Smart choices

Getting where you are going

Various features make GPS directions more or less specific

Consumer Reports / January 16, 2011

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Portable GPS navigators are now packed with more features, but you might have a hard time trying to decipher functions such as “text-to-speech’’ or “lane assist.’’

Which features are worth looking for and which can be bypassed? Here’s Consumer Reports’ take on what’s important:

Traffic information. This shows traffic flow along major highways, as well as location of accidents and road construction. It can warn you of congestion along your route, and some systems even reroute around it. At one time traffic info was available only by subscription, for about $60 per year. But many newer models provide it free of charge (sometimes listed as “lifetime traffic’’), supported by small onscreen ads. That’s the way to go.

Bottom line. It can be useful for metro-area commuters or for navigating around rush-hour traffic in an unfamiliar city. But CR found it can be limited, and accuracy can vary. You can often get similar information with radio traffic reports.

Connected services. By using a built-in cellular modem, some high-end Garmin and TomTom models can deliver real-time online information for items such as local weather, fuel prices, and movie times. Or you can perform a Google search for a nearby business or point of interest. After an initial period of free service, a subscription is required ($10 per month for TomTom, $60 per year for Garmin).

Bottom line. If you don’t mind the fee, the service can be handy if you frequently make local searches or want access to the most up-to-date information. But keep in mind that if you’re in an area with no data connection, it won’t help you.

Voice recognition. This allows you to enter a destination and perform other functions simply by speaking a command. It’s available in a few high-end models.

Bottom line. It’s handy but not essential. It can reduce distraction by helping you keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road. But patience is often needed. CR found Garmin’s system the most helpful.

Text-to-speech. Also called “spoken street names.’’ It lets a unit say specific street names or highway numbers when it gives directions, rather than simply saying a generic “turn left.’’

Bottom line. It makes directions more precise and is available even in lower-priced models.

Reality view/lane assist. These are often packaged together. Reality view displays a 3D view of exits, intersections, and overhead signs as you approach them. Lane assist shows the best lane to be in for an upcoming turn.

Bottom line. These are worth looking for. They make highway transitions easier to navigate.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at

GPS prices can vary significantly, and sales are common. So shop around.

Magellan Maestro 4350, $150
TomTom XL340 S Live, $150

TomTom Go 740 Live, $250
Garmin Nuvi 1490T, $250

Motorola Motonav TN765t, $280
Garmin Nuvi 3760T, $400