Sunday, March 18, 2012

GPS Buyers Guide

NEW: Check out our updated Automotive GPS Buyers Guide and Handheld GPS Buyers Guide.

Choosing a GPS to purchase can be a challenge, especially if it’s your first (yes, people do upgrade). So here for your reading pleasure is our new GPS buyers guide. Let’s get a couple of things out of the way immediately:

Garmin, Magellan or Lowrance

At the risk of alienating fans of a couple of brands, I’m going to stick my neck out and say…Garmin is generally considered to be the best brand going, at least in the handheld market. They have intuitive menus and a reputation for strong customer service. Magellan is in the middle with a quality product, and a strong share of the automotive market. Lowrance can be a great choice for those on a budget, and they certainly have their proponents. Those are very broad strokes, so please don’t flame me, but it is a question I am often asked. And apparently a lot of people agree…at the time I’m writing this Garmin has a lock on the Top 10 GPS receivers sold at

Basic, Mapping or Autorouting

A basic GPS is just that. It will guide you to a waypoint, along a route and record a track. A good example is the Garmin eTrex Venture. (By the way, just so you know what you are clicking on, the remaining links on this post go to my reviews unless they say (Amazon) beside them. You can guess where those go, and yes, if you make a purchase through them, you help pay my hosting bills. End of disclaimer.) These basic units will only show the most rudimentary map — primarily your waypoints and tracks.

The next step up is a mapping unit like the Garmin eTrex Legend. This receiver has enough memory to accommodate topo maps or city maps, but it will not provide turn-by-turn highway directions.

For that, you’ll need to step up to a unit like the Magellan RoadMate 760  or the Garmin GPSMap 60CS.  With these receivers you can enter an address (or select a restaurant or…) and have it guide you there, turn-by-turn. These units are often referred to as autorouting receivers, short for automatic routing.

What Do You Want To Do With Your GPS?   

Car Navigation

If you only want to use your GPS for highway navigation, a dedicated unit may be just the answer. Most of these products, like the Garmin StreetPilot c330, come with all the maps you’ll need for navigating a trip, finding an address, or locating stores, hotels, restaurants and more. Step up to the StreetPilot 2720 and it can even anticipate traffic jams and detour you around them!

Now if you also want to go geocaching and hiking, you don’t necessarily need a second GPS unit. Read on to see how a handheld can do double duty in your car.


These are great units for geocaching, hiking and biking. If this is your need, your major decisions will revolve around whether you want a basic, mapping or autorouting unit, as described above. And as alluded to in the last section, you can use your handheld in the car. For highway navigation, you’ll need the proper software and a mounting system, and you’ll likely want a power adapter so you don’t have to use batteries.  Fortunately you can buy these accessories together in an Automotive Navigation Kit (Amazon).

Specialized Receivers for Runners and Boaters

It seems like there is a GPS for very purpose. For runners, or for hikers with an obsession for lightweight gear, the Garmin Forerunner 201 is a popular choice. Weighing in at under 3 ounces, it comes on a wristband so you can strap it to your arm. The Forerunner 301 adds a heart-rate monitor.

For boaters, the Garmin GPSMap 76CS (Amazon) would be a good choice. This versatile unit floats and is waterproof. It’s also popular with landlubbers with wanderlust, since it holds 115 MB of maps, which gives you almost enough capacity for the entire state of California!

Whistles and Bells

Color Screen
A color screen has got to be tops on the list of additional features to consider. Not because color is nice, but because these screens are so much easier to read, especially in sunlight. If your eyes are nearing 40 years of age, you’ll probably want this. I also recommend against using a greyscale screen in your car, because they are harder to read. Driving around, you want to be able to get any information you need at a glance.

Barometric Altimeter and Electronic Compass

Typically found on high end handhelds, these are nice features, but not ones that everyone needs, nor can afford. A barometric altimeter is great if you live or play in steep country, and want to track elevation gain. GPS receivers are great for determining your latitude and longitude, but for technical reasons, they are not as accurate when it comes to elevation. I have found the barometric altimeter on my GPS to be very accurate when it comes to tracking elevation gain, much more so than when it is using satellites for that information. Plus, with a little meteorological knowledge, you can forecast the weather!

Now why in the world would you need an electronic compass? Isn’t that what a GPS is? Here are the facts…your GPS receiver can determine your position on the earth, but it has no idea which way you are facing. It can only point accurately to a waypoint once you are moving. Then it "knows" where you are, and which direction you are heading relative to the waypoint you are navigating to. It’s not a big deal, but it is a nice additional feature.

Maps for your GPS

You should also know that maps cost extra, except for dedicated automobile units which typically come with mapping software, or with maps pre-loaded. And you do need a mapping receiver to display maps on the screen of your GPS. One other caveat…these maps are proprietary. Garmin receivers require Garmin maps, etc.

But there are always exceptions, and the one here is that you can make your own maps and avoid the proprietary issues. And even without a mapping receiver, there is a lot you can do with a basic GPS and maps on your PC. These topics are too involved to go into in this post, but they are covered in great detail in my book, GPS Mapping: Make Your Own Maps. Here is the Amazon page for GPS Mapping.

Best Sellers

Finally, here are the current (as of this writing) top five best selling GPS receivers on Amazon. This list changes every day, but it’s pretty consistent. Here is a link for an updated list of the best selling GPS (Amazon) units. All the links below go to my reviews on GPS Tracklog.

  1. Garmin Forerunner 301
  2. Garmin Forerunner 201
  3. Garmin eTrex Legend
  4. Garmin StreetPilot 2720
  5. Garmin StreetPilot c330

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.

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