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Notes From The Road

GPS Buying Guide
By Deb Murphy/

Advice on what to look for when shopping for a personal GPS unit: (Continued)

In-Car Mounting
Next, mounting. Unless you can guarantee you'll never have to come to a quick stop or swerve sharply to avoid an accident, forget the beanbag-mounted GPS that sits on top of your dash. A much more stable system is one that sticks to the windshield with a suction cup (unless you live in California or Minnesota where anything windshield-mounted  is  against the law). The angled rigid arm is the best of the windshield mounts. The alternatives—ball-in-socket or gooseneck—may end up jiggling and bobbing.

Charge It
Most portable GPS systems include a rechargeable battery with a varying amount of life—some up to four hours. All can be plugged into your vehicle's 12-volt socket. The rechargeable systems are more versatile, especially if they include an AC power adapter.

Map Data
Early GPS units included limited map databases. If you wanted to expand that database, you had to download additional maps over the Internet, a process incompatible with spontaneity. Today's GPSs should include maps of the United States already installed.

Voice Directions
If you're looking for a solid system that fits a not-so-solid budget, the GPS ability to actually navigate is what you need to concentrate on. Look into text-to-speech capability, especially one that tells you the actual street to turn on, rather than an innocuous "turn left." The  discomfort of an electronic voice giving you directions can be overcome when you realize you can keep your eyes on the road instead of squinting into that 3.5-inch screen.

For those who need to use cell phones while driving, Bluetooth compatibility is a necessity (especially since handheld cell phone use is becoming illegal). The driver can make and receive hands-free calls through the unit's speaker and microphone, and view their telephone book and access caller ID on the screen. Your GPS can locate a restaurant at your destination, then the Bluetooth system can call for reservations. (That sure beats looking at topographic map and stopping to call from a phone booth—if you can find one.)

Entertainment at Hand
If your budget includes some extras or your driving habits require them, your GPS can turn into a tiny, little entertainment system. Some of the more practical features include real-time traffic reports available to subscribers through cell phone networks, FM signal or satellite radio. This service isn't universally available—currently only in major cities—but that's where you'd need them. An additional receiver may be necessary, so ask questions, and read the GPS' manual to fully understand what additional features are compatible. Another option to consider is a "detour" button that gives you alternate routes around traffic jams or road problems.

You can go whole-hog and get a GPS unit that can store and play pre-loaded audio files, show videos or display photos—all downloaded into the hard drive or on an SD card. And, some day soon, we'll probably even find a unit that will, if not actually floss your teeth, remind you to do it yourself—without getting lost.

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