The top performers in our review are the Garmin Nuvi 2589, the Gold Award winner; the TomTom GO 500, the Silver Award winner; and the Magellan SmartGPS, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a product to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Navigation GPS units are small, portable devices that can give you accurate, specific directions, even in areas without cell service. They are vastly superior to smartphone apps because they don't use data or tax your smartphone's battery.
You type in or, in some premium models, speak your destination and the device gives you turn-by-turn directions. It also displays information such as your current speed and the time and distance remaining until you reach your destination.
They attach via a suction cup to your windshield or dashboard and get power from a cigarette lighter adapter. Unlike with permanent navigation GPS units, you can simply unplug a portable GPS and move it from car to car.
In contrast to a smartphone navigation app, you don't have to be in an area with cell service in order to get turn-by-turn directions from a navigation GPS. This is because these units have maps in their memories and get their location information directly from GPS satellites, which have better coverage than cell phone providers do.
Every unit that we reviewed comes preloaded with maps of the United States. They also have micro-SD card slots into which you can insert additional map cards. This means that if you plan to travel abroad, you can buy a map of that country, load it onto a micro-SD card and insert it into your GPS.
It's important that you look for a GPS with lifetime map updates. This means that every year or so, you can go on the manufacturer's website and update your maps to reflect any changes. Automatic reroute is an essential feature found on every decent car GPS. If you take a wrong turn, the unit should recalculate your route based on your updated location.
A speed limit indicator is another important feature. The device tells you not only the speed you're traveling at, but also the speed limit of the road you're on. This can help you avoid speeding tickets caused by not knowing the speed limit of the road you're on, such as one in an unfamiliar location. You'll also want to make sure your GPS has a built-in battery so it can work even when unplugged.
The best navigation GPS units have a host of features that, while not necessary, greatly enhance your navigation experience. The most important of these is voice-activated navigation. This is one of the biggest advantages smartphones have historically had over dedicated GPS units, because it's much quicker than typing in a destination. Several models we reviewed have this feature.
3D maps are an especially helpful feature if you frequently drive in cities. Tall buildings, bridges and other tall objects are modeled in three dimensions. This makes them much easier to recognize than they are on a traditional two-dimensional map. All Garmin Nuvi units have 3D maps, and Magellan and TomTom also offer them on select models.
Another premium feature that you should look for is a built-in traffic receiver. This enables you to check traffic conditions without having to consult your smartphone. A capacitive touchscreen is another feature that is good to have, because it enables you to make pinch-to-zoom gestures, just as you would on your smartphone, an ability you don't get with resistive touchscreens.
The Garmin Nuvi 2589LMT is the best car GPS on the market. It has every feature that you should look for in a GPS, and Garmin has the best customer service in the industry.
The TomTom GO 500 is a close runner-up, the lack of a built-in traffic receiver being its only real weakness, and it can still receive traffic updates through a dedicated smartphone app. It's a bit cheaper than the Nuvi, too.
The Magellan SmartGPS 5390 is our third choice. Its feature list is virtually identical to the TomTom's, and its screen has a higher resolution. However, Magellan's customer service is not as good as TomTom's or Garmin's.
If you're on a strict budget, the TomTom GO 50 is the auto GPS for you. It's on par with the most affordable units on the market, and it includes lifetime map updates. It has all of the essentials that we look for, but it lacks the premium features that differentiate the best car GPS units from the competition.
Everyone uses maps, but some people use paper maps, some use dedicated GPS units, and some use their smartphones. Dedicated GPS units are easily the best choice, because they work almost anywhere and, unlike paper maps, they can be updated. To learn more about auto GPS units, check out our additional articles or in-depth comparison reviews on the 10 best car GPS units on the market.