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GPS Buying Guide
Let's start with the basics for those who aren't as “up” on GPS devi...
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GPS Buying Guide

Let's start with the basics for those who aren't as “up” on GPS devices as others. The GPS network consists of 30 satellites that orbit the earth every twelve hours. These satellites were originally used for military and defense purposes by the way. When your GPS communicates to at least four of these satellites it will triangulate your position on the earth. By tracking the satellites real-time as you drive along, a GPS can use it's built-in mapping data to help you get from point A to point B without you even needing to pickup a map. A common question GPS shoppers often ask is; “how much do I need to pay for all this to happen?”. The truth is, to use the basic GPS system you don't even need to pay a dime! The only time you'll have to pay a monthly GPS bill is if you've subscribed to premium features like real-time weather and traffic updates which go through the satellite radio system. With many different GPS types available out there which all offer different pros and cons, the buying decision may not always be an easy one for someone making their first purchase. In the rest of this article I will try my best to cover each of the major areas available, and some pros and cons of each.

Portable GPS Units – These are the small units that you'll see for sale at most electronics stores. Being small and portable they often have screen sizes ranging from 3.5” to 4.5”. Although most feature a built-in battery to help eliminate cable clutter in your car, they will always come with at least a car charger if the manufacturer doesn't also include a home AC charger. To allow these units a good view of the sky to acquire a strong GPS signal they will mount either onto your window or dash by means of a cradle that fixes itself with either a suction cup or sticky base. Depending on the model you choose, the GPS will get it's memory from either an SD card, internal flash memory or a combination of both. Just like all GPS units you will be able to save a list of favorite places and view points of interest (POI’s) along your route. You'll always want to watch out for how many points of interest a GPS will highlight because some companies will include many more than others.

Another option you may find on some portable GPS units is a pedestrian mode. Since these units often have a rechargeable battery in them they become ideal companions for someone trying to navigate their way around the city in a more eco-friendly manner. Pedestrian modes will allow you to take routes that you simply can't drive on when you're in a car such as pedestrian bridges, trails, access roads and the like. For someone on foot these methods may not only be faster but also safer than walking down a busy road on foot.

In-Dash Units – Quickly becoming a common add-on feature in many new cars, an in-dash GPS is a unit that is installed right into the dash area of your car. Since these units are touch-screen they often take care of other car functions as well, such as operating the radio and displaying any sort of reverse cameras your vehicle may have. However, when in GPS mode they will offer a very large display of where you are going, often larger than those small portable units. Since it's a little tricky to bring your vehicle into the computer room to plug it in for update time, updates to these built-in units are done via Data DVDs that are put into the car's CD/DVD player for the GPS to read. Having a nearly identical set of features to that of their portable counterparts (minus pedestrian mode), I don't think it'll be necessary to repeat myself and list them again!

Smartphones – A lot of smartphones such as the Blackberry Curve/Pearl, some HTC models, and many others are now incorporating a built-in GPS receiver into their tiny designs. The upside to this is that you can literally have a GPS on you every minute of every day which can be incredibly handy when on foot or driving in a vehicle. Having much the same features as their larger counterparts, minus their smaller screen, these phones can eliminate the need to purchase a separate GPS unit entirely. The downside to this method of handling a GPS is that the phone doesn't have any maps, routes, or anything built into it past the client software that runs the GPS. Instead, these phones rely on the user having a data plan to download maps in real-time as they are needed. For those who don't have a data plan, this will render the GPS function useless. For those who don't have an unlimited data plan you may have to watch out just how much you're using this feature! It would be nice to see manufacturers shipping maps on a MicroSD card in the future to make this feature of use to everyone, data plan subscribers or not.

While on the topic of smartphones, while some may not have the GPS feature in them they may still allow the use of a bluetooth GPS connection. By purchasing a small bluetooth GPS receiver you can have your phone automatically pair with it whenever they're in range of each other. By means of either add-on software or software that came with your phone, you can then do the same things you could if the phone would have the GPS built right in.

Laptop Navigation< – A lot of portable GPS manufacturers as well as PC software manufacturers are starting to release hardware/software outfits that will turn a laptop computer into a portable GPS system. These packages usually include a USB GPS receiver and guidance software for your PC. Depending on the package you go for some of these will start with a price tag under $100CDN. Other models will cost over that $100 mark but still might be cheaper than buying a standalone GPS unit.

Boating Navigation – I'm only going to touch briefly on boating GPS’s just to give you an idea of how they work. These units themselves could be subject to an entirely new buying guide though because they are vastly different from a typical land navigation GPS. Since there are no roadways, dead ends or one-way streets when you're on the open seas, a boating GPS will help you navigate using your exact coordinate on the earth as well as a cartography map of what's under the water you're boating on. Since water depths may range from under a meter to several kilometers, you need to make sure you don't damage your boat by going into an area too shallow to safely navigate in. Boating GPS’s may also integrate into other boating systems or work on their own, it all depends how fancy and expensive of a unit you are after.

Map Updates & Corrections – One thing you always want to look into before buying a GPS is how the manufacturer handles map updates, map corrections, and the loading of new maps. Map corrections are when the manufacturer needs to update a map because of an error in it; something that was incorrect. Some GPS manufacturers will allow you free updates if they find any mistakes – certainly a nice thing to make up for their mistake. Other manufacturers will not give you free updates, but will put their corrections into the update map files for the coming year (or however often they release updates). This will often be something you pay a small fee for then, if you choose to buy each years newest update pack.

I also mentioned that you'll want to look into how the manufacturer handles the loading of new maps; be it other countries or just their updated maps themselves. I see a lot of nice looking GPS units starting to hit the market from smaller manufacturers with sub-$100 price tags. As nice as these look to the eye, they lack the ability to do any kind of map updates or installations past what they come with. I guess these are throw-away GPS’s? I always recommend spending the extra few dollars to go with a company who's maps can at least be updated, or other maps added.

Put a little research into a few GPS units that are of interest to you before rushing out to buy or at least make sure the store has a live-demo of several units that you can try firsthand before buying. Make sure to ask the important questions like “Can I update the maps or buy additional country's maps?” because with such a wide price range out there for GPS units there is also a wide range of good units and crap units. Of course, enjoy the new unit you buy and the doors it will open for you when you're in those areas and cities you simply don't know as well as home!

Author: Steve Blackwell


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