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Tested: The best portable GPS units for your car

Boston.com tries 9 from Magellan, TomTom, Garmin, Mio and Navigon

By John M. Guilfoil
Boston.com Correspondent / September 24, 2008
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Not since 8-track tapes to cassettes have cars seen as dramatic a shift in accompaniment than with paper maps or printed driving directions to GPS units.

They'll get you where you have to go. They'll show you where to eat, sleep, fill the tank, and bring the kids. They'll show you how to drive through Milton to avoid the Braintree split on the expressway at 5 p.m. They even talk to you in the car – though they tend to monopolize the conversation.

Boston.com and Blast Magazine tested nine of the latest, greatest portable GPS units recently to see what the easiest way was to get from point A to point B. The results surprised us.

We tested the top offerings from the top two companies in the Garmin Nuvi 880 and TomTom Go 930. We paired those with the Garmin Nuvi 205 w and TomTom XL 330 S.

We also tested the cartoony Knight Rider GPS by Mio, featuring the voice of K.I.T.T., the talking car from the 80s television show that's making a return to the airwaves. We also tested the affordable Navigon 2100 max.

Finally, we pushed three Magellans to the limit: The Maestro 5310, Maestro 3250, and RoadMate 1430.

Reporters often rely on GPS units to deliver themselves to the scene of breaking news. Whether it's in Boston, down the Cape, or west past Worcester, they have to be there, and fast.

With that take in mind, the most important thing we looked for was map and address accuracy. Was that side street still there? Was 100 Main St. over here or 3 miles down the road? That was actually a problem with some of the units.

The second thing we looked for was speed – not just the fastest route to our destinations, but the speed of the machine. The unit should find and calculate destinations quickly. The touch screen should be responsive, and navigating through menus should be quick, without delay.

We were not exactly blown away to see that the Garmin and TomTom units were the best all-around solutions in the largely two-party GPS market, but what did surprise us was how close the race was.

Price and a few extra navigational features pushed the TomTom 930 slightly ahead of the Garmin 880.  They both do hands-free cell phone calling and text-to-speech street name pronunciation, and both have a 4.3-inch wide screen.

The price tag of the Garmin seems inflated by useless features like a built-in MP3 player, photo viewer and the FM transmitter that lets you listen to the directions on your car stereo. Some may find the MP3 player appealing, but when nearly every cell phone plays MP3s, who needs another music player?

We found the Magellan Maestro 5310's partnership with the AAA TourBook made it a good solution for families and older consumers. The Navigon 2100, at $299 (MSRP), is a great buy for a no-nonsense navigator. Rounding out the curve, we were OK with the blinking red lights and talking car voice of the Mio Knight Rider. What we couldn't get past were the inaccurate maps and addresses.

Our expert, Jeff Blossom, is a senior geographic information systems specialist at Harvard University. This man knows just about everything about maps and GPS devices, and he went with the Garmin. It's a brand he's used and trusted for years.

"I've found that Garmin has the most selection when it comes to mapping. They just have so many models," Blossom said.

Blossom said users should pay attention to the level of detail that the GPS unit's maps go into. Some units only list streets while others will go into detail like timed closures and one-way roads.

"Usability is great, like how big the screen is and how easy it is to read the device, but then also look at the data behind it," he said. "It's (either) a premium dataset that has all the details of the roads or a substandard one that allows some usability."

He said those details may be harder to see for those of us in the city area, but it gets more important when you're out in Western Mass. or Northern Maine and suddenly that dirt road you just came to isn't on the map.

John Guilfoil is the editor-in-chief of Blast Magazine and a western bureau correspondent for The Boston Globe. He can be reached at guilfoil.j@blastmagazine.com.

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