Socrates said, “To find yourself, think for yourself.” We know he wasn’t speaking literally, but thanks to the increasing affordability of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, they can do the thinking for you whether you’re in Athens, Greece or Athens, Georgia. Developed by the US Department of Defense for military tactics, GPS technology is a 24/7 radio navigation system that identifies and tracks the location of the GPS device virtually anytime, anywhere. GPS devices get their data from 24 satellites orbiting Earth. Locking into a minimum of three satellites determines your location in longitude and latitude. Some devices routinely lock into four satellites to provide altitude. Use of the satellite network is free—all you need is an unobstructed view of the sky, but while GPS devices will work under cloud cover and inside cars, they may falter under heavy tree canopies, inside tall buildings or tunnels, or dense urban areas with lots of skyscrapers. Not sure which brand or model to look at? Let Pronto’s GPS Buying Guide help you choose (see also Auto GPS Buying Guide).
How often and for what purpose(s) will you use your GPS device? Do you often drive long distances? Do you need traffic and alternate routing information? Or will you be taking it mountain climbing, biking or camping or all of the above? Are coordinate points enough for you or do you need street-level maps to guide you?
Determining how much you need your GPS to do will help narrow down which model is best for you. Devices come with dedicated hard drives and/or Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) cards.
Look for easy-to-read displays with easy-to-navigate menus. Hard-to-read displays, clunky menus or awkward button placement could mean the difference between loving your GPS device and using it as a doorstop.
Do you need a continuous power source? Cigarette light adapters, additional battery packs and even solar chargers are available.
If you’ll be using your device outdoors, you may want to look at rubberized cases to protect them from falls and/or waterproofing. Some Handheld GPS devices come with optional dashboard mounts for use in your vehicle.
Provide general coverage of cities, towns, highways and bodies of water. Most units come equipped with built-in basemaps, but units without mapping are also available. Manufacturers may also offer basemapping software that allow you to upload new or different basemaps to the device.
Specific map locations, such as ATMs, gas stations, restaurants, etc. If having access to these locations is important to you, you’ll want to look for devices that can connect to your computer for geo-targeted data downloads.
Specific locations delivered in latitude and longitude. The more waypoints your device can store, the more accurate its navigation output. Standard GPS devices come within 10-15 meters. If you need more accuracy, look for GPS devices that support Wide Area Augmentation Systems (WAAS) or Differential GPS, both of which increase accuracy to within 3 meters.
Time to First Fix or the time the receiver takes to find its position in a new location. The SiRF Star III GPS receiver is the defacto standard for GPS devices because of its fast TTFF and its ability to acquire/maintain a signal in denser and more urban environments.
Where and how you’ll be using your Handheld GPS device will determine which one is best for you. As the name implies, Handheld GPS units are lightweight and designed to fit comfortably in your hand. Many of these pocket-sized units also come equipped with a belt clip which can come in handy for long hikes or adventures that require two free hands. Even wrist-mounted models are now available, like the Garmin Forerunner 305, and are favored by hikers and bikers who need to check position at a glance. Although Handheld GPS device screen sizes are smaller than most built-in vehicle models (2 inches versus 3-5 inches), they can still be used while driving. If you’ll be using your Handheld GPS in and out of the car, look for models with optional dashboard mounts for maximum flexibility.
Now that you know where you’ll be using your Handheld GPS Device, how will you be using it? GPS devices are available with and without mapping. Handheld GPS Devices without mapping like Garmin’s eTrex are less expensive and easier to learn how to use than those with mapping. However, you will need to be able to read and plot map coordinates (this will satisfy the needs of most hikers, bikers and geocaching enthusiasts who simply want to track their point of origin, view a log of their journey in progress and find interesting points along the way). If you’re buying exclusively for outdoor use, consider models that have altimeters and/or compasses. Some wrist-mount models even include heart-rate monitoring. GPS devices that feature mapping differ from non-mapping devices only in that they include a Basemap.
Almost all mapping GPS devices come with manufacturer-installed US street maps. Additional software is available if you need off road or international mapping capabilities. Look for device software that offers turn-by-turn directions and/or enables you to upload your own maps, Waypoints and Points of Interest (POI) . If you’re buying add-on software for your GPS Device, be sure it’s compatible with your computer. Mac users are limited by the availability of compatible software and should do further research before purchasing any GPS device. Even if you’re a PC user, you want a device with your computer to ensure easy transfer of updated maps and firmware from your computer (via the manufacturer’s Web site or CD-ROM) to your device.
How much storage you choose depends on how frequently and extensively you travel and whether you prefer to upload your data with or without the aid of your computer. If you need to save map information for several areas, you’ll need space to store them (a single Metropolitan area takes approximately 8Mb of storage space). If you prefer not to upload your data to your computer, additional memory can be purchased in the form of Compact Flash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) cards which can be swapped on the road or in the field as needed. If you prefer to store your data on CF or SD cards, you’ll need a GPS Device with the appropriate slot for data access.
Handheld GPS Device screens are typically 2.1 inches (wrist mounts are even smaller). Often, these smaller screens aren’t in color (Handheld GPS devices with color screens will cost you more, but if color is easier to see, it’s worth the investment). Above all, you want your device’s display to be easy to read and offer easy-to-navigate menus. Your most frequently used functions should be no more than two (2) screen taps away and it should be no more than another two (2) screen taps to get back to the original screen. Button size and placement are also considerations—if you’re device is awkward to use, you’re less likely to take advantage of all its features and functions.
Handheld GPS devices are designed to spend more time out of the car than in. Battery life in relation to usage is a key consideration. Purchase additional battery packs if you think you’ll need them and at least one additional pack even if you don’t. Cigarette lighter adapters give you another charging option for in-vehicle use alone or on your way to and from your outdoor activities. If you’ll be outdoors for an extended period of time, solar chargers, like the iSun are also good options.
Handheld GPS device are more prone to falls than other GPS devices. Rubberized cases minimize impact and can protect your device from damage after a fall. Likewise, if you’ll be using your device near water, look for models that are waterproof, not just weatherproof. Waterproof means the device can be submerged in water without sustaining damage, however, not all waterproofing is created equal: be sure to check the ratings (for example, an IPX7 rating means the device can be submerged in up to three (3) feet of water for 30 minutes).