GPS Buying Guide: How To Choose a GPS Device


In the market for a GPS unit? They can be expensive so you want to make sure you buy one that’s best for your needs.

Looking to buy a GPS system but not sure how to choose a GPS device? First, you should narrow down the type of GPS system you are looking to buy. What is the unit’s intended purpose: car navigation, hiking, fishing, biking, etc.? Then, do your research. The features you will need will vary greatly by the purpose. Use this GPS guide to help you choose the one that’s right for you.

GPS system buyer’s guide

Car GPS system

Portable GPS Navigator

Garmin nuvi 670 Bluetooth Portable GPS Navigator

By far the most common type of GPS navigation devices are car GPS systems. There are portable GPS units, full-featured dash mounted GPS units and in-dash GPS units. In-dash models may come with the car or they may be purchased and mounted by your local electronics store. There are fewer choices of in-dash models, making it a bit easier to narrow the field. So, we will focus on the dash-mounted GPS units.

Personally, I prefer the dash mounted GPS systems. They are full-featured and include:

  • A large LCD screens that can be comfortably viewed at arm’s length.
  • They can be mounted on your car’s dashboard or windshield.
  • They provide North American, U.S., or European maps.
  • They provide Voice Guidance/Directions;
  • There are a plethora of Points of Interest, or POI’s.

Car GPS recommendations

Go for the full-featured car GPS and get the features that are most important to you. To me, the most important feature of any car GPS system is the accuracy of the maps as well as the costs to update them. The next important feature for me is voice navigation, which allows me to concentrate on the road while still getting much needed directions. Traffic and weather are nice to have, but not worth the subscription service I would have to join to have them.

There are several principle manufacturers of GPS systems; TomTom claims to be the largest, but Garmin lays claim to marketing the most popular units. Magellan is also a popular brand, as is Mio. Some other manufacturers play in this area as well, but none offers the breadth of product at virtually every price point as do TomTom,Garmin, and Magellan.

Handheld GPS systems

Magellan GPS

Magellan eXplorist GC Waterproof Geocaching GPS

Some handheld GPS units are better suited for use outdoors in the woods, or the city, than others. Hills and tree cover block signals as do buildings. Some arrangements (like an external antenna) help to compensate for this better than others.There are some important features for outdoor GPS systems you should look for:

  • Having adequate waypoint and track storage
  • Useful “goto” features for off road navigation
  • Electronic compass
  • Altimeter
  • Sufficient battery life
  • Lightweight, water proof construction.

An electronic compass will give you direction while standing still, rather than just a heading while moving, but it will use battery life needlessly if it is turned on when not in use. I recommend any of the Garmin handheld units for the outdoor enthusiast!

Marine and aviation GPS systems

There are many quality options available for marine uses. Most of the GPS listed under roadway navigation also carry data for marine areas near shorelines. For more serious uses, there are marine specific models. Again, desirable features will vary with personal preferences from user to user and the spread sheets and in store “test drive” will help to isolate the right model. One brand to look into is Lowrance GPS navigation devices.

Aviation GPS systems come in panel, portable and remote units. Again, Garmin makes great aviation GPS systems.

Specialized or multi-purpose GPS systems

There are highly specialized models designed as a training tool for cyclists or runners. The more specialized the model, the less useful it is for other applications. Moving in the other direction are multipurpose units. Garmin makes a PDA GPS system. It is one among many examples of multipurpose devices. With a multipurpose device the trick is to make sure that the features most important to you are the ones that work well, rather than the ones that are merely included.

There are plenty of user friendly GPS devices made just for you. Try them out to see if they help you navigate from point A to point B. Corporate web sites for GPS and stores like REI and carry data sheets that allow GPS comparison between features in spreadsheet format to help prevent confusion between models.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Goods and was written by Viewpoints Reviewer TheBard.

Jennifer A. Freeman (73 Posts)

Jennifer A. Freeman is the content editor for Viewpoints. Reach out to her with story ideas or comments about Viewpoints.