If you are in the market for an automatic GPS device, there are many important factors to consider. Built-in GPS devices are practical, but portable GPS devices are more useful for those whose car was not equipped with a built-in GPS.

There are also dozens of different features to consider and a huge price gap, between the cheapest and most expensive GPS devices.

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Here are some of the most important factors that may influence your decision:

Budget GPS

If money isn't an issue, it's a good idea to establish a general price range first. If you're looking to spend less than a hundred dollars, you'll probably have to settle for a small screen and save a little on features. You can also look for a bargain on an older model, but make sure you don't end up with outdated maps that are expensive or impossible to update.

Your budget will also affect your decision to go with an integrated unit or a standalone unit. Head units with built-in GPS navigation are usually quite expensive, so stay away from them unless your existing head unit is begging for an update. That being said, there are several main units with built-in GPS navigation that have some pretty impressive features.

Integrated GPS navigation

Many OEM infotainment systems come with integrated GPS navigation, but it's also an option on some high-end aftermarket endstations. These GPS navigation devices are usually quite expensive, but they are also quite sophisticated.

If you're opposed to sticking the unit to your dashboard or windshield, but you're not quite ready to buy a new car, then upgrading your radio to a main navigation unit may be a good option.

Standalone Auto-GPS units

These GPS devices are usually the cheaper option, but that doesn't mean they're all cheap. Individual devices range from budget models under £500 to feature-rich devices that typically cost over £1500.

Apart from price, the main advantage of standalone GPS devices is portability. Since they are not built into the dashboard of a single vehicle, you have the option of using one device in multiple vehicles. This is even easier if you take an extra bracket and power supply with you.

Basic Features of GPS Navigation

There are several features that you should look for regardless of your budget and other considerations.

Some of the most important ones include:

  • Screen size and resolution - Larger screens are easier to see at a glance, which is important because you don't have to look too far from the road. Resolution is also important because low resolution images can be difficult to read from a distance.
  • Receiver type - This is not an exciting feature, but the overall quality of a GPS device depends largely on how well its receiver performs. If your GPS device has poor sensitivity, it will not accurately display your vehicle's position on the road.
  • Audible Instructions - Spoken instructions or text instructions are extremely important for safety reasons. Most GPS devices offer this, but some are difficult to understand. You want to understand your GPS device from a safety standpoint.
  • Automatic rout ing - Automatic routing is a feature that automatically recalculates your route if you get off track. This is extremely important because reality includes things like accidents and structures that you may need to avoid.

Screen size and resolution are usually very closely related to price. Budget models tend to have smaller screens with lower resolution, while you can pay much more for devices with large, detailed touchscreens.

If you're not familiar with GPS screen sizes, you should personally check some of them out before you buy. To determine if the screen is large enough, you can step back a few feet and try looking at it. If you have trouble seeing the display, you may want to switch to a larger screen.

When it comes to receivers, some are more sensitive than others. GPS devices with low sensitivity receivers fall into the budget category, but not every budget model has a weak receiver. If you want to make sure that your GPS device actually knows which road you're on, look for a device that has a very sensitive receiver.

And while most GPS devices include audible directions in the car, they're not all the same. Some devices have text-to-speech technology that allows them to read actual street names, which can be useful when driving in an unfamiliar area.

Other devices are nearly unintelligible, so consider the quality of the audible directions when purchasing a GPS device for your car.

Other less important features that you may find useful include:

  • Traffic - Some GPS devices and apps can display traffic data that can help you get to your destination without getting stuck in traffic.
  • Lane Assist - This feature displays a type of information graphic every time you approach an exit or intersection on the highway. This is extremely useful if you are driving in an unfamiliar area, as you can avoid dangerously late lane changes.
  • Voice command - Some GPS devices and apps allow you to set your route and make changes using voice commands. This is useful if you don't have a co-pilot and need to make changes to your route while in flight.
  • 3D Map View - This feature allows you to view a 3D map of an area, which can help you find your way around an unfamiliar area.
  • Points of Interest - This is useful for road trips and when driving in unfamiliar areas as it can help you find gas stations, motels, restaurants, rest stops, parks and other local shops and attractions.

There are also several other features that you can find such as:

  • Built-in MP3 player - Plays your digital music files through the built-in speaker or through a wired or wireless connection to the car radio.
  • Digital Photo Viewer - Usually allows you to view photos, and sometimes videos, when you put them in your cart.
  • Hands-free - Usually connects to your phone and sometimes to your car audio system for hands-free calling.

These features can be useful in limited circumstances, but they are mostly useless. Instead of looking for a Swiss Army knife that can do a lot of unrelated things, it's a much better idea to focus on a device that does one thing really well.

Map availability

Before buying a car GPS device, you should also check for the availability and timeliness of map updates.

This is especially important if you are buying an inexpensive device that is a little long in the tooth. While you can find some amazing deals by buying old stock and factory refurbished car GPS units, it's important to make sure you're not stuck with old map data.

If map updates are expensive - or the company no longer releases updates - it may be advisable to pick up a passport.

Alternatives

Due to the proliferation of devices like smartphones, you can count the days of a dedicated auto GPS device.

In the past, these devices were the only game in town, but now you have many other options such as:

  • Smartphone - If you have a modern smartphone, there is a good chance that you can use it as a portable GPS device. This has advantages and disadvantages, but both Android and Apple offer in-car options that make it easier to use your phone for GPS navigation.
  • Tablet - Tablets are better GPS devices because they have larger screens than phones, but not all tablets have GPS functionality built in. If your tablet does not have GPS, you may be able to purchase a dongle that adds a GPS receiver.
  • Car Computer - If you are building your own car computer, adding GPS functionality is fairly trivial compared to the total amount of work required for this type of project.
  • GPS-enabledphone - Some low-cost GPS-enabled phones have GPS functionality, but it is usually much more limited than smartphones.

If you already own one of these devices, you should check out the navigation options before spending money on a new GPS device for your car. Most smartphones have GPS navigation built in, and some cheap GPS-enabled phones even offer some functionality.

Tablets and a car computer may be an even better replacement for a standalone Auto-GPS device. And while your multimedia non-Smartphone may not be a good choice for heavy use, it can serve the purpose in an emergency.