Manufacturers of handheld GPS units have introduced a number of tempting upgrades beyond the basic, no-frills models. We think two are worth the extra money: a wider screen and "text-to-voice" capability.
The jump from an entry-level GPS unit's 3.5-inch screen to 4.3 inches makes for a surprisingly big leap in ease of use. True, you get a more panoramic view of the roads you're navigating, but you also get a less scrunched view of how far it is to the next turn and your estimated time of arrival. Also, middle-aged eyes will especially appreciate the extra space when you switch to menu pages (which can list a half-dozen icons or a dozen addresses).
Perhaps the biggest advantage is the margin of error when you're fumbling to tap in a course correction or see if there's a gas station at the next exit as you're zipping along at 75 miles an hour in heavy traffic. Expect to pay about $40 to $100 more for a widescreen model, such as the Garmin Nuvi 200W ($199), Magellan Maestro 4000 ($209) or TomTom One XL ($237).
The text-to-voice feature translates road names into speech. So instead of hearing, "Turn left, 200 yards," you hear, "Turn left on Laurel Street, 200 yards." It's a good option if you're uncomfortable glancing at the map in an area dense with crossroads, or if you need to hear actual street names to drive with confidence. The computer will mangle the occasional street name, but it's usually close enough to understand.
To get text-to-voice, you usually have to spring for a unit with a 4.3-inch screen, such as the Magellan Maestro 4040 ($268), TomTom One XL-S ($279) or Garmin Nuvi 260W ($301). One exception is the Garmin Nuvi 260 ($226), which has a 3.5-inch screen.
Real-time traffic reports may sound like the coolest idea since carpool lanes if you live in a congested metropolitan area. With this service, your GPS gives you a heads-up on congestion and construction, and then reroutes you around the trouble.But at about $70 a year, the traffic-reports feature is a work in progress you may want to skip for now. The reports are available only in certain cities; alerts, even on major highways, may come late or not at all; and the GPS unit's suggested detour could take you to an even more congested secondary road that's not covered by the network of traffic sensors, news organizations and other information sources from which reports are cobbled.
Robert Frick is a senior editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected]