Sunday, March 18, 2012

A GPS Buyer’s Guide

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

This post was inspired by The Map Room’s recent posting of their reader survey results. It was suggested that there might be interest in a GPS buyers guide, so I took the bait. I figured, as long as I’m just starting this blog, we could begin with some basics. I hope this won’t deter more advanced aficionados; there will be some very exciting things coming up next weekend. Here’s a hint.

Where to start?

The first consideration is your use. Are you going to be using your GPS receiver for outdoor adventure, highway navigation, running, boating? Your use will help guide your decision. Read on for more…

GPS for outdoor recreation

Disclaimer: Most of the links posted below go to Amazon. I wanted you to be able to see the products and this way, should you make a purchase while there, it helps pay my hosting bills!

One of the first questions to answer is whether or not you want detailed topo maps on the screen of your GPS receiver (which I will from here on out truncate to GPSr or simply GPS). If you want topographical detail (e.g., contour lines), you’ll need a "mapping" receiver like the Magellan Meridian Platinum and a compatible software package like Magellan MapSend Topo 3D. Don’t get too excited about the 3-D part. You can view the maps in 3-D on your computer screen, before transferring them to the GPS, but not on the GPS itself.

If you don’t need a detailed map, you could buy a fairly basic unit like the Garmin eTrex Venture. Unlike some lower level units, this comes with a cable to connect it to your PC. Without it, you’ll have to enter waypoints with the tiny onscreen keyboard. With it, you just click on the map to set a waypoint and transfer it to your GPS.

A word about software

A couple of caveats here…You can use almost any brand of software to transfer waypoints, tracks and routes to and from your PC. One example is National Geographic TOPO!, though if you have a USB interface for your GPS (and a lot of newer ones do), you’ll need their $20 Expansion Pack.

The other thing to remember is that, while you can use the above software with nearly any GPS, software that puts maps on the screen of your GPS is different. It is proprietary. If you have a Garmin mapping receiver, you will need Garmin software to transfer maps to it. The same thing goes for Magellan; you can’t mix apples and oranges. This is only true for software that puts detailed maps right on the screen of your GPS.

Of course, there is an exception to every rule. You can make your own custom maps for a GPS, often more detailed than the commercial packages, if you’re willing to work at it a little. There are step-by-step instructions, along with a lot of other great info, in my book. For a more detailed look, check out the companion website,

The wonderful world of color (and other bells and whistles)

Is it worth it to shell out the extra bucks for a color GPS? Absolutely. They are so much easier to read. And it’s great to be able to see streams and roads and contour lines in different colors. A barometric altimeter is a nice touch if accurate elevation readings are important to you. And an electronic compass lets you see which way you are pointing while standing still. Why can’t a regular GPS do this? It has no way to tell which direction you are facing; it can tell which direction you are walking though.

GPS for automotive navigation

For automotive use, you’re going to want a GPS that can not only display maps, but is "routable" as well. In other words, you’re going to want to plug in an address and have the GPS give you turn-by-turn directions.  One option is the Garmin StreetPilot 2610, which comes with all the mapping software you’ll need for North America.

I can’t afford a dedicated GPS in my car and one for the trail too, so I have a Garmin GPSMap 60CS, which is great for all sorts of uses. All I need for highway use is Garmin City Select software, a windshield mounting bracket, and a cigarette lighter adapter, and I’m in business. In a strange city? Want to find a cool Vietnamese restaurant? This is all you need.

GPS for runners

Don’t want to lug around a handheld while running? At 2 ounces, you can’t beat the arm or wrist-mounted Garmin Forerunner 101. There are even models with a heart monitor. And if you’re in training mode, check out one of my favorite software programs, TopoFusion. There is a full chapter on it in my book .

GPS for boaters

Hey, if you’re going to be out on the water, how about the Garmin GPSMap76CS? It even floats! Garmin MapSource Americas BlueChart is a great companion software package.


You might perceive a slight Garmin bias. They do have a reputation for great customer service and intuitive menus. Maybe it’s just because that’s what’s on my bike. My wife loves her Magellan and it does seem to lock onto satellites better, but that will have to wait for another post. It’s late, and I hope to never do another post this long!

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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