Choosing the best GPS navigator can be challenge, given the myriad models and features to select from. Buying one for someone else can be even tougher. Just as Dad would, we'll provide you with advice for choosing one for a Father's Day gift. Should you want to dig deeper, we have an extensive GPS buying advice section and detailed ratings.
With the proliferation of smart phones, the decision starts this year with determining if a navigation app or a dedicated device is the right way to go. Having an app on the phone ensures help is within reach at all times, but for regular use, our testers favor a dedicated device.
Some smart phones, such as the Apple iPhone, have small screens that can make it a challenge to read the map, particularly in larger vehicles where it may be mounted further from the driver. To work safely, a solid mount is necessary. There are affordable universal mounts readily available online, and we have been impressed with the purpose-built iPhone mounts from Magellan and TomTom that improve GPS reception and provide a dedicated speaker, making instructions easier to hear and doubling as a hands-free speaker. Given the battery drain from active use, a car charger is practically a necessity.
We have sampled, repeatedly, applications from a wide range of providers. In general, we favor those applications developed by navigation specialists, such as Garmin, Navigon, and TomTom. They are feature rich, with clear instructions and easy-to-use interfaces that mimic the dedicated devices consistently at the top of our Ratings. For Android, the free Google Navigation will suffice for most drivers.
What to look for
In choosing a dedicated device, consider the features that will be used routinely (e.g, text to speech) and skip those that are just added-cost bells and whistles (e.g, MP3 player). For most drivers, we recommend a widescreen unit with a display that measures at least 4.3 inches. This will make it easy to read the screen and likewise simple to enter addresses. Most devices are so slender that even a widescreen device is quite portable for traveling. Devices over 5 inches are best used for large trucks, minivans , and RVs; they are too big for a conventional car.
If Dad is a commuter, consider a device with free traffic information. Many devices are now available with and without traffic; "lifetime traffic" typically adds $20-$30 to the purchase price. Being a gift, it is nice to give a device that is good to go without subscription fees, and the reality is, this is by far the better deal. Any device requiring subscription fees can get quite expensive over time.
When traveling, the added assistance of speed limit warnings, lane assist, and reality view can be much appreciated. These features direct Dad to the proper lane for upcoming turns or exits on major roadways, and the graphics represent the real signs, making it easier to interpret the directions while driving. Even if traffic data isn't needed, historic traffic information can be a real help. This factors past traffic patterns into route guidance and estimated arrival times. When traveling through an unfamiliar area, this supplies a bit of local intelligence. For long-distance road trips, an exit guide can be welcomed, as is found on many current Magellan units.
Our Father's Day 2012 picks...
Best on a budget
Garmin Nuvi 1350LT
Magellan RoadMate 2145LM
For the gadget lover
Garmin Nuvi 3490LMT
Garmin Nuvi 3790LMT
TomTom 2435 TM
Big, macho screen
Garmin Nuvi 2555LT
Garmin Nuvi 1450
Magellan Roadmate 5120T LMTX
These suggested models can steer you in the right direction, but there are dozens of decent devices available. Learn more about these and explore the options using our interactive ratings tool that allows you to sort and filter by the factors that matter most to you. The model pages for all GPS devices provide detailed ratings, specs, and test findings.
If you do buy a unit for Father's Day, take the time to set it up with your Dad's home address, favorite points of interest, and family photos--if capable. After all, he likely assembled many toys for you through the years.