Buying a GPS: What do I need to look for?


GPS Tracking Devices are versatile and useful consumer technology systems. There are four main types of GPS units; the car navigation system, the portable outdoors unit, the marine system, and the PDA/GPS hybrid.  If you’re mainly planning on using your GPS to get you from point A to B in your car and don’t think you’d use it for much else, your best bet is the in-car navigation system. In this section, we will focus on the portable GPS Vehicle Navigation System.

As new manufacturers enter the market, GPS prices are coming down and budget-priced units include features previously available only on more expensive models. These features include the ability to speak street names, speed warnings, music player, or photo viewer. We also find in higher-priced models features like a wireless FM transmitter, Bluetooth-phone compatibility etc. Premium services, such as traffic and weather reports, are becoming widely available, although they often require a subscription. 

There are many different kinds of GPS devices and brands available today, making it difficult to select the GPS device to perfectly fit your needs. We will discuss in this section of the Arrive Alive website the most important aspects to consider when buying/purchasing a GPS device.

Basics of Vehicle GPS Navigation Systems

The most basic function of a vehicle GPS device is to give you the best possible route toward a particular destination. It must be able to recalculate your route in case you miss a particular route instruction. It must also have a text and/or voice system for giving directions. Most GPS receivers perform four basic functions: location, distance/direction info, route creation and tracking.

If you often travel to new places for work or pleasure, have trouble reading maps, or simply hate to ask for directions, you might consider a vehicle GPS device for your car. The vehicle navigation GPS device can do things that paper maps are incapable of, such as automatically showing your exact location anywhere on the globe, providing precise turn-by-turn instructions on how to drive from any Point A to any Point B, identifying where the nearest gas and coffee stores are, and warning you when traffic problems make a detour highly advisable. Most let you choose your routing preferences, including the shortest distance, the fastest time, or even routes with no toll roads.

GPS technology works day or night, rain or shine. When you're venturing into alien territory, a GPS device can give you greater security and confidence that you'll ever get from paper.

Questions to be asked when buying a GPS Navigation Device

With so many GPS devices from so many manufacturers, the prospective buyer is best advised not to be swayed by sales talk and fancy brochures – but rather to take time and consider some important features of the product!

We would like to suggest that the prospective buyer ask a few questions:

What type of driving do you do? / How often and how far will I travel?

Consider your typical driving conditions, how often you’re in unfamiliar areas, and the features that are most important to you. If most of your driving is spent commuting along the same route or running local errands on familiar roads, taking short trips, and need directions only occasionally you might not need an expensive GPD device with many features.

If you expect to use it daily (for sales calls, for example) and you have complicated travel itineraries, you'll find that a GPS unit quickly becomes indispensable. In that case, buy the best one you can afford.

Where will I attach it in my vehicle?

Most car GPS kits include a mounting bracket with a suction cup designed to stick to your windshield or a flat surface on your dash. Not all dashboards are flat, and many have pebbly surfaces that prevent suction-cup mounts from adhering to them. Some GPS kits include a flat disc that is designed to adhere to your dash, allowing the suction cup to stick. You should be able to attach your GPS device where it is visible but not obstructive!

How important are frequent map updates?

If you expect to use your GPS device primarily to find well known or “older” destinations during occasional travels (or retail outlets that you've never visited before), working with less-than-up-to-the-minute mapping data is probably okay. On the other hand, if getting from one place to another on time is essential or you are going to newly developed areas, you'll want to update your mapping data as often as possible, even if you have to pay for it.

Where and how often will you use it?

If you travel outside your own country, look for a portable system that offers maps for navigating in those other countries. If you often fly to new places and rent vehicles, or if you own more than one car, a quality portable GPS device might be the way to go.

How's your eyesight?

You should always select a screen type and size that is easily readable.

What are you expecting from the maps?

One of the biggest variables between units (and prices) is how much-preloaded map info they contain. The mapping capability of some GPS units can be augmented via CD-ROM map collections as well as memory cards that are preloaded with maps or via the internet. The bigger GPS manufacturers/ vendors will allow you to download the latest maps and corrections/ changes from the internet.

Distinguishing Features of the Vehicle Navigation Device

Accuracy:  Most GPS devices can display your location with surprising accuracy. But streets and businesses change, so the accuracy of that information depends on how up-to-date it is. A less-reputable GPS vendor could cut the cost of its low-end products by providing outdated mapping data. Check whether the vendor provides a regular map and POI updates, and how much they cost. Some GPS devices come with access to online communities where you can share mapping information, and download information that other users have provided.

Usability: Car GPS devices can present a danger to the driver if it distracts more than it guides! The maps must be readable at a quick glance, so they must have high-quality graphics and avoid the clutter of nonessential information. For the same reason, the device's touch-screen controls must be well organized and clearly labelled.
Another consideration is the computer interface. How easy is it to hook up the GPS unit to your computer for uploads/downloads? A USB port is becoming more common on GPS units, and will dramatically increase the speed of downloading maps and waypoints.

Physical Features


 If you expect never to use your GPS unit outside your car, weight isn't an issue. But the situation is quite different if you're the one carrying the device. Handheld models range in weight from a couple of ounces to nearly a pound. Weight and space savings often come at a cost, usually either a higher sticker price or fewer features.

Size and Screen Size:

Screens on automobile GPS models generally range from about 3.5 inches to 7 inches diagonally. A device with a well-designed screen and clear audio directions can work just fine. Large screens do have obvious advantages, however: Bigger maps, more room for travel data (speed, direction, street labels), and roomier virtual keyboards may justify the extra cost for you.
Smaller units often double-up functions on unlabeled buttons; larger models have dedicated and clearly labelled buttons for primary functions. Some smaller models compensate for the size limitations with a well-chosen feature: an oversized screen, perhaps, on an undersized unit.


Bright, direct sunlight can overwhelm a GPS unit's built-in screen backlighting, rendering your maps unreadable. On better units, a reflective coating behind the screen uses sunlight to brighten the display, enabling you to read your maps quickly in any lighting.

3D map view: Most car models can display map data in 3D map view, also called bird's-eye view. As you travel, the GPS map continually updates to show your current position and the surrounding terrain. Using a device that offers only a 2D view is like looking straight down at a 3-square-inch section of a typical paper map. A 3D view gives you a graphical representation of the view out of your windshield, but from an elevation of a couple hundred feet--something like a low-altitude flight simulator. The resulting map is easier and faster to interpret while you are driving.


Consider the durability of the unit. Look for pieces that can break off, buttons that can jam easily or outer casings that might crack when dropped.

Mounting bracket kits: If you plan to use your GPS unit mostly in the car, look for a kit that includes a sturdy mounting bracket and includes the correct power adapters.

Power supply:

GPS devices designed primarily for in-car use plug into the car's 12-volt power port. As with digital cameras, the battery life of a GPS unit depends on how many features it has eating up the supply. To combat the notoriously ravenous appetite of electronics, many GPS units have a "sleep" function that conserves energy when the GPS is not being used.

A battery enables you to enter a destination and plot a route before you enter the vehicle. Some models are also packaged with a traditional AC plug for in-home use and recharging. Others charge through a computer’s USB port.


When comparing options, ask yourself what you want your GPS to do. You may be perfectly happy with a less-expensive model that includes only basic features. And remember that add-ons, cases, cords, CD-ROMS, mounting brackets, etc.-might add to the price as well as to the versatility of the unit you choose. Do not only compare costs – compare features as well!

Functionality & Mapping Technology

Functionality & Mapping Technology


GPS units search for and acquire location information constantly. But some units process data and provide updates far more quickly than others. In general, the more channels a GPS unit has, the faster it will compute and refresh the on-screen information. (When comparing models head-to-head, remember that a unit's performance in "simulation" mode may be far faster than its speed in the wilderness.)

Turn-by-turn directions:

Turn-by-turn directions prompt you visually and with spoken instructions regarding when to turn right, when to turn left, and when to get on or off a freeway, from starting point to final destination. Today, most GPS units offer text-to-speech functionality, which means that they pronounce street names for you. (For example, instead of telling you only to turn left in 500 feet, the device will instruct you to turn left in 500 feet onto Elm Street.) Text-to-speech used to be a high-end feature, but today it's more common on low-cost devices.


The points-of-interest feature consists of a database of locations and services—gas/ petrol stations, hotels, parks, coffee shops, and so on--that you may want to consult during your travels. Most automobile GPS units have millions of POIs in their database. But because businesses change even faster than roads do, POI lists tend to be less accurate than GPS street maps. Better POI lists provide phone numbers along with the names and locations of services.

Real-time traffic reports:

Some GPS devices have the ability to receive real-time traffic updates; they can come through a wireless data signal or over an FM transmission. Some GPS devices have a built-in receiver for these services, while others will need an add-on receiver. You may be required to pay a subscription fee for the traffic information, too. Traffic tie-ups and construction-delay details appear on your GPS map, enabling you to avoid jams by choosing an alternate route. Some GPS models will automatically reroute you based on the traffic reports. [This is only available in some countries]

Lane assistance/realistic road views:

If you're driving in unfamiliar territory, the best-spoken directions can still be a bit confusing. Fortunately, more GPS devices now have lane assistance, in which the unit tells you which lane you should be in to prepare for upcoming turns and exits. Similarly, many devices offer real-world images of the road--complete with replicas of the actual street signs--that appear near confusing intersections. With a quick glance at the screen, you can be assured that you're following the correct route.


Waypoints are specific geographic locations, described by longitude and latitude, that you have recorded in your GPS unit. Press the waypoint record button on your GPS at a trailhead, and you can always find your way back to your car. Waypoints are rarely used with automobile GPS devices, but they're essential for handheld models.


As you drive your GPS device records and displays a breadcrumb trail of where you've been. This process lets you easily backtrack to your starting point; some models also let you download your track to your PC and view your travels on a topographic map. You can print out the map and the track for a permanent record of your journey.

Additional Features of the GPS device

The modern more expensive Vehicle Navigation Devices might offer many additional features. These extra functions can make your life much safer, but do you need them? We will provide a brief overview of some of these features:

  • Bluetooth: Many high-end (and even some midrange) GPS devices come with support for Bluetooth. This allows you to pair your GPS device with a compatible cell phone and make hands-free calls using the GPS's speaker.

  • Music and video players: You won't be watching videos while driving, but you might want to listen to some tunes. Many high-end GPS devices will play back music stored on a removable card or offer an MP3 player, an iPod connection etc. They may also show photos.

  • FM transmitter: Some GPS devices include an FM transmitter that allows you to reroute all of the audio--including the spoken directions and any music you instruct the device to play--to your car stereo.

  • Internet connectivity: This feature is still rare on GPS devices, but it can be convenient. It allows you to send addresses to your GPS device via the Web and helps you find information specific to your location, such as gas prices.

  • Some of the latest devices have features like historical traffic data and the ability for users to modify maps that add some local intelligence.

  • Voice command is a worthwhile feature that enables you to navigate on the run, allowing you to enter an address or ask for a gas station, restaurant, hospital, or location from the POI menu simply by asking for it. It's available on a few high-end units, with more coming in the near future.

Ask to test before you buy!

Many of the most popular units have "simulation" modes that allow you to familiarize yourself with how they operate, even if you're inside a store where satellite signals can't be picked up. Ask the salesperson to show you the device in “simulation” mode - Take a "test drive!"

Pushing the GPS buttons should become second nature. Are the directions simple to understand? If you lost the instruction manual, could you figure out the basics by yourself? Try getting from one point on a map to another. How does the unit tell you which direction to go?


As GPS devices become more popular, we find that navigation manufacturers differentiate their products by adding and improving features. Increased competition means that GPS devices are cheaper than ever but also do more than ever. It is expected that some high-end features will trickle down to lower-cost devices. Most important, though, GPS devices will continue to get you where you need to go, planning your routes better than they did before.

We would like to advise the prospective buyer to do some research before making his/her purchase. Ask not only the salesperson but also other users driving with the device you might be interested in!

Also view:

The positioning of the GPS device and Road Safety

GPS and Road Safety

GPS Navigation and Road Safety Blog