A Driving Sense of Direction

GPS navigation devices are doing more while costing less


A Washington, D.C., driver plots a destination on the Nav730 navigation device from the company V7.


Jack Erbes really doesn't want to get lost. He has three GPS navigation devices—one for his car, one for his motorcycle, and one for his canoe. The mapping gadgets are handy when he wanders off his familiar routes in Ellsworth, Maine, and now they're cheap enough to have one for each vehicle. "It's really about convenience," he says. "And there's comfort in always knowing where you are."


It's a feeling many share. Hand-held navigation devices—the little gadgets that map terrestrial travels with help from circling satellites—now rank high on holiday wish lists, ahead of gaming consoles and video cameras and even with cellphones, according to analysts at Solutions Research. Sales of these devices are expected to more than double this year, pushed by ever falling prices. Starter products this month appeared for the first time at list prices of less than $200. And holiday discounts will drive prices below $100.

"It's an amazing acceleration for a category that largely didn't exist just three or four years ago," says Dominique Bonte, a market analyst with ABI Research. Bonte is based in Belgium, where he has watched Europeans leap ahead in their love for navigation gadgets. (Those centuries-old street plans are less than intuitive.) But America is quickly catching up, with sales here expected to exceed 8 million navigation devices this year. That's up from about 3 million in 2006, say Canalys researchers.

Originally launched in the 1980s by the Pentagon to help troops and missiles find their way, the global positioning system, or GPS, is a network of 24 satellites. Civilian use began with outdoor enthusiasts—the hikers and boaters who were willing to wrestle with "waypoints" on GPS devices that back then didn't have maps and pinpointed location in latitude and longitude. Two factors helped push GPS into the mainstream. In 2000, the Pentagon allowed civilian GPS receivers to be accurate to within about 10 feet. Then came the falling prices of computing power and lcd screens. That enabled manufacturers like Garmin and TomTom to introduce affordable products that put routes onto viewable maps. These products first appeared as in-dash systems on luxury cars. Those remain available but are expensive and typically lack the latest GPS capabilities. Instead, portable navigation receivers dominate the mar-ket today. They're primarily aimed at drivers, with speakers that announce upcoming turns. But it's a market undergoing rapid change. GPS chips are making their way into other devices, most notably cellphones. Wireless carriers such as Verizon and Sprint are offering small maps and turn-by-turn directions, through mobile phones. Introduced only last year, navigation services already account for half the purchases of cellphone users who download a service to their phone—beating out weather and even instant messaging, according to market researcher Telephia.

Upcoming GPS chips will be so small and power-frugal that they'll also sneak into just about anything portable, from digital cameras to game players to the jackets we wear, says Kanwar Chadha, founder of SiRF, a leading maker of GPS chips. Many devices could benefit from simply knowing where they are, what's around them, and who's around them, Chadha says. Location awareness could open up new ways to shop, play games, and meet friends, he says: "Location is an essential part of everything we do."

Shopping tips. For now, though, the bigger trend still is convergence, as navigation devices take on other abilities. Even lower-end models today often store and display digital photos, video, and music. Many midlevel versions act as hands-free kits for wireless phones and manage calendars and contacts like a PC.

That leaves today's holiday shopper with a wide range of options and prices. To start shopping, first look for models that use the SiRFStarIII chip set, the current industry standard. Because all the makers get their maps from the same two companies, there aren't major differences in the charts themselves. Name brands like Garmin and TomTom do offer more assurance that the companies will be around to sell you map updates for years to come. But there are scores of companies coming to market with navigation devices, many offering new features for less money. Generally, it also helps to break the market into three broad segments: