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:
Under $250—Fully capable GPS navigation devices with a few add-ons, such as the ability to display photos and play music. They might come with maps of only the United States and data on fewer points of interest, such as parks, restaurants, and gas stations. The screens will usually be about 3.5 inches across. The Nav730 ($200) from V7 adds "text to speech," meaning it will plug the street name into directions, as in, "Turn right on Davis Drive," instead of just, "Turn right." Or the Garmin Mobile series ($100 and up) can add GPS to your computers and smartphones.
$250 to $500—Displays go widescreen, with many offering bigger, 4.3-inch screens. They come with maps of more countries and points of interest. Maps take on a more 3-D look. Many of these gadgets also serve as a hands-free kit for cellphones, plus a calendar and address book, and some have options to get real-time traffic updates. The TomTom Go 720 ($450) also lets you correct its maps and share the changes with other TomTom users.
$500 and up—Displays can get big, with 7-inch screens beginning to appear. Some respond to voice commands, meaning you can enter an address by speaking it. Many will allow multiple destinations, letting you customize a route through several towns you want to visit. The Mio C720t builds in a 2-megapixel digital camera. The combo not only is convenient but also tags the location of each shot. That makes it easy to later build a vacation slide show into a map of your travels. It even captures video.
Still, the primary goal should remain getting to a destination, as it was for Ron Hunter. He was losing faith in his Magellan eXplorist 400 on a recent cross-state trip from his Fort Worth-area home to Amarillo, Texas, and nearby Palo Duro Canyon State Park. "My wife was saying the [receiver] had to be wrong and that we had to do something," says Hunter. "But we stuck with it, and suddenly, we're sitting at the park entrance." And he didn't even have to stop and ask for directions.