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The Best Car GPS Units

Smartphones can double as GPS units, but there’s no substitute for a dedicated in-car system. We rounded up the best GPS add-on systems you can stick right on your dash today and enjoy in-car guidance immediately.

While popular apps like Waze are pretty great, there are more than a few reasons why many people prefer dedicated GPS units. A dedicated unit is always in the car, works without internet access, and offers truly distraction-free driving (as the units just serve up directions without any other distracting functionality). Even if you have a built-in unit in your car, sometimes it’s worth upgrading to a portable unit simply because the unit in your car is prohibitively expensive to update or significantly out of date.

With that in mind, whether you’re traveling far afield and in need of some key directions to ensure you find your destination, or simply want a helping hand around the local area, it’s useful to have a little extra assistance. Many units also include traffic alerts and warnings about speed cameras, which is also helpful. Here are our favorite standalone GPS units to guide you on your journey.

Best All-Rounder: Garmin DriveSmart 61 ($210)

As a general all-rounder, you can’t beat the Garmin DriveSmart 61. Its 6.95 inch capacitive touch edge-to-edge display is bright and clear so there’s no risk of you missing spotting something on the map. It includes detailed maps of North America, along with free lifetime updates. It’s simple to use too, with clear on-screen buttons that anyone can figure out.

Besides turn by turn directions, you get live traffic updates, live parking information, and suggestions that offer time-saving alternate routes as and when you need them.

In addition to the core mapping functionality, there’s also great bonus features. There’s Bluetooth calling, smart notifications, and built-in Wi-Fi—with the Wi-Fi feature enabled the unit will automatically download updates from your home’s Wi-Fi network. If your car doesn’t have Bluetooth, this is an easy way to add hands-free calling to your vehicle.

Best For International Travel: TomTom Go 520 ($163)

Most car GPS units include lifetime updates for North America, but few also offer maps for the whole world. The TomTom Go 520 is one of the few that offers world maps and free lifetime traffic updates for the life of the device. If you plan on traveling even a modest amount outside of North America, this is a massive reason to purchase the TomTom over any other unit, but it’s also a fantastic unit in its own right.

It provides accurate traffic information at regular intervals, intelligently tweaking your route so that you avoid the worst of the traffic. On top of that, it learns your driving habits and predicts when you’re likely to drive to any of the frequent destinations saved in My Places, thereby saving you some setup time by automatically suggesting your route.

Finally, it’s compatible with both Siri and Google Now, plus there’s hands-free calling so there’s no need to take your hands off the steering wheel at any time.

Best For Extra Safety Features: Garmin DriveAssist 51 ($232)

Safety features are hugely popular in newer cars but if your car is a bit long in the tooth, you might be envious of some of this technology. The Garmin DriveAssist 51 goes some way to alleviating your envy. It has a built-in dash cam which not only records any activity going on while you drive but also adds some useful driver alerts. Crucially, there’s forward collision warning which warns you if you drive too closely to the vehicle ahead, or if you drift off the road into oncoming traffic. The dash cam itself is great for giving you an independent witness in the case of an accident.

Elsewhere you’ll find the typical but solidly dependable car GPS features. The GPS keeps an eye on traffic, redirects you around traffic jams with live updates, and includes weather updates. Like the DriveAssist 61, above, it notifies you of nearby parking with price and payment information included.

Best Budget Choice: Garmin Drive 50 ($99)

Look at the price of the Garmin Drive 50, and it’d be understandable to assume that this is a GPS with limited functionality. In reality, it packs a lot into its low price.

Now, admittedly, the screen isn’t as bright or as cutting edge as more expensive examples. Instead, it utilizes a WQVGA color TFT touchscreen with white backlight. The other units in our roundup have more responsive capacitive screens (like the screen on your smartphone), whereas this unit’s screen is more like the press-to-touch screens found on an ATM or grocery store checkout console. However, that’s a small price to pay for, well, paying a small price.

Elsewhere, it has the same solid driving directions you’d expect from Garmin and also informs you of any speed limits or speed cameras along the way. Additionally, there are alerts for upcoming sharp curves, speed changes, school zones, and even if you’ve simply been driving too long.

There’s preloaded data from Foursquare too, so millions of stores and restaurants are included with the map package. It’s a good choice if your budget is tight and you don’t intend on traveling outside the country.

Best For Traffic Alerts: Garmin DriveLuxe 50 ($220)

All the car GPS units here have traffic alerts, but we’ve found the Garmin DriveLuxe 50 has the edge where that feature is concerned. It features HD Digital, which is Garmin’s fancy way of saying it’s the best and fastest traffic avoidance solution they offer right now. With updates as often as every 30 seconds, it keeps a close eye on what’s ahead for you. The moment it spots an issue, you’re redirected from an infuriating jam.

In addition, there’s the usual bevy of useful GPS features. You get driver alerts for sharp bends, school zones, speed changes, and speed cameras. There’s a fatigue warning too if the unit feels you’ve been driving for too long.

Hands-free calling and voice-activated navigation are included too, along with customizable smartphone notifications so your calls, texts, and other alerts can be displayed on the navigation screen. It’s a comprehensive package besides those all-important traffic alerts. It’s a good compromise between ignoring all notifications and letting them through in a way that minimizes the distraction.

Image credit: Garmin

Jennifer Allen Jennifer Allen
Jennifer is a freelance writer for ReviewGeek. In the past decade, she's also written for Wareable, TechRadar, Mashable, Eurogamer, Gamasutra, Playboy, and PCWorld. Read Full Bio »