GPS Products That Won't Lead You Into the Poorhouse

GPS Vs. Smartphone GPS Cost ComparisonGPS products have changed the way men don't ask for directions. But the method for accessing location remains confusing: Should you buy an installed system, a portable device, or just use a Global Positioning System-enabled app on a smartphone? There is one clear route to savings.Maybe I'm a typical male. I'm the kind of guy who wants to know where he's going before he leaves, so I don't rely too much on that lady in the typical GPS unit. How could a computer know better than me? In fact, I get a little thrill when I intentionally explore of course and she, with nearly audible exasperation, tells me she's "recalculating." (TomTom's device has the ability to replace that lady with the voice of Darth Vader, who informs you "Turn around when possible! I find your lack of faith disturbing.")

But it has its place, particularly when I'm traveling in an unfamiliar city, or busy in conversation with a passenger and not focused on the street signs.

First, we can knock out the dashboard GPS systems from savings contention. They cost $1,500 to $2,000 per installation and although their hard disk space can be up to 30 GB, they don't generally deliver 10 times the functionality of a simpler, $100 portable unit.

Popular Mechanics recently outlined a few other advantages that portable units have over built-in systems, including the ability to program them before you leave your house, the flexibility of allowing a passenger to re-program them during a drive, cheaper and simpler updating and the ability to take the unit wherever you go.

While it's true that portable devices have smaller screens and necessitate cables dangling in your car, this is the Savings Experiment, and in terms of cost, portable devices trump installed system hands-down.

Smartphones Vs. Portable GPS Units

Portable GPS units start at around $100, with most budget units priced in the middle $100s. More robust units, such as the Garmin Nuvi 3790T, can price well into the $400s. Knowing that, can you get similar guidance for even less money using the smartphone you might already own?

Nowadays, most smartphones come with GPS capabilities, so the ultimate solution could simply be a matter of finding the cost-effective software that works best for you. Many GPS services for cell phones require subscriptions of $3 a day to $10 a month. While current iPhone models have free GPS, its free GPS mapping software doesn't speak. That makes it more dangerous to use, since you have to keep taking your eyes off the road to track your progress.

There are two big potential drawbacks to cell phone GPS, though. One is if your service provider charges you for data. American iPhone users generally get unlimited data as part of their contracts, but not every cell phone user gets data for free. A second problem arises when you drive out of a coverage area, such as in rural districts. For this reason, smartphones work best when they're used in the city or suburbs, not for road trips to remote destinations.

Of the many apps appearing on the market, these are among the most prevalent. They will also speak your directions as you drive.

1. Navigon MobileNavigators for iPhone. This feels and works like a traditional GPS device, but the most alluring feature is the fact the information "lives" on your phone, so if the cell phone service conks out, you won't be stranded. Plus, that offline capability comes with a price tag that appoaches lower-end, hand-help GPS units: $90. It also gobbles lots of space on your phone, so you might as well pay another $10 to get a hand-held unit, and keep that space free.

2. ALK CoPilot Live for iPhone. At $35, it also contains the information you need without requiring a cell signal, but the trade-off is it can't find some addresses, and again, it chews up lots of space.

3. MotionX GPS Drive. This one costs just $2.99, but if you want to turn on the voice guidance, you'll cough up another $2,99 a month or $24.99 a year. Our testers detected occasional lag time between turn prompts and recalculation, and it's weak on traffic detection.

4. Google Maps Navigation for Android. The most popular GPS app for users of Android 1.6 and above, because it ties in with Google Maps, it can also enable Street View and Satellite View. It can also show you live traffic. It requires a data connection, so you can lose your way if you venture out of a serviced area, and it only lets you plot one destination at a time. But hey, it's free, and its level of functionality will suffice for the majority of users.

5. CoPilot for Android. It stores maps on the phone's SD card (you'll need at least 2GB of space), and provides live updates of traffic, weather and fuel prices. Its interface is a lot like the popular Garmin device. It costs $30, though, although there's no subscription required.

6. TeleNav for BlackBerry. The typical BlackBerry screen's quite small, so it's not usually well suited to easy visualization, but this app does the job that a GPS unit should, with audible directions and a way to track down food and gas. It's $10 a month.

7. Spot for BlackBerry. This GPS mapping software costs $49. Its features can be intense, but it's one of the better mapping systems for the BlackBerry.

There are a few extra costs required to operate your cell phone as a safe, hands-free GPS unit. A standard car mount can cost around $20 on, and car power adapters run about $25 at Staples.

Many devices can connect their standard power cables into special USB-slotted plugs for the cigarette lighter for about $15. Portable GPS units, on the other hand, tend to come with their own cords. Auxiliary cables, which connect the sound output on your phone to the "AUX" input on your car radio and make directions much more audible, cost about $8 at Radio Shack. Griffin makes a unit for the iPhone that's a mount, cigarette lighter plug and auxiliary cable in one, and although that retails for about $50, it can be found online for less.

Even with the $50-plus in accessories, you're still paying less than you would if you bought a $100 portable device, provided your cell phone service provider doesn't rake you over the coals for using data.
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