but as others have mentioned, the time to calculate routes is also a factor. go with a garmin or tomtom. those two companies seem to have perfected the technology.

    @asg… the units do not update maps from the satellite, as GPS satellites do not transmit any sort of map information. only time, direction, speed and location are sent. however, a more expensive unit will obtain a satellite lock faster than a cheaper one. the longest you will ever wait, regardless, for a full GPS lock is something like 12.5 minutes, though for driving purposes, the units do not need full catalog information (ie satellite locations in the sky) so any unit, regardless of price will never take that long.

  12. #12 |  bob amburgey | 

    i have a garmin but really since I got my i phone i use it its works great.

  13. #13 |  Paul | 

    Garmin nuvi, pick one in your price range, they are all very good.

    I don’t use any of the traffic features or bluetooth or anything, just basic nav. I do take advantage of the POIs.

    I’ve owned a Magellan, and second the opinion that they suck, bigtime.

    You can update the maps, you just have to pay for it.

  14. #14 |  Claudio | 

    I would go with an Android device with GPS for a few reasons.

    1) The maps are always up to date
    2) Turn-by-turn auto re-routing
    3) Voice search powered by people who do search pretty well.

    But my favorite reason:

    4) Any address you search for with Google Maps on a desktop, that address will autocomplete if you search for it on the mobile.

  15. #15 |  SamK | 

    I’ve never wanted a GPS. Got my Droid and I’ve used the GPS more than the phone I think. It’s all I have to offer on the subject really, the combination of internet access and position updates works wonders for me.

  16. #16 |  nwerner | 

    I own a Magellan that I bought about 5 years ago. I generally like it and it works well.

    That said, I would never ever let someone I know buy a Magellan product. That company is run by the most incompetent assholes that I have ever dealt with. In short, I ordered a map update when it was backordered and four months later, it was still backordered with no way to cancel the order online. I put a call in to “Paul” somewhere in India and he assures me that the order is canceled and I have nothing to worry about. Two months later the order I canceled shows up at my door and they tell me that I will have to pay $10 to return it. I disputed the charges and ultimately even my bank gave up dealing with them and refunded my money.

  17. #17 |  Judi | 

    Off the topic…but I think SOMEONE has a BIRTHDAY coming up this Monday!

  18. #18 |  fishbane | 

    I’ll just join the herd – I actually gave my Garmin to a relative. I liked it fine, but I got software for my phone, and found it redundant (I’m a minimalist on these things).

    Android or iPhone, they’re both great. For the iPhone, which is my main phone, I like the Navigon software, but it is a bit pricy, considering where the market is going.

  19. #19 |  Ronald Pottol | 

    Get an andriod phone and just use google maps with turn by turn navigation. Doesn’t work when you don’t have a data connection though (like, you have a turn in 500m, loose your connection, maps stop updating, you miss it, it’s a licencing issue). There are free and pay software without these issues, but are not as nice (andnav2 comes to mind, free, offline capible, but needs work).

  20. #20 |  Chris Miller | 

    I have a Garmin 255W, paid $140 on sale, I HIGHLY recommend it for the price…

    The basic Nav features are easy to use and intuitive. Predictive text entry, big screen. It also has a database of every known business, searchable by name or category. Nearest gas station or hotel? Nearest Starbucks? Shows how far, what direction. Presets are easy to use… “home”, “work”, “favorite bar”, whatever.

    IMO, screen size is very important. The ability for it to pronounce street names is NOT important, because you’ll probably mute the damn thing on longer drives… But it’s nice to watch the map to stay oriented.

    https://buy.garmin.com/shop/shop.do?pID=13431&ra=true

  21. #21 |  Angie | 

    My two cents in the mix here. I have a simple TomTom device and it does exactly what I need it to do – get me from point A to point B. Paying more for extra that you may use a small percentage of time, is it really worth it?

  22. #22 |  ZeroSkill | 

    I’ve been working with a guy you has a Garmin Nuvi. He follows the GPS blindly. I have had to point out several times alternate ways to get to our destinations. The GPS has a noticeable preference for major roads. So more than once it told us to get on the express way in downtown Chicago when we needed to go a few blocks instead of taking the surface streets.

    It seems to me that having an idea of where you are going and what the layout of the streets in the area is important. Also it helps if you are able to determine general directions like North and South.

  23. #23 |  David Chesler | 

    Ditto to Angie. I got a refurbished TomTom for a net of about $40 from someone like NewEgg. It doesn’t have some of the features for other than driving that the Garmin I had 10 years ago did, like waypoints and tracks and altitude and sun/moon ephemeris, but it’s good for the car, and when it gets stolen I’m not out that much. I only wish it had text-to-speech, next one will. I mess up a lot on 4-way street intersections — did it mean the sharper right or the more oblique one 20 yards further?
    It found a few shortcuts I hadn’t figured out in years of driving certain areas. Too bad as a refurb it doesn’t include a subscription to map upgrades, but I don’t expect there to be that many changes over its lifetime.
    I’d like bunches of other gee-whiz features like live traffic, but I can live without them.
    I’ve seen the GPS apps on 3G phones — if I had a 3G phone and plan I’d use that instead of a dedicated GPS.
    I rarely travel outside of areas I already know, but I’ve found it very useful, almost indispensable, for traveling to any address I haven’t been to already, and some I have. If I spent a lot of time in new places it would be even more useful.

  24. #24 |  Warren | 

    Garmins are good.

    One thing, don’t put your home address in there and label it “home”. If you do and someone steals your car when you are out they now know where you live and can drive straight there. The same goes for any address that you don’t want people know.

    My wife had hers set for a gas station just down the street. Even she could find her way from there.

  25. #25 |  Ben | 

    I’m phd student in Geography, worked with a number of professional GPS systems and a few consumer systems. Garmin is a good brand, long history in the industry for making good products at a fair price. I’d shy away from the cellphone GPS…the technology is almost there, but not quite.

  26. #26 |  alas-kan | 

    I’d stay away from the cell phone gps because:
    1) data plans cost a bunch of money
    2) when you don’t have a data connection, you don’t have a gps
    a)That covers most of Alaska
    3) You can’t even look at a map without the data connection being live

  27. #27 |  Jo3sh | 

    I’ve had good luck with my Blackberry’s GPS features.

    As to charging mats, each device you wish to charge this way will require an add-on which is several millimeters thick. This means anything you like to keep in a case, such as an iPod or a cell phone, will likely not fit or won’t fit as well.

    Since most of my devices charge via USB these days, I have a wall wart I got with some device or other which just has a USB port on it – I can then use a standard USB cable of the appropriate type to charge everything. If I happen to be carrying devices with different ports, I just need a different cable.

  28. #28 |  scott | 

    We have two Garmin Nuvis in the family… a 600-series and a 200-series. I love mine, but my wife’s 200-series is a superior unit that cost about a quarter of what mine did. It even displays the speed limit on whichever stretch of road you’re on, which is great for someone like me with a limited attention span :)

  29. #29 |  Gac | 

    I have a TomTom, and it is definitely a love/hate relationship. I have never had any issues with the navigation portion of things, and recent updates to it even show me which lanes I need to be in when coming up on exits. I have the traffic/speed camera add-on, which has saved me hundreds in speeding tickets (I live in Germany, and those cameras are EVERYWHERE over here). It was really great on a 6-country-in-one-day tour we took a friend on – not once did it lose it’s way, even when in the deep valleys of the Swiss/Italian Alps.

    On the hate side, the thing is nearly impossible to enter addresses into on the actual screen – much easier to plug into a computer and do it there. The screen is very sensitive, and the on-screen buttons don’t match up to the touch input (in other words, you press in the middle of the “e” button, and you get a “3″ or “r”). Might be that I just have very fat fingers. Also it sometimes double clicks on things. And not really a hate, but the wife set the instructions to be in German. She said it was to help me learn the language, but I think she is just wanting to train me to instinctively follow instructions given in a female German voice…

    Still, I’m very glad I got it. I’ve used a coworker’s GPS when going on business trips before, and it lacked some of the features I rely on now. For example, my coworker’s unit doesn’t display the speed, where the TomTom tells you how fast you are going and what the speed limit is on that particular road. And I absolutely love it when the speed limit indication completely disappears when on the Autobahns… :)

  30. #30 |  Phelps | 

    I’ve had Garmin and Navigon hardware units; I liked the Navigon better. I’ve since gone to the Navigon software on my iPhone. If you have an iPhone, I would definitely go that way, along with a Belkin windshield mount.

  31. #31 |  Nick | 

    Keep it simple stupid.
    Unless you’re half brain dead, the cheap one will do ya.

  32. #32 |  MacGruber | 

    Bro. Iphone. Google Maps. Garmin is for geezers.

  33. #33 |  Trevor | 

    definately an android phone.

  34. #34 |  MPH | 

    I’ve owned a Garmin (bought in 2006) and currently own 2 Navigons bought in 2008). Navigon is the brand that makes the GPS receivers for Audi, BMW, Mercedes, etc.

    I had no problem seeing the iconography on both brands, so the small screen isn’t something to worry about unless you’ve got bad vision (but the Navigon’s windshield suction cup arm is long, and gets the unit closer to the driver). Additionally, both brands talk to you (indeed, they talk so much my wife and I call them “Gabby”, as in “are you going to grab a Gabby for this trip”). When I bought my Navigons, there were a lot of on-line review complaints that it didn’t “speak” loudly enough to hear, but this is a result of people not reading the owners manual (Navigons have an auto volume increase based on speed, but the setting is OFF from the factory. So if you don’t turn it on, it is too quite to hear at speed. Turn the auto volume increase ON, and it’s fine).

    The Garmin had WAAS capability (Wide Area Augmentation System – which improves position accuracy to 3 meters instead of the normal 10), but required an expensive add on receiver for traffic updates. With the WAAS feature enabled (you could turn it off), it figured out that you had deviated from the planned route very quickly (at which point it replans), but the Navigon figures it out quickly enough (where I noticed the difference was in taking/skipping exits – the Garmin “knew” I’d not gone the planned way as soon as the lane I should have been in had about 10 feet of separation from the lane I was actually in, with the Navigon, it takes about 30 feet of separation).

    The Navigons were actually cheaper than the Garmin’s traffic receiver, and came with a lifetime subscription to the traffic updates. If you’re going to be somewhere with a lot of traffic and that has traffic updates, it’s useful. It isn’t just major cities that have traffic updates, all of central Florida (where I live) has coverage. Navigon also has what they call “reality view”, where an upcomining highway interchange is shown in a forward looking 3D view. This is very handy when you need to know that the interchange is 6 lanes, the right two lanes are an exit, the next lane is the only one that goes where you want to go, and the leftmost 3 lanes go the opposite direction (ie you need to know more than just “keep right” which is all my Garmin would do).

    If you’ve already got an iPhone, look into http://www.navigon.com/site/us/en/mobile_navigator/iphone. You can get a single region (like eastern USA) for $30, which is hard to beat. And it includes traffic updates.

  35. #35 |  pris | 

    what about a universal serial port instead of that pad?

  36. #36 |  pris | 

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Serial_Bus

  37. #37 |  jeff | 

    i have the powermat. I like it. it gets rid of all the wires for my wife and my 2 iphones and ipod. I dont have the travel one just the home version. the only think i dont like is having to buy the extra adapters for all your devices

  38. #38 |  Jeff | 

    Eh, you don’t need a GPS for Nashville. Just remember that 28th Avenue turns into Ed Temple, which turns into Rosa Parks, which turns into 8th Avenue, which turns into Franklin Pike. Or that Broadway turns into West End Avenue which turns into Harding Pike, not to be confused with Harding Place (which turns into Donelson Pike).

    Now just remember that 2nd/4th is Nolensville Pike, 12th is Granny White Pike, and 21st (which at one point was also Broadway) is Hillsboro Pike, and you’re good. As long as you figure out that Stewarts Ferry turns into Bell which turns into Old Hickory, but not the same Old Hickory that’s out by the Hermitage.

    See? Simple as pie.

  39. #39 |  mawado | 

    I gave up my Garmin when I got my Android. No issues with the Garmin, just meant I only had to keep track of one device.

    One think that hasn’t been mentioned, is Google Maps has separate navigation for walking and public transit. I heard they were working on bikes too.

    Luck

  40. #40 |  Gac | 

    Jeff, thank you for the memories – I dated a Vandy girl for a few years, so every weekend was spent in Nashville. Every weekend, we would find some new bar we wanted to go to, spend an hour or two driving around trying to make sense of all the road name changes, and inevitably give up and buy liquor to drink in her dorm…

  41. #41 |  Windypundit | 

    The phones are great for viewing maps and getting directions, but if you actually want to have it tell you where to turn while you are driving, a dedicated GPS is better. The screen is larger, the voice is louder, and it has better electronics for receiving the satellite signals so it has a better grasp of your position. Also, you can use your phone while driving without worrying about missing the next turn.

    Finally, unless you spend all your time in crime-free areas, get one that’s small enough that you can and will put it away every time. ‘Cause if you leave it out, someone will break a window and steal it.

  42. #42 |  Marc | 

    I would get a phone with GPS

  43. #43 |  Michael Chaney | 

    One thing, don’t put your home address in there and label it “home”. If you do and someone steals your car when you are out they now know where you live and can drive straight there.

    Um, that’s what I want them to do. I’ll be waiting…

  44. #44 |  Tony | 

    Just use the gps worked into your blackberry. works well enough & its free.

  45. #45 |  Xenocles | 

    I’m happy with Verizon’s Navigator app on my Blackberry. It’s a $10 or $12 per month subscription, but those are the only costs since I already get the unlimited data plan. Plus it has a yellow pages built in – good for finding things in strange cities. It’s not perfect, but it suits me the best in most cases.

  46. #46 |  Radley Balko | 

    it gets rid of all the wires for my wife and my 2 iphones and ipod.

    You need to recharge your wife?

    I’ll be here all week, folks.

  47. #47 |  B | 

    I can’t speak to any dedicated GPS devices, because I never had one, but I got a Droid last month (which has GPS build it) and wonder how I ever got along without it. I also recently moved to a new city, so it has been terribly useful (and with Google maps, directions in terms of public transit are an option as well–probably not a feature you will use in Nashville, but you may when you travel.)

    If you plan to use it in your car a lot, definitely get a car charger. It burns through battery really fast.

  48. #48 |  db | 

    I have a garmin nuvi model with the traffic updates and the ability to pronounce street names. I would say don’t pay extra for the traffic updates. I have found them useless for predicting when you should alter your route–it sometimes misses major traffic jams and other times reports them when they are not there.

    I do recommend the spoken street names. I find these helpful when you are navigating a big highway interchange or a complicated intersection when a simple “turn left” or “turn right” is inadequate. At these times I’ll often be task saturated with changing lanes etc. and having the gps tell me which street I need saves me from having to look at the unit.

  49. #49 |  tomwright | 

    I have always had good luck with these guys: http://www.hagstrommap.com

  50. #50 |  Brad Warbiany | 

    I’m a fan of having dedicated devices for certain functions, and thus prefer a GPS to using my phone as the function. That’s more a preference than anything else (i.e. if I need to take a call, or if I just don’t want to drain the battery, I might as well use the phone as a phone), especially when I’m not the driver in the vehicle for that trip.

    That said, I’d buy the cheapest major-brand model with the larger (4.3″ wide) screen. The off-brands tend to be horrible about updated maps and points-of-interest, and the higher-cost major-brand models tend to have a bunch of features that you’ll probably never use.

    Oh, but I do agree that you need to ALWAYS take it off the windshield when stopped. I had my GPS, laptop, iPod touch, and a bunch of work stuff stolen in broad daylight at a decent restaurant during lunch in Milwaukee when I was traveling on business. Had a second instance where a coworker had a window broken for a visible GPS (by a dumbass who didn’t realize it was a hard-mounted Hertz NeverLost system and ended up not being able to remove it).

  51. #51 |  tb | 

    I’ll put in another vote for the Garmin Nuvi 255W.

    1. Inexpensive ($140)
    2. Wide screen (4.3″)
    3. Easy to use – predictive text entry, simple favorites
    4. Good directions and an easy-to-read map

    I could care less for the text-to-speech function other than the good laugh I get when hearing some of the pronunciations and I don’t live in a big enough city for traffic updates.

  52. #52 |  goes211 | 

    I have a Garmin Nuvi 265w. Had a 255w but it got stolen out of my wife’s luggage by a bag handler in Memphis. Scum.

    I also have an iPhone, but I really found after using it (before getting the Garmin) that (1) lack of turn-by-turn makes navigating difficult (2) having to hold/operate the phone while driving to an unknown location is not the best idea (3) no data/slow data (anywhere with ATT) means no map/GPS (4) you can’t talk on the phone and use GPS on the phone

    So I bought a Garmin. The wife’s car has a built-in unit (BMW) and I really prefer the cheap Garmin.

    Adding to #38 @Jeff, I always end up lost in Nashville, and I grew up just an hour away and spent a fair amount of time there. Briley Pkwy still confuses me, and every time I go back after a couple of years absence, it seems some major road has changed names. Carmen the Garmin gets me around well enough to survive.

  53. #53 |  fishbane | 

    The phones are great for viewing maps and getting directions, but if you actually want to have it tell you where to turn while you are driving, a dedicated GPS is better. The screen is larger, the voice is louder, and it has better electronics for receiving the satellite signals so it has a better grasp of your position. Also, you can use your phone while driving without worrying about missing the next turn.

    Thus demonstrating why there are so many products in the field. The iPhone is plenty loud, at least for me – I don’t have a db to give, but for instance, I can hear it over road noise and the stereo at non-insane loudness. Another for instance – it works fine as a speakerphone at a table with six people at it.

    Screen-size doesn’t bother me – I rarely look at it, mostly use the voice directions, and when I do, it is plenty-bright and big enough to fine. (I’m at an age where my eyes are starting to get a bit worse, so maybe I’ll change my mind over time.) I don’t have an issue with signal problems – it doesn’t work indoors, of course, but then none of them do, and I suspect this will be a minor issue at best for driving…

    One thing I will say is that for Google Maps, I’ve gotten some hilariously weird directions. Less so now, but about 1.5 years ago, right after I got it, I was in Reno, and I still recall it wanting me to take 3-4 mile random out-of-the-way trips in order to do a Uturn and come back, which clearly made no sense. Navigon’s software, I’ve notices, is sometimes a little suboptimal – there are a variety of settings one can screw around with, and I suspect the proper tuning of those varies by the particular trip you’re making. Problem being, you don’t know that ahead of time. But in general, it is fine.

    As far as talking on the phone – Libertarian relevence alert! that’s becoming a ticket more and more, so I see that as marginal. But that may be a selection bias on my part, as I mainly drive in/around major cities where that’s the law.

    Finally, unless you spend all your time in crime-free areas, get one that’s small enough that you can and will put it away every time. ‘Cause if you leave it out, someone will break a window and steal it.

    This seems to cut against the larger screen issue, above, and your phone is likely going with you, anyway, so there’s nothing to forget.

    But my general bias is towards having fewer things, so I like all-in-one devices, when they work well. (A phone won’t be replacing my 5D anytime soon.) So take that into account.

  54. #54 |  Laughingdog | 

    I’ve had a Garmin Zumo 550 (from when I had a motorcycle) and currently use a Garmin Nuvi 255w. For the person that suggested a Zumo, that’s incredibly expensive overkill if you aren’t using it on a motorcycle. No car driver needs something that’s waterproof and vibration resistant.

    GPS for the iPhone isn’t inherently bad. But most of the apps can leave you hanging. The important thing with any smartphone GPS, if you’re going to depend on it, is to get an app that will store the map on your phone instead of streaming as you go.

    I have a friend with a Tom Tom. From his experiences, it definitely sounds like the Tom Tom is capable of being a better GPS than the Garmin, but it requires more work on the users end to keep it updated for that.

    As for traffic/weather updates, those are pretty overrated. Most areas don’t even provide traffic updates, and weather changes are more relevant on a motorcycle than in a car. Just focus on something with a widescreen and you’re in pretty good shape.

  55. #55 |  David | 

    I meant to reply to this earlier but forgot. I highly recommend the Garmin Nuvi 265wt that I have. It has a good-sized screen and can pick up traffic data in many major cities for free. The only major problem I’ve found are that it can lose the signal in the middle of a city with very tall buildings. I think that happens with all units, though. Also, it has an annoying nag screen about not trying to input stuff into it while moving that pops up every time you turn it on.

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