The Consumer Reports GPS team has tested more than 100 devices this past year, over thousands of miles, and we have come to prize some features more than others. Below, we highlight those we'd recommend at least considering before buying a device. The good news is, these features are now readily available on low-cost and mid-priced units.
Spoken street names: Often listed as "text to speech," this feature means the device can read the street names from its database, enabling it to speak "Turn left on Main Street," rather than simply "Turn left." Spoken street names is especially helpful in busy, urban areas where knowing the street name without looking at the screen can be a real convenience.
Reality view: On major intersections, such as a highway exit, reality view can graphically represent the roads and signage, making it easy to relate the map guidance to the real world. Reality view is often combined with lane assistance, which points to the proper lane to be in for exiting or remaining on the right path when the road forks. Once considered a premium feature, reality view is now available in many affordable devices.
Predictive data entry and dynamic search: Given that you are by definition using a GPS device when you're on the go, speed and convenience are important. Predictive data entry will highlight only letters on the touchscreen keyboard that make possible combinations. When routing in Pennsylvania, for instance, if you type "Pitt", the system will then highlight "S" as the next letter for Pittsburgh. A common related feature, dynamic search helps narrow down options based on input, so when searching California for a town beginning with "San", the GPS device would suggest San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, etc. You can then pick one from the list or just keep typing.
Detour: The ability to detour around traffic or another trouble spot is important for drivers who plan to routinely use GPS, though devices vary widely in ease of detouring and the options available. Some models allow the user to select a specific distance to route around a problem. Traffic-capable devices integrate their traffic information with detouring functions, prompting a user to choose an alternative route when traffic conditions are unfavorable.
Bluetooth compatibility: This allows you to make and receive telephone calls using the unit's internal speaker, microphone, and screen. A real hands-free convenience, a Bluetooth-equipped GPS device automatically quiets directions while call is being made. Such devices can display the user's telephone book and show caller ID on-screen. A nice tie-in, this feature allows for dialing point-of-interest locations found in the GPS device. Of course, this functionality requires a Bluetooth-compatible telephone. Many new vehicles already have this feature built in, but a Bluetooth-equipped device can bring this modern technology to older cars.
As portable GPS devices rapidly advance, there are other features available and new ones being introduced every few months. However, those listed above, and discussed in the video, are the core features that we think most shoppers should consider. These are all highlighted on our GPS model pages and their operation factors into our ratings.
—Jeff Bartlett with Frank Spinelli