Free smartphone navigation apps from Apple and Google offer turn-by-turn driving, walking and biking directions. And many new cars have the option of built-in navigation systems. So is there any longer a reason to buy a stand-alone GPS unit?
While smartphone navigation apps have some advantages, including limiting the number of devices one needs to buy and carry around, they also have some negatives.
For starters, smartphone screens are often tiny; those on dedicated GPS units can be almost twice the size.
In addition, navigation apps are processor-intensive, causing smartphones to heat up and the battery to run down faster than otherwise. The apps generally eat into a consumer’s data plan, as well.
When a call comes in, even if you answer it using hands-free Bluetooth, the smartphone map disappears for some period of time. And if you are playing music on your smartphone, the songs cut out to make way for the voice prompts giving directions.
Those are reasons “customers want a product that’s fit for one purpose, something they can put on their windscreen,” said Corinne Vigreux, managing director of TomTom Consumer, one of the top GPS device makers.
In Europe, TomTom’s stand-alone GPS business is growing, Vigreux said, as customers look for ways to avoid smartphone and data roaming charges when they cross international borders.
TomTom, like Garmin and Magellan, the two other largest GPS manufacturers, is trying to evolve with the times, to create units that offer additional features and exploit some of the negatives of using your Android or iPhone device as a GPS navigation system.
The three companies now offer devices with simplified touch-screen interfaces, for example, as well as faster GPS positioning, detailed 3-D graphics and turn-by-turn directions in which the voice speaks the street name or other identifying information.
Both Garmin and Magellan offer GPS stand-alone products with integrated dashcams. Garmin also sells a unit that, in addition to the dashcam, features lane departure and forward collision warnings.
“Why a consumer should still buy a separate GPS unit is a question we ask ourselves all the time,” said Bill Strand, Magellan’s associate director of product marketing.
Whether these new strategies will help to stabilise and strengthen the market is still an open question. “We’re finding things that smartphones are not good at yet,” Strand said. “But it’s a moving target; it could change next year.”
Here is a rundown of some of the newest models with the latest features.
Garmin Nuevi ($400): The Nuevi, Garvin’s flagship unit, incorporates a dashcam and lane departure and collision warning systems into its 6-inch display. An optional $170 backup camera that must be wired into the brake light can be integrated into the unit. The camera continuously records up to one hour of video on the included SD card, and then records over the previous video when space is used up.
When sensors detect a crash or bump, that video sequence and several seconds before the incident are automatically saved for later viewing or uploading to the Garmin website. The model can also be used to take still images, useful in the case of an accident. While the product includes only North America maps, maps of other countries can be downloaded for around $70.
Magellan RoadMate 6230 ($200) and SmartGPS 5390 ($170): With its 5-inch screen, the RoadMate offers an intuitive interface and basic navigation features, along with a built-in dashcam (a compatible connected backup camera is an extra-cost option). As with the Garmin model, the RoadMate records continuously and will automatically store video taken when a bump or crash occurs. The video can be viewed on the device or downloaded by a PC running Windows.
In addition to pronouncing street names, the RoadMate also provides directions based on landmarks so, for example, a driver will be instructed to “turn right at the Chevron station” rather than “turn right at Main Street.”
The SmartGPS from Magellan eschews the dashcam and instead includes a number of apps commonly found on smartphones, such as current gas (or diesel) prices based on price, distance or brand; Yelp and Foursquare reviews; and other apps that can be downloaded. A companion smartphone app allows data and directions to be synced between devices. Bluetooth allows the SmartGPS to act as a cellphone speaker to make hands-free calls. The two Magellan units are for North America only. Other countries’ maps cannot be added.
TomTom GO 600 ($250): Pinch and swipe gestures can be used to move around the GO 600’s large 6-inch screen and cycle through preference screens. Multiple voices are available to read directions, including celebrity voices for purchase, but only the computer-generated versions read actual street names.
The GO includes lifetime maps and real-time traffic data, which can be transmitted from a smartphone app via a Bluetooth connection. The amount of data used for traffic updates is tiny, according to TomTom: equivalent to two downloaded songs a month. The app can also be used to search for routes before entering the vehicle; that information is then transmitted to the GPS unit. Maps for other countries can be downloaded to the GO; they cost $40 and up, depending on region.