GPS Buying Guide | What to know before shopping for a personal navigation system.

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High-tech companies have a way of cramming more user-friendly features into smaller and smaller packages. And portable GPS (Global Positioning System) units are a prime example of this trend. A popular alternative to in-dash systems, the latest GPS devices not only aid travelers, they travel well themselves.

Some of the earliest handheld models were designed for lost backcountry travelers who compared the readings on the unit to a topographic map to determine where they were in relation to the rest of civilization. Not exactly a system that could be used to hike out of an urban traffic jam.

Once navigation systems were introduced as optional equipment on high-end autos, the tech wizards went a bit crazy. Today, those built-in systems are programmed to do everything short of flossing your teeth. But, there is hope for the directionally challenged among us who drive more basic vehicles with glove compartments loaded with old, misfolded maps or an outdated Thomas Guide in the trunk.

Portable GPS units are a fraction of the in-dash systems while still incorporating many of the same features and options. If the only thing between you and one of the portable, compact GPS units is figuring out what's out there and what you really need, read on.

Do You Need a GPS?
Drivers come in all shapes and sizes. Some cruise to the grocery store once a week, others head for the hills every chance they get. Some bring tuna sandwiches and bottled water to tide them over 'til they get home; others consider exploring new places to eat an integral part of exploring new places to see. Obviously, the former may not need a GPS, whereas the latter may find it indispensable. Others, like contractors and salespeople on the road much of the day to meet with new, potential clients may need a GPS to help them find unfamiliar addresses with ease. Maybe you're on a road trip. It's much easier to enjoy the sites—and get to them—without having to read the fine print of paper map. Whatever your reasons, wherever you travel, here is some advice on what to look for when shopping for a personal GPS unit:

Portability is Key
First, the portable units come in a range of sizes. The critical factor is really the screen size and programming keypads that accommodate an adult finger. The larger models measure about seven inches (measured diagonally), but at that size and weight, their portability is compromised.

The beauty of a portable unit is obvious. You can move them from one car to another, take them along on bike rides, or on long walks through new towns. They pack in a suitcase for use in a rental car. You can program your destination and parameters into the portable at your leisure rather than only while in the car. "Consumer Reports" advises a screen size of 3.5-inches—that's big enough to see, along with a keypad big enough to use, and still be highly portable.

In-Car Mounting
Next, mounting. Unless you can guarantee you'll never have to come to a quick stop or swerve sharply to avoid an accident, forget the beanbag-mounted GPS that sits on top of your dash. A much more stable system is one that sticks to the windshield with a suction cup (unless you live in California or Minnesota where windshield-mounted anythings are against the law). The angled rigid arm is the best of the windshield mounts. The alternatives—ball-in-socket or gooseneck—may end up jiggling and bobbing.

Charge It
Most portable GPS systems include a rechargeable battery with a varying amount of life—some up to four hours. All can be plugged into your vehicle's 12-volt socket. The rechargeable systems are more versatile, especially if they include an AC power adapter.

Map Data
Early GPS units included limited map databases. If you wanted to expand that database, you had to download additional maps over the Internet, a process incompatible with spontaneity. Today's GPSs should include maps of the United States already installed.

Voice Directions
If you're looking for a solid system that fits a not-so-solid budget, the GPS ability to actually navigate is what you need to concentrate on. Look into text-to-speech capability, especially one that tells you the actual street to turn on, rather than an innocuous "turn left." The techn0-freak factor of an electronic voice giving you directions can be overcome when you realize you can keep your eyes on the road instead of squinting into that 3.5-inch screen.

For those who need to use cell phones while driving, Bluetooth compatibility is a necessity (especially since handheld cell phone use is becoming illegal). The driver can make and receive hands-free calls through the unit's speaker and microphone, and view their telephone book and access caller ID on the screen. Your GPS can locate a restaurant at your destination, then the Bluetooth system can call for reservations. (That sure beats looking at topographic map and stopping to call from a phone booth—if you can find one.)

Entertainment at Hand
If your budget includes some extras or your driving habits require them, your GPS can turn into a tiny, little entertainment system. Some of the more practical features include real-time traffic reports available to subscribers through cell phone networks, FM signal or satellite radio. This service isn't universally available—currently only in major cities—but that's where you'd need them. An additional receiver may be necessary, so ask questions, and read the GPS' manual to fully understand what additional features are compatible. Another option to consider is a "detour" button that gives you alternate routes around traffic jams or road problems.

You can go whole-hog and get a GPS unit that can store and play pre-loaded audio files, show videos or display photos—all downloaded into the hard drive or on an SD card. And, some day soon, we'll probably even find a unit that will, if not actually floss your teeth, remind you to do it yourself—without getting lost.

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