GPS Is My Co-Pilot

Which in-car navigation device is best?

A few months ago, I tried to drive from my Washington, D.C., apartment to the Tyson’s Corner mall in the Virginia suburbs. An hour later, I found myself dozens of miles off course. In Maryland. At the edge of Andrews Air Force Base. My sense of direction had always been a minor inconvenience. Now, it was almost criminally bad. It was time to get a satellite navigation system.

Not long ago, you could get such systems (which use data from the government’s GPS satellites) only as a dealer-installed option in high-end cars. There’s now a fiercely competitive market for portable, after-market systems that sit on your dashboard. Getting started is simply a matter of plugging one into your cigarette lighter and pressing the power button.

I auditioned five systems for the role of computerized automotive co-pilot: the Cobra NAV ONE 3000 (you can find it for around $850), the Garmin StreetPilot c330 ($700), the Lowrance iWAY 500C ($800), the Magellan RoadMate 760 ($1,100), and the TomTom GO 300 ($700).

Setup: The most noticeable difference between the units is size. The StreetPilot and the GO fit in my palm; the RoadMate slips comfortably into cargo pants. By comparison, the NAV ONE and the iWAY are massive, each about the size of a thick hardcover book.

When you mount a navigation device in your car, size becomes a practical concern. All five of the ones I tested attach to the windshield with suction mounts. None ever came loose, but the bulky NAV ONE and iWAY jiggled enough that reading their screens was sometimes difficult. The shaking pretty much rendered the bigger units’ only advantage—their larger screens—moot.

The easiest ones to set up were the GO and the StreetPilot. Both have docking stations with integrated power adapters that you can leave permanently connected—just snap the units into place when you want to use them. The other three must be remounted and reconnected each time you use them.

Winners: The GO and the StreetPilot.

Interfaces: Again, the GO and the StreetPilot are hard to top. The receivers have large, bright icons that you can easily tap with a finger. The StreetPilot has a few extra niceties—a dedicated volume knob and a screen that’s easier to read in direct sunlight—but both units are vastly easier to use than the NAV ONE and the iWAY. (The iWAY does deserve special mention for including an MP3 player, but it’s so clumsy to use that I quickly returned to my iPod.) Even the RoadMate, which is relatively simple to set up, lacks the extra intuitiveness that make the GO and the StreetPilot fun to use.

Each model comes preloaded with the equivalent of a point-and-click Yellow Pages. These “point of interest” databases list pretty much every attraction in the greater D.C. area. Selecting a destination is a matter of drilling down through category menus: To find the Tyson’s Corner mall, for example, you select “shopping,” then scroll through a list of shopping centers that’s sorted by distance from your current location.

If you want to find a private home, you’ll have to enter the address manually. The iWAY, the GO, and the StreetPilot all have keyboards on their touch-sensitive screens. The NAV ONE, which lacks a touch-screen, uses a set of buttons along the right edge of the screen—a confusing setup in which it’s not always clear which buttons correspond to which on-screen options. (If you have a Palm or PocketPC organizer, you can bypass this clumsy system by “beaming” the NAV ONE an address—for everyone else, address entry is a chore.) The best address-entry system belongs to the RoadMate: Its onscreen keyboard sports a predictive text feature like the one cell phones use for text messaging.

Winner: RoadMate, with the GO and the StreetPilot tied for second.

Directions: Every receiver except the NAV ONE allows you to choose between a traditional top-down map and a 3-D video-game-style view. (The RoadMate’s 3-D option is weak, though). You can also choose between two orientations: north on top or your current heading on top. I’m a fan of the 3-D, heading-up view. The top-down map doesn’t give you a sense of relative distances, and watching a car icon inch down while you’re going forward is too disorienting. The GO and the StreetPilot get extra points for the best out-of-the-box view (3-D, heading-up). Every system displays a startup warning along the lines of “if you don’t watch the road, you will die.” After several near-collisions, I agree. Since it’s not safe to keep your eyes glued to the map, I mostly relied on voice prompts, with only the occasional peek at the map.

All the systems include natural, nonrobotic-sounding voices. The Go, though, wins points for letting you choose between several co-pilots—you can even download John Cleese’s voice for around $12. The Australian, Ken, charmed me with his habitual instruction to “tuhn on the murderway”—er, “turn on the motorway.” I soon came to regard him as a trusted friend. Once or twice, I even found myself thanking him for his excellent service. It’s now been a while since I’ve had the GO in my car, and I miss that reassuring voice. Ken, it’s not a murderway without you, buddy.

Winner: The GO.

Overall: None of these systems stands apart for its accuracy. All of them are equally amazing at pinpointing your location, and all of them give directions that are as good as any online mapping service. A few of the directions I received—like the GO’s command to drive from Georgetown to Adams Morgan via Q Street—were inspired. But if you spend your days driving around the same suburb or city center, none of these units will make your life much easier—you’ll be better off planning your occasional trips into unfamiliar terrain with a road atlas or MapQuest.

So, who should buy a GPS device? People like me, who are cursed with a bad sense of direction and an unfamiliar city or an ever-changing commute. For the directionally challenged, a navigation system quickly becomes as indispensable as a cell phone.

The StreetPilot and the GO were my favorites by far. They’re both small, easy to set up, and will inspire gadget lust in all your friends. How to choose? Not even the shape of the receiver helps—they look nearly identical. The one major difference is price. Though prices on GPS units can vary wildly, you can generally get a healthy discount on the GO if you buy online; some stores sell it for as little as $550 to the StreetPilot’s $700. The GO also undercuts the lesser competition, all of which retail for more. It’s a rarity in the tech world: a device that’s simpler, more elegant, and cheaper than the competition.