Lost and Found

GPS devices that keep you on track, even when you’re off the beaten path.

“Let’s get lost,” crooned Mary Martin from the tropical island set of the 1943 film Happy Go Lucky, and that sentiment is very appealing when you’re planning a trip that you hope will whisk you away from the predictable confines of your daily routines. But being lost—especially when you’re circling a seedy industrial block in a foreign country with two hungry toddlers in the back seat—is another, entirely less pleasant reality. One way to avoid wandering too far out of your comfort zone is to pack a portable global positioning system, or GPS.

Most consumers want a GPS (satnav in the United Kingdom) either to help direct them while driving or to mark trails while hiking, biking or geocaching. I think 2008 will go down as the year that GPS devices go from luxury toy to a standard travel accessory—the devices have improved dramatically over the past three years, while prices have come down significantly. That said, there is not yet a single model that combines all the best capacities of both types into one smart, affordable package (though some are getting very close); instead there is a barrage of models and features, with upgraded versions of the most popular units coming out every few months. Choosing among these can be a navigational hurdle to rival driving in Boston. Here’s a little guidance to help you find your way.

On the Road

When looking for a device to give driving directions, the most important features are the ones that keep your eyes off the GPS and on the road. Useful: pre-loaded maps; color display; antiglare screen; turn-by-turn directions that use street names, rather than just distance; real-time traffic updates (often available for an additional subscription); voice recognition; and a library of POIs (points of interest) that will call up the nearest gas station or pizza place. Many models have an internal battery and can be removed from their windshield mounts and used to navigate on foot, which can be very handy in an unfamiliar city (note: this does not mean the GPS is any good in a backcountry setting). Not useful: mp3 player, picture viewer, radio transmitter, stock quotes—you have other shiny machines that do these things.

Garmin nüvi

For state-of-the-art performance and features, check out Garmin’s nüvi line. Garmin is generally credited with having the best maps available in the United States, and the latest iteration of its most popular model, the nüvi 880 (available in mid-2008), comes near to bridging the gap between car and handheld models. Users can preload custom POIs, save routes, and see markers in latitude and longitude, as well as use speech commands and get traffic and weather information via MSN Direct—but for a hefty price tag: $1,071. If that sounds overwhelming, earlier nüvi models offer much the same performance at lower price points; the 660 has most of the 880’s other features, including the ability to make hands-free calls via an internal Bluetooth, for just over half the cost, while the basic, but very functional 260 retails for less than $350.

TomTom ONE

Drivers who don’t need all those bells and whistles might prefer the TomTom ONE, which keeps its focus on pure navigation at a very tempting price ($199.95 for the new 3rd edition). TomTom is better known in Europe, and its mapping software is tops there, but second place for U.S. routes to the Navteq maps used by Garmin and Magellan. The 3rd edition closes that distance somewhat through the use of Map Share, a technology that lets everyone in the TomTom network exchange information on the latest road conditions and construction. Many people prefer TomTom’s user-friendly, customizable interface to Garmin models. Plus, you can select celebrity voices like Mr. T to read out the directions as you drive, which may not seem useful until you’ve spent hours at the mercy of a dictatorial computer-generated voice. 

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