A Driving Sense of Direction

GPS navigation devices are doing more while costing less

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

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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.