UPDATE: The Magellan eXplorist 710, introduced in the fall of 2010, is another dual-use unit worthy of consideration.
UPDATE 2: Garmin has a new dual use entry with their Garmin Montana series.
I want a GPS that does it all; this has got to be one of the most frequent requests I hear.
Several companies have tried to create GPS receivers that will work well on the road or in your hand — for backcountry use, geocaching or what have you. The latest example is the Garmin nuvi 500 series, pictured above at left.
Yet none of the manufacturers have nailed it, and I have my doubts that they ever will. The main reason is that compromises must be made, either on the handheld side or the auto side. Here are my thoughts on sorting through your choices…
Decide what's more important
Since there are compromises to be made, it’s critical to decide which is more important to you – in the car or on the trail.
If you’ll spend most of your time using it to navigate in your car, I’d recommend the nuvi 500. It does a great job on the road, has preloaded topo maps of the entire U.S., and is set up for paperless geocaching. The downside for trail use is weak implementation of the compass feature, at least that was the case when I tested it. Recent firmware updates may have improved it.
If you will mainly use it in the backcountry, the Garmin Oregon series is my top choice. These touchscreen units are right at home on the trail, and when you add City Navigator maps they do an excellent job in the car. I’ve been using my Oregon 400t this way for the past few weeks, and I think it may be the best dual-use solution out there. You can see a screenshot to the left.
Two caveats though – don’t buy a 200 series unit; it has no speaker so you won’t get a “beep” warning you of upcoming turns. Also, I don’t recommend it for fixed mount use in the backcountry, such as on mountain bikes. Here’s why; these high-resolution screens aren’t as bright as other models, but I don’t find it problematic if you are holding the unit in your hand, where you can quickly adjust for the best viewing angle. Regardless, the display is very bright when connected to a vehicle power cable.
The DeLorme PN-40 is another option, but its built-in highway navigation database often leaves a lot to be desired.
Consider buying two separate units
A single unit is nice. You can navigate to a trailhead or near a geocache in your car, and only have to load waypoints to one unit. But if you aren’t wedded to the idea of a single unit, two separate models may be the best solution of all.
By the time you invest in one of the devices above, you may well find that it’s cheaper to buy a basic auto unit and a basic handheld. After all, you can get a nuvi 200 series model for your car and a Venture HC for the trail for under $250.
So now it’s your turn readers. One GPS or two? And if one, what do you think is the best dual-purpose unit on the market?