From the Desk of Mike The Hammer Garvin

Even these top-of-the-line units are not perfect; a GPS receiver is only as good as its most recent database update. But in general, these are incredible machines’

GPS systems that really bring it on home

By David Pogue
International Herald Tribune

In the beginning, GPS did not stand for Global Positioning System. It stood for the Grunting and Pointing System, used by cave dwellers to indicate the nearest watering hole.

By the horse-and-buggy era, GPS had evolved into a different navigation technology: Guidance by Pony Sense. In the automobile age, GPS came to mean Grumbling by Peeved Spouse ("Why don't you just stop and ask?").

Today, GPS is a beautiful thing. A receiver in your car can learn its own location from government-owned satellites overhead - your tax money at work. You're guided to a destination with colorful moving maps on a touch screen and an authoritative voice ("In 200 feet, turn right").

I went looking for GPS models that fulfill three requirements. First, each must be tiny - about the size of an index card, self-contained and battery-operated, so you can take it hiking or biking when it's not plugged into your car's cigarette lighter. Second, each must display live traffic and accident data - and offer to reroute you as necessary, even if the service costs extra.

And finally, each must pronounce actual street names - not just "turn right," but "turn right on South Maple Street." That feature makes an enormous difference when you're flying blind in a new town.

As it turns out, only the top models meet those criteria. Now, even these top-of-the-line units are imperfect; in a world where roads are constantly changing, a GPS receiver is only as good as its most recent database update. But in general, these are absolutely incredible machines. For a complete table of features, visit nytimes.com/tech.

Cobra Nav One 4500. This is probably the chattiest GPS unit ever made. "Now enter the street name," it says. "You don't need to add suffixes like 'East' or 'Avenue,' " it advises. And so on.

But to its credit, the first thing Chatty tells you is how to turn it off. And the truth is, these voice prompts make the Cobra infinitely easier to use than its rivals. It's like having a company rep in the passenger seat, explaining what each button does.

That, alas, is the Cobra's chief virtue. The navigation screen is pretty cluttered, and the animated "please wait" logo makes too many appearances, suggesting that the Nav One's processor is not quite up to the task. The Cobra's feature list is shorter than its rivals', too; for example, the Cobra and Magellan are the only units here that cannot play music and voice prompts through a clear, unused FM frequency on your radio, a feature that works great outside of metropolitan areas.

Harman Kardon Guide + Play GPS 810. This intriguing unit comes with a toadstool-shaped knob with compass-point buttons that attaches to your dashboard, console or steering wheel. This lets you control the GPS unit wirelessly. In other words, you do not have to lean or reach to operate the touch screen. Since you can interact with portable models even while you're driving, unlike built-in car systems, you could argue that the wireless knob makes the Guide+Play just a little bit safer.

The G+P loses safety points, though, with its other unusual feature: it can play videos that you have loaded from your computer. But you'll watch them only when you're waiting to pick someone up, never while driving. Right?

The software design is clean and responsive. The navigation is generally smart; like its rivals, the G+P offers either an overhead-map (2-D) view or an extremely helpful 3-D view, which lets you pretend you're seeing your path from the cockpit of a helicopter.

Magellan Maestro 4250. Like any gadget in a car, GPS receivers are a distraction, and therefore a safety risk. So it's amazing that speech recognition did not arrive in these units sooner.

On the Magellan, it is not much; you can say things like "Magellan, go home," "Magellan, nearest ATM" or "Magellan, nearest Italian restaurant." You have to talk loud, and you have to speak close to the unit. But it's a start.

The screen display is excellent and the navigation is good, especially the magnified split-screen view that appears at each turn. You can choose which kinds of unfortunate traffic events you want brought to your attention: road work, slow traffic, stopped traffic, accidents and so on. On the downside, the Magellan can be slow to compute routes, or recompute them when you make a wrong turn. And the maps are not as refined-looking as that of TomTom or Garmin.

Garmin Nuvi 680. It is smooth, fast and good-looking, showing the kind of polish you can achieve when you have been playing the GPS game for years.

The screen is incredibly bright, with beautiful 2-D or 3-D maps. You have a choice of voices, including two with cute Australian accents.
The Nuvi can receive MSN Direct, the wireless data broadcast that Microsoft originally created for its wireless wristwatches. Once you've signed up, for a fee, traffic flow is indicated with color coding on the maps. Better yet, you also get weather, local movie times and even local gas prices. It's pretty great to have all that right on your dashboard.

Nitpickers will note that on this unit, you cannot exclude a particular road from your route, and the speaker is too weak when the road noise is loud.
TomTom 920T. This top-of-the-line TomTom looks stunning, even before you turn it on. Its 3-D display is the most elegant available, with the smoothest animation and smartest layout. A light sensor dims the screen at night; a speed sensor tracks your place even in tunnels; and an audio sensor cranks the voice volume when the road gets loud. Then there is the speech recognition: Rather than fussing with a touch keyboard to input destinations, you just speak them when prompted, and you are on your way.

The windshield suction cup is not as good as with Garmin, and the voice consistently pronounces bridge as "branch." But overall, this receiver represents the high-tech state of the art.

The whizzy TomTom, the super-bright Garmin and the less-featured Harman Kardon are all light-years more advanced than anything you can get preinstalled in your car. Besides, buying one of these portables means you can move it between cars. They completely transform the business of driving. They're expensive - basic prices range from $450 to $620 - but they earn their keep by saving you the GPS of getting lost: Guessing, Panicking and Swearing.
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