Finding the most suitable navigator

GPS units for a hiker and GPS units for a driver are two different things, although some can do both.

Outdoor GPS receivers are made to withstand the elements, and most are rubberized and water resistant. Hand-held GPS units are also meant to be lightweight and easy to hold with one hand. They have smaller screens and are not always in colour.

Auto GPS receivers are portable, but you would not want to take them camping, since they do not show logging roads, they aren’t water resistant, and due to their large screens, are usually heavier than a hand-held GPS. In addition, most automotive GPS receivers can plug into a cigarette lighter, come with highway maps and give audio directions.

My brother recently pointed out that you can buy some marine GPS units, like the Lowrance HDS (see photo), and purchase a mapping chip with all the back-roads and trails loaded on it.

Hand-held GPS receivers some-times only come with the most basic maps, and some don’t come with maps at all.

For occasional use, a smartphone with a GPS app may be sufficient. Major GPS companies like Garmin, Motorola, and TomTom offer GPS apps for iPhone, BlackBerry, etc. in the $80 to $120 range. Some apps cost as little as $5 or $10 and work quite well.

But experts say dedicated auto GPS units are still more accurate and much easier to use. Good budget GPS units start at about $150. Quantity and quality of maps is critical and they must be current (or update-able). Some units can upload maps via a USB cable or a memory card.

Internet-connected units from Garmin and TomTom can receive wireless, automatic updates. Automatic destination routing is a standard feature on any good car navigation GPS. With more sophisticated auto GPS models you can input several destinations and the unit will tell you the most efficient route to hit them all. Look for spoken street names. Instead of just giving an instruction to “turn left in 500 meters,” models with text-to-speech can pronounce the street name, giving you better information, thus reducing the need to look at the screen (helpful for safe driving).

Also, make sure the unit you select is capable of being mounted neatly and securely on your dashboard or windshield. Nearly all models come with the proper hardware. Experts point out that you must be able to mount the unit where it won’t interfere with airbag deployment. And make sure the screen size is appropriate for your eyesight and vehicle space.

Most older and budget GPS models have 3.5-inch displays, while many current models have 4.3-inch displays. GPS Navigator offers a 5-inch display, however costs $649.

Consider an automotive GPS unit with a large points-of-interest data-base. Points of interest include tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, gas stations and ATMs. Some units allow you to download custom points of interest.

Weigh all the convenience features. A touch screen is now standard. Many units simplify text entry by only allowing you to type letters or names in the database. As you start to type, these units may also give you options to select.

Also look for Bluetooth connectivity. With the hands-free law, this is a must if your vehicle is not equipped with hands free calling.

Photograph by: Wojtek,

Ian Harwood is the Corporate Sales and Operations Manager of Custom Truck Parts in Western Canada.