Navigating the best deals as GPS prices continue to drop

If you need help getting around town or finding a gas station with the lowest prices, a GPS unit is worth the money.

If money’s tight, wait six months, save your pennies, then buy a GPS in the fall. Prices for these useful gadgets are falling—and some bargain-priced units are already available.

A quick search of returns several fine models, most below $150 and many priced below $100. Two major players, Garmin and TomTom, dominate these price points, offering models at a steep discount compared with this time last year, when a good dashboard-mounted GPS cost north of $200.

Part of the reason for the steep and stunning pricing decline is that mobile phones are getting much better at duplicating the functions of dashboard-mounted GPS devices.

Google introduced Google Maps Navigation for Android—a fantastic application that offers accurate, turn-by-turn driving instructions—in November. The app is free and it comes included on several Android-based phones (including the Motorola Droid and Google’s new phone, the Nexus One) and as an upgrade for others (including the first Android phone, the G1 from T-Mobile). The application includes traffic alerts, recommendations for restaurants and other handy road-trip functions. (It even links to Google Map’s Street View function to show you a picture of your destination’s front door before you get there.)

Nokia followed suit this January, offering a free software upgrade that put turn-by-turn driving instructions on 10 of its smartphones. (Nokia bought Chicago-based digital map-maker Navteq in 2007 for $8.1 billion.)

Then there’s the iPhone, which ships with a free mapping function and has dozens of other apps available for a richer service.

I’ve used Google Maps for Navigation on the Motorola Droid for several months and the service is brilliant. There is one cost and it’s well worth it: Motorola built a special mount ($30 at Verizon Wireless stores) for the phone that sticks to your windshield and launches the navigation service automatically when you place the Droid into the mount. When a call comes in, all you have to do is touch the phone’s screen to answer. (Taking calls does not disrupt driving directions.)

As far as iPhone-based GPS apps are concerned, I’ve found the maps app that comes pre-loaded on all iPhones to be handy and largely accurate, which is why I don’t recommend people spend $80 for the TomTom app. I do, however, recommend iPhone users download the free “Compare GPS Apps” tool to find the best app if they decide they need one that is more robust than the standard version.

For BlackBerry users, TeleNav’s GPS Navigator series consistently receives good user reviews, though versions vary depending on the model of BlackBerry and service provider.

You don’t need a fancy Droid, iPhone or BlackBerry to take advantage of mobile GPS services: Many wireless carriers offer GPS service to standard mobile phone, too. I recently tested a $10 monthly service from TeleNav on a standard Motorola flip phone and was blown away by the accuracy of the directions. TeleNav is available through AT&T but all major carriers—Sprint, Verizon, etc.—offer a similar service of some sort. You can also download a 24-hour version of the service for a few dollars, which is a great deal if you only need GPS features from time to time.

While convenient, there are a few drawbacks to using your mobile phone as a GPS device. The screens are often smaller (difficult for aging eyes) and the constant use drains the battery—though you can compensate with a car charger. On the other hand, having your phone double as a GPS is a convenient tool if you travel a lot. Without having to worry about renting a GPS from the car rental place or bringing (and subsequently forgetting?) your personal GPS from home, your cell phone GPS can help get you from the airport to your final destination. What’s more, a GPS (traditional or cell phone-based) saves you from having to check and re-check maps as you try to navigate streets and contend with traffic in an unfamiliar city.

Another reason prices for GPS units keep eroding is that most new car buyers don’t need them. One of the best lures automakers have going right now—besides steep discounts and government incentives—is to include an upgraded “telematics” package into a new car. Telematics (auto electronics) are getting more robust by the day.

GM continues to build out OnStar (which it launched in 1996) and currently offers the service in more than 30 new models. One of the system’s options involves a navigation service where drivers simply push a button and say the address of where they want to go and OnStar gives them turn-by-turn driving directions through the vehicle’s speakers. The service can also provide diagnostics (time for an oil change!), voice-activated hands-free calling and a “crisis-assist” program for drivers in trouble. OnStar is free for up to one year on many new cars, but after that, service plans starts at $200 a year.

Ford’s answer to OnStar, “Sync,” is a Microsoft-branded technology that links your phone or music player to the car stereo by voice command. Further, the system includes a connection to emergency services (similar to OnStar), traffic updates and turn-by-turn driving instructions dictated through the vehicle’s sound system. Ford claims 32 percent of new car buyers called Sync “critical or important” to buying a new auto. And unlike OnStar, Sync has no monthly fee and comes standard in some Ford vehicles (but is a $400 option in others).

Ford and GM are not alone, as almost every automaker—particularly the luxury brands—provides an enhanced electronics package with GPS technology.

Still, dashboard-mounted GPS units show no signs of going away anytime soon—they are useful and increasingly affordable accessories. And if prices keep dropping, they may soon be no more expensive than the traditional maps at the gas station.

GPS Best Buys

There’s a never-ending stream of new dashboard-mounted GPS units—Automotive News said about 380 in-vehicle accessory companies were at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, all displaying new products—so choosing one can be a daunting task. I suggest focusing on devices that are affordable, portable, and will fit into your carry-on luggage. Here are three solid options to consider:

Garmin Nuvi 285W

Once priced at more than $200, this model can be found for less than $150 at several retailers. It offers an easy-to-see 4.3-inch screen and provides real-time traffic updates, too, though the real-time data requires service from MSN Direct, which is free for nine months and then $50 a year after that.


This model once topped $300 but can be purchased for $150 today. I’ve had good experiences with TomTom devices in past tests, so I’d feel confidant purchasing this model, which features a 4.3-inch widescreen display. This feature-rich product offers text-to-speech directions, map updates via USB, and celebrity voice directions—because, really, who doesn’t want Sean Connery, Homer Simpson or Ozzy Osbourne guiding them through gridlock?

Magellan Maestro 3100

This smaller device is ideal for road warriors: It weighs less than a pound and easily fits in your jacket pocket. Originally priced at more than $200, you can now find them for about $130. Maps are displayed on a 3.5-inch screen and include points of interest such as coffee shops and gas stations.

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