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Find Yourself with an In-Car Navigation System

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author photo by Autotrader June 2009

It’s a dark and stormy night. Driving home from a friend’s house across town, you realize that you don’t know the area as well as you thought, and the weather conditions make you dread pulling over to fumble with a map.

Or, it’s a bright and sunny day when your job calls you to a new destination, and you make a wrong turn into a wall of traffic on the way to give your big presentation.

Or maybe you’re in your own town, on a routine drive home from work. Rush hour can be an adventure in itself, but a big accident makes your usual route even more treacherous.

Looking to avoid situations like these in the future? An in-car navigation system might be your answer.

Navigation systems utilize Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, which relies on a constellation of satellites that orbit the earth twice daily. A GPS receiver is able to determine its location, direction and speed by obtaining signals from three or more of these satellites at once.

Since all GPS receivers communicate with the same satellites, and many display the same maps, you may get the impression that any GPS receiver will do. Not long ago, this may have been the case: GPS users were saddled with clunky equipment, juggling multiple CDs in order to find the proper maps for their journeys.

But rapidly advancing technology has created immense variability in how navigation systems look, and what they can do. You’re now faced with a different problem: with so many options out there, how do you choose what’s right for you?

In-Dash vs. Plug-and-Play
Your first key decision is whether you want an in-dash navigation display, so your car can maintain its streamlined interior, or a plug-and-play GPS receiver that can be moved from car to car and must be mounted on your windshield or dashboard. Each type has its advantages—examining your personal usage patterns, preferences and budget will all help determine your ideal solution.

The biggest advantage of in-dash navigation systems is screen size—screens are commonly around 7" (measured diagonally), and their location ensures that they will be easily read and accessible to drivers without obscuring visibility or other in-car features (such as air vents). The larger screen will also typically allow for full touch-screen functionality as you drive, without getting in the way of your map display.

Many plug-and-play units also have touch-screen functionality, but their limited screen size can prevent a full menu display while you’re driving. Since in-dash systems require the removal of your factory-installed (or "stock") head unit, find out how much room you’ll have. Stock head units come in different shapes and sizes, and different in-dash navigation systems account for this variability.

Another advantage for in-dash units is a direct connection to your car’s speakers, ensuring loud and clear voice guidance. Voice guidance is also the norm for plug-and-play units, but their speaker quality varies.

Plug-and-play units will commonly sport screens about half the size of in-dash models, and will need to be mounted so that they’re easily accessible and readable. Some creativity may be necessary to arrive at your most comfortable configuration, but the payoff can be great. Many plug-and-play units come with suction cup mounting kits, so they can be easily rearranged, or transferred from one car to another. This portability, along with the lack of any complicated wiring or dashboard modifications, will be preferable to many drivers.

In addition, several plug-and-play units have walking or biking modes, for use outside the car. (Rechargeable batteries are a plus if your unit has this capability.) With a plug-and-play unit, the only wiring necessary will be a connection to a power source, which is often a simple cigarette lighter adapter.

A final advantage for plug-and-play units is cost. Even disregarding the potential need for the professional installation of an in-dash system, plug-and-play GPS receivers are still generally less expensive across the board.

Other Features to Consider
Of course, the two main types of in-car navigation systems have many potential features in common, and these should also influence your decision. Among the most popular of these features are built-in Points of Interest (POI), which are especially useful for road trips. Want a cup of coffee? Need some cash? Locations of restaurants, hospitals, gas stations, ATMs and more are already built into many navigation units, instantly alleviating some of the stress that can come with being in an unfamiliar city. The number of built-in POIs varies based on the system, though, so make sure yours has everything you want.

Another increasingly popular feature is real-time traffic information, which includes accident and construction reports and automatically calculates alternate routes to your destination. Keep in mind that traffic updates can require extra hardware as well as a monthly fee, but the service will be worth it for true road warriors. Also, some traffic information services are not available across the entire continental U.S., so make sure your area is covered.

Those are just two of the most popular modern navigation features, but there are a number of other questions to keep in mind as you shop. Voice guidance is becoming the standard for all navigation systems, but do you want yours to have text-to-speech functionality (e.g., "turn right on First St." instead of "turn right ahead")? If you might require extra maps, would you rather load them from DVDs or download them from a manufacturer’s website? Do you require compatibility for Bluetooth, or MP3/WMA playback? How quickly will your unit load new maps, or calculate alternate routes? And, perhaps most importantly, is the interface itself easy enough for you to navigate without being a distraction from the road? That last question is difficult to answer without hands-on experience, but it is absolutely crucial for getting the most out of your purchase.

Get on the Road
The same technology that was once the domain of the US Department of Defense is now easier than ever for the average driver to purchase and operate, but taking full advantage of that means doing your homework. All receivers, screens, POI databases and other components are not created equal—and only you, not a salesperson, can determine your perfect solution.

Inspect multiple units, test their interfaces, and bring a list of questions to keep in mind while comparison shopping. For many drivers, the road from Point A to Point B is paved with unnecessary stress. With the right in-car navigation system, you can leave those sticky situations and panicked phone calls in the dust, and drive with peace of mind from Point A to anywhere.

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Find Yourself with an In-Car Navigation System - Autotrader