GPS units — they’re not just for the directionally challenged anymore.
Thanks to new models with new features, the one-time navigational aids are increasingly dashboard-mounted multi-tools that can improve life on the road for even the most well-adjusted wheel jockey.
Take the five units below, which my daughter and I tested on a recent road trip between Los Angeles and Seattle. We may have been traveling from Point A to Point B, but our dashboard directors found us plenty of good points in between.
Garmin StreetPilot c580 ($799)
Even L.A.’s labyrinthine freeway system didn’t faze this new model from . Voice commands announce actual street names — many GPS units simply say “Turn right (or left) ahead” — which helped untangle the knots of upcoming exit ramps, and it automatically calculated a new route whenever I got off track.
The unit also comes with a free 12-month subscription to MSN Direct, which provides updated traffic reports, local gas prices and even movie times (in select cities). You can listen to music, set proximity alerts for points of interest (POIs) and use a Bluetooth-enabled phone for hands-free calling.
Then there’s the Detour function, which we used on our way to the Santa Monica Pier. When Santa Monica Boulevard got jammed up, we tapped the Detour icon and the unit directed us over to Colorado Boulevard, which dead-ended right at the entrance to the pier.
Magellan Maestro 4000 ($399)
This new unit from packs a lot of power into a slim, BlackBerry-sized unit. POIs are organized into 25 convenient categories; the SmartDetour tool avoids freeway delays; and an auto-complete feature takes the hunting and pecking out of typing in addresses.
The unit also accesses the entire AAA TourBook library, which lists lodging, restaurants and attractions, along with detailed information on amenities, prices and hours of operation. AAA members can even direct Roadside Assistance to their exact location.
Fortunately, we didn’t need the latter feature, but the 4000 did find us a great picnic spot — Will Rogers State Historic Park — along with its amenities and admission fees on our way to Malibu. And when it was time to hit the road again, it located 20 coffee shops within three miles. Only 12 were Starbucks.
Harman Kardon GPS-500 ($399)
Leave it to the audiophiles at to incorporate geography and high fidelity. The Guide + Play GPS-500 is iPod-sized, features full music-browsing capability and will hold as many songs (or videos) as you can fit on a 4GB SD memory card.
Of course, it also works as a top-notch GPS unit, letting you input multiple destinations, prioritize route parameters and see POIs 40-plus miles away — a nice feature when you’re trying to decide where to stop for dinner or the night.
In fact, while on our way to Yosemite, I realized we wouldn’t make Mariposa, our planned destination before dark. Instead, I brought up Oakhurst, found an appropriate hotel and cued up some Tom Petty to set the mood. We weren’t exactly “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” but we definitely put the pedal down and made some time.
TomTom GO 910 ($499)
Any GPS unit can calculate a route between Sacramento and Springfield, Oregon — “Continue on I-5 for 385 miles” — but this model from can actually take your mind off the distance. It features an internal MP3 player, can control your iPod and lets you choose between dozens of voices and languages.
And that’s just straight out of the box. With the company’s TomTom PLUS software, you can also download any of 23,000 audiobooks, send text messages and/or navigate to other “TomTom Buddies” and get updated weather, road and traffic information.
The 910’s navigational features are equally impressive. You can browse your route in several modes, add multiple destinations and tap on-screen POIs to bring up phone numbers for Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calling. The unit announces actual street names (select voices only) and rapidly calculates a new route when people like me don’t listen.
Navman N40i ($449)
The folks at clearly subscribe to the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words: The N40i (among others) features its own 1.3-megapixel camera. Snap a photo and the unit will save it with the appropriate coordinates, which means you can navigate back to it without typing a word.
In Portland, for example, I took a picture of our hotel before we went sightseeing. When it was time to return, I brought up the shot and the N40i did the rest. You can also download images from the company’s massive online library before you leave and share travel shots with other users.
Other cool features include a spelling wizard for POIs, multiple-stop functionality and dedicated buttons for gas stations and parking lots. Best of all, when I missed the freeway entrance that would take us home to Seattle, it quickly provided an updated route and had us on our way.