In 2018, many vehicle owners simply use their smartphone’s map app, but there’s a whole range of advantages to having a physical GPS system in your car. These devices come with a variety of optional features, such as advanced lane guidance, forward collision warning, and even DVD players.
We’re going to recommend the top 10 GPS systems for your vehicle, taking into account the features they offer and how well they get you from point A to point B. Let’s explore the world of GPS technology!
How to Choose a Car Navigation System – Buying Guide
Sometimes, a smartphone just doesn’t cut it. Having to constantly look down, then back up towards the road is dangerous. So, if your car doesn’t come with one, it’s probably a good idea to acquire a NAVI system (unless you’re one of those dads that stick to physical maps; in which case, good for you).
So we’re going to take a look at a bunch of different NAVI features and help you settle on a system that’s right for you and your vehicle.
Is It Going to Fit? Let’s Look at Form
Navigation systems come in all shapes and sizes. We can break them up into roughly three categories. So think about where you want the device in your car, how you’re going to use it, and let’s find a form that’s going to work for you.
The 2DIN: No Messy Wiring
DIN and 2DIN refers to the height of the area where the audio, or GPS system will fit into. 2DIN systems tend to fit neatly into cars, and there is no exposed wiring.
However, depending on the make and model of your vehicle, the screen could protrude above the dashboard and into the line of sight of the windshield, so make sure you double check before you purchase one.
Portable: The Cheaper and Removable Option
The cheaper and alternative option are portable NAVI systems, which are the Bluetooth headset equivalent of NAVI systems. Sometimes, they just look weird. However, they are portable, meaning your NAVI system isn’t married to your car for life.
If you’re parked in a sketchy area and are worried it might get swiped, simply unplug it and bring it with you. If you buy a new car, you can swap them out.
They range in price from $60 to nearly $500, all depending on what features you want. Garmin, TomTom, and Magellan are the most popular portable NAVI system companies.
In-Dash: The Go-to Option When 2DIN Is Too Big
In-dash NAVI systems are integrated into the dashboard of the car with little to no wiring exposed. Some systems might not be compatible with your car’s dashboard, so make sure you check with the manufacturer of the in-dash system and your car’s manufacturer before you purchase one.
They tend to be called “infotainment systems,” because they come with a bunch of entertainment options. There’s also inputs for auxiliary cables and USB devices. As such, they tend to be more expensive. Pioneer is one of the most popular in-dash NAVI system companies, but we’ll explore some alternatives, too.
When you buy an in-dash, unless you’re a tech savant, you’re probably going to have to go to a mechanic to help get it installed. The actual navigation module can usually be hidden away under the seat, so you’re only stuck staring at the monitor. But the screen does jut out, so make sure it’s not going to get in the way of your air conditioning or emergency light buttons.
Also, your car might not have the ability to integrate the in-dash NAVI without exposing the wiring, or it simply might look clunky. If you’re rolling around in a 1970s Camaro and throw a large screen in the middle of the dashboard, it’s going to look weird.
Choose a Memory Type Depending on Price or Power
Map data and other types of media files (MP3, MP4) can be stored in SSD (Solid State Drive) or memory cards. HDD (Hard Disk Drives) are more outdated and only a few types of systems still rely on this type of memory. So, we’re going to focus on SSD and memory cards.
Memory Cards are Cheaper and More Widely Used
Memory cards are used in most car navigation systems and tend to be more common in cheaper models. HDD was much more common in the past, but memory cards are pretty much required due to the computing power needed for map navigation. If you aren’t looking for high-processing speed in your GPS system, we recommend settling on a system that only requires memory cards.
SSD Memory Is Faster and Better At High-Speed Data Processing
In recent years, SSD has been the memory recording method adopted by the majority of laptops. It can do many different things at the same time and is recommended if you don’t like having to wait for startup time as you switch from task to task on your GPS system. However, this increase in data processing power will cost you.
Map Updates and Traffic Alerts
In order to keep up with the smartphone apps, most GPS companies offer lifetime free map updates. Having map updates is crucial, so you know you’re getting the most recent route and POI (point of interest) information that’s out there.
Some NAVI systems require you to sync the device with your phone in order to get the updates; others can download them when connected to Wifi or simply from the satellite connectivity; others require you to plug them into your computer. Many NAVI systems are already loaded with maps of the United States, and some come with maps of Europe, Canada, and Mexico, and even the world.
These companies are also in the process of developing crowd-sourced traffic information, where cars with NAVI systems from the same company will communicate with each other to learn the most up-to-date traffic conditions, and update your route accordingly.
Some of Garmin’s higher end models give you extremely precise route directions, such as when you’re going in school zones and when sharp curves are approaching. It’ll even tell you when you’re speeding.
The lower end models will require you to connect your smartphone to get live traffic updates; the higher end ones can update via WiFi.
Have a Pickup? Get a 7 Inch Screen
When you buy a NAVI system, one could argue that everything really boils down to the screen: how responsive it is, how big it is, how clear it is, whether or not it’s a touch screen. The screen of the NAVI system essentially acts as the physical map, so you better make sure you’re getting a good one.
4.3 inch screens (measured from left to right) are the minimum size you’re going to want to have on your NAVI system. Anything smaller, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice and might as well stick to your phone. As the screen gets bigger, the resolution tends to get clearer, too.
If you’re driving a car with a big windshield, like a pickup, it’s all the more important to get a larger screen, so don’t be scared to upgrade to a 7 or 8 inch screen. If you got the real estate, might as well use it.
Kenwood offers a 12 inch screen, which while impressive in that regard itself, is probably too obstructive to place in front of your window while driving. 9 inches is where we’ll recommend you stop, unless you’re an 18 wheeler driver.
The More Features, the Higher the Cost
You’d be impressed by what GPS NAVI systems can do these days. Some NAVI devices know exactly which lane you’re driving in on the road; that’s how accurate these devices can be. Here are some other features that might make your system a gem.
Chat with Your System via Bluetooth
Most systems have the ability to talk the route to you step-by-step, and others allow you to hook up your headphones and listen to these instructions via Bluetooth technology. Additionally, some systems are voice-command, which means you can literally talk back and forth with then, having it set your route without having to touch anything. That’s better service than Siri can offer.
Cameras for Parallel Parking Fledglings
Some NAVI systems, both in-dash and portable, offer front and rear view cameras if your car doesn’t have them. Some of the more advanced (and expensive) NAVIs that have front cameras can detect when you’re veering from your lane, or when you’re close to hitting a car in front of you. A smartphone won’t do that.
They come with additional wiring which might not be that sightly, but these cameras can prove invaluable when backing up or parallel parking. The more money you spend, the more you’re getting. It depends on what you want. If you’re only interested in looking at the map, then these features won’t really matter.
Entertainment Capabilities for Road Trips
Let’s say you’re taking a road trip, let’s call it a 12 hour road trip. You’re trying to do it all in one day. Oftentimes in the US, you’ll be taking the same highway for hundreds of miles. From Los Angeles to Houston, it’s a straight shot on the I-10, literally 24 hours on one road.
If you’re driving with your family, it wouldn’t hurt to have a CD/DVD player, and some NAVI systems offer just that. Throw on a movie for the kids (not you) while you’re driving. You can even receive route instruction notifications that will pop up on the movie, so you can make sure you’re heading in the right direction while your family enjoys the entertainment.
You can also upload MP3 files to your NAVI system, and if you opt for the voice command option, you can select your playlist all while keeping your eyes on the road. Sirius XM, FM, AM radio; they can all be there if you want to pay for it.
Apps. Yes, NAVI systems can now come with apps. Garmin’s newer portable models now come with TripAdvisor built in, so you can get a restaurant or hotel recommendation on the go, just another way NAVI systems are becoming more like phones. And remember, you’re saving on that costly data. In-dash systems from companies like Boss and Sony come with Spotify and Pandora too.
TOP 10 Navigation Systems
Based on what we’ve discussed, you’ll want your GPS system to be at least 4.3 inches wide, have touch screen capabilities, and offer map updates. Here’s our list of the best GPS Navigation systems to buy online.
10. Garmin Drive 5’’ USA EX GPS Navigator
Entry Level Garmin GPS System
Garmin’s the leader in vehicle navigation systems, and their entry level NAVI system is hard to beat for its price. You’re not going to be able to watch any movies or really do anything other than getting to your destination, but it’s got all the advanced warnings and direction features you’d get from the higher end models.
By using Garmin, you’re relying on the same map data that all Garmin GPS systems use. There are some in-dash systems that even use Garmin maps. However, it does not come with free lifetime map updates, which is why it comes in at number 10. There are no turn-by-turn voice instructions either.
9. Magellan RM6220
Entry Level Magellan GPS with Dash Cam
For $75 with this product, you’re getting a touchscreen GPS system with lifetime map updates and an integrated dash cam feature. It has no WiFi or Bluetooth connectivity, but if you’re OK with plugging it in to your computer to get updates, then this system’s the way to go.
However, there have been reports about the reliability of their mapping systems, and if you’re a stickler for the most accurate and up-to-date maps, it’s probably a better idea to go with Garmin’s entry level models. However, the price is hard to beat for a dash cam and GPS system combo.
8. Garmin Drive 5’’ GPS Navigator
Garmin GPS with Voice Activation and Free Lifetime Maps
For 30 more dollars, you’re getting the same NAVI system as above, but also free lifetime map updates, as well as spoken turn-by-turn instructions, so you don’t have to constantly glance at the screen to see where you’re going. This model also comes with a suction cup for your windshield.
Frankly, free map updates is an underrated feature, because many of these companies will nickel and dime unwitting customers for updating their maps. This model also comes with Foursquare POIs enabled, which allows you to access millions of restaurants, stores, and basically any commercial enterprise that Foursquare is aware of.
7. TomTom VIA 1515M Auto GPS
Entry Level TomTom GPS with Split Screen Function and North America Maps
Cheaper than Garmin’s entry models is the TomTom, which might not have the instant name brand recognition as Garmin models. However, it does come preloaded with maps of not only the US but also Canada and Mexico–and offers free lifetime map updates. For a cheaper price than Garmin’s model, too. Hard to go wrong there.
Who knows, you might find yourself crossing the border at some point, and Mr. Tom will be ready to help. It doesn’t offer turn-by-turn voice instructions, but does come with a split screen view. This zooms in on a specific exit that’s coming up and tells you where exactly to get off, without distracting you from the greater route.
6. Pioneer AVIC-7201NEX
Luxury In-Dash GPS System with Full Entertainment Suite
If you’re looking to splurge on an infotainment system, it’s hard to beat Pioneer’s top of the line in-dash system. As we said before, the screen is important, and this touch screen uses capacitive technology, which responds to heat conductors on your finger rather than pressure from it. In short, they’re more responsive.
This model’s truly got it all: updated maps, restaurants and loads of other POIs. It’s got Apple Carplay and Android Auto connectivity, weather updates, and Bluetooth capabilities. Plus, it comes with a rear backup camera, too. What truly sets this puppy apart, though, is its screen, which is 7 inches of slick sensitive touchscreen.
5. Garmin DriveAssist 51
GPS System with Advanced Drive Instructions and Dash Cam
The main feature of this NAVI system is its dash camera, which gives you forward collision warning when you’re driving, alerting you if you get too close to the car in front of you. For drivers who look for that added safety feature in the NAVI systems, Garmin’s DriveAssist 51 is the way to go.
The dash cam also has the ability to record the drive if you’d like, in case you want to have extra evidence in collisions, or simply want to create time lapses. It has capacitive touch screen technology, voice activation, live parking updates, free lifetime maps, the whole shabang.
4. Garmin Drive 51
Budget Centric GPS System with TripAdvisor and Free Lifetime Maps
Back to the basics. For $150 on Amazon, you’re getting a really reliable GPS navigator: free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, TripAdvisor ratings, and even parking prices and availability when you’re trying to find a spot. If you live in a big city, that feature alone could be worth it.
Unlike Garmin’s entry models, which require you to plug the device into your computer in order to get updates, this model allows you to do it if you’re connected to your smartphone. It also comes with the option to add a rear view camera, though it’s not included in the price. As far as your standard navigation needs go, you can’t go wrong with Garmin.
3. Garmin DriveLuxe 51
High End GPS System with Faster Processor and Advanced Smartphone Integration
This is Garmin’s higher end model, and you’re buying the best of the best. It has the fastest processor of all Garmin models, a capacitive touchscreen, voice command features, built in WiFi for faster map updates and live traffic reports, the whole 9 yards.
When connected to your phone, text messages and calls that you receive will pop up on the monitor. If you’re simply interested in getting the best GPS navigator out there without additional entertainment features, and you don’t mind opening your wallet, this is the NAVI system for you.
2. TomTom GO 520
Budget Centric GPS System with High End Screen Technology and Voice Control
This is a direct competitor to the medium-end Garmin Drive 51, and it just packs a little more features into the device for a very comparable price. For just 10 more dollars, you get the ability to make hands-free bluetooth calls and advanced lane guidance, which tells you when you’re swerving out of your lane, among other features.
This is TomTom’s answer to the medium-end Garmin NAVI systems. It’s got voice control, dynamic destination prediction that learns your driving habits, and even the capacitive screen technology that Pioneer uses on its $900 models. Garmin’s Drive 51 doesn’t.
1. Power Acoustik PDN-626B
Budget Centric In-Dash GPS System with Full Entertainment Suite
This in-dash NAVI system has all of the features we’ve listed so far, and it comes in at under $140. Of course, it comes with all the features you’d want in your GPS system. But what really sets this NAVI system apart are its entertainment capabilities: AM and FM radio, CD and DVD player potentials, and of course, the ability to hook up to your smartphone via Bluetooth and play music, and even make calls.
The one drawback is that it’s in-dash, so there might be some installment fees, but that’s easily overlooked because of everything else you’re getting. Of all the GPS systems we’ve reviewed, the Power Acoustik PDN comes with the most features at the most reasonable price, and it’s got great navigation capabilities to boot.
GPS navigation companies are having to up their game due to the proliferation of map apps on smartphones. While you may not be convinced of the necessity of a navigation system for you car, they’re a whole lot safer than looking at your smartphone while driving. And we’ve also talked about a bunch of devices with additional features that no smartphone has (for now). So we hope you’ve found one that’ll get you on the road again.
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