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How to Choose a GPS Navigation System

When it comes to finding your way from point A to point B (with the occasional visit to point C), nothing beats a GPS navigation system. These devices provide real-time driving directions, displaying your position on a moving map and prompting you when it's time to turn. Many vehicles now come with built-in GPS, but for those that don't, you can easily add a dashboard- or windshield-mounted model.

Prices start as low as $200 for no-frills GPS and soar as high as $1,000 for the most feature-packed navigators. Ah, but which features matter most? Here's a look at some of the more interesting options:

  • Traffic updates Wouldn't it be great if your GPS could automatically divert you around accidents, construction zones, and traffic backups? Some models can do exactly that, courtesy of a built-in (or add-on) receiver that pulls traffic data from the FM airwaves. Plan on paying around $50 per year for a subscription to this service. For even more location-specific coolness, choose a GPS that works with Microsoft's MSN Direct. You'll get weather reports, gas prices, movie times, and the like, all integrated into the mapping system.
  • Hands-free speakerphone Everyone knows it's dangerous to drive around with a cell phone glued to your ear. To help you keep both hands on the wheel, some GPS devices offer a speakerphone option. All you do is pair the GPS with your Bluetooth-equipped cell phone and you're all set to make and take calls. Look for models that can absorb your phone's address book and dial numbers directly from the points-of-interest (POI) database.
  • Text-to-speech conversion All GPS devices will display the street name associated with your next turn, but the better models will say it for you. Thus, instead of an ambiguous "Take next left," which forces you to look at the screen to check the street name, you'll hear, "Turn left on a Maple Road."
  • Widescreen Most budget GPS models have 3.5-inch screens, and it's not uncommon to find nearly a third of the map obscured by onscreen control buttons and navigation text. To make navigation easier on the eyes, look for a model with a 4.3-inch widescreen. It may not sound like much of a bump, but that extra space makes a big difference.
Some GPS receivers tout multimedia features as well, like MP3 and video players, but they're usually not worth the bother. In most cases you've got limited space available for your media, no support for DRM-protected music, and no easy way to hear audio through your car stereo (though a couple models do have built-in FM transmitters for exactly that purpose).

What features do you covet most in a GPS navigation system? Have you had a good or bad experience with a recent GPS purchase? Share your thoughts by clicking the Comments link at the top of this post.

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