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Technology

The Best GPS for $300 or Less

Buy the features you need and forget the rest.

Cutthroat competition has made it possible to buy a simple, inexpensive navigation device for your car. But models packed with new features can still make finding your way to the perfect GPS unit for you a tricky exercise. Keep in mind that among the many bells and whistles, only two features -- a wider screen and text-to-voice capability -- are really worth the money.

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For those out of the geosynchronous loop, the global positioning system is a group of satellites that allows those with receivers to pinpoint their exact location on the planet, plus their speed and direction. The most common type of receiver, a portable GPS unit for your car, has surged in popularity over the past year.

A battle for market share among the big three manufacturers -- Garmin, Magellan and TomTom -- has forced prices down. And the units' once-daunting menus have been replaced by simple touch-screen icons. "You don't even need to use the manual," says Tom Murray, vice-president of marketing for TomTom. That's no exaggeration. In testing several models, I never cracked a pamphlet.

Although brand-name models may command a premium of $20 to $50, industry observers like Scott Manchuso, of Web site GPSLodge.com, say that devices from the top three are easier to use and are often more accurate than cheaper units. "Garmin's interface is dead simple," says Manchuso. "It asks 'Where to?' or 'View map?' How much easier can it get?"

POINT A TO POINT B

The purpose of GPS is to get you where you want to go. To that end, you enter your destination on a touch screen, and a small map pops up with your route highlighted and arrows showing where you need to turn. Voice prompts may also tell you, for example, to "turn right after 300 yards." But the units' voice technology isn't perfect. Approaching the dreaded Capital Beltway that surrounds Washington, D.C., one device insisted that I needed to make an immediate right. I ended up in a mall parking lot, off the grid. The voice fell silent until I drove to a road it recognized. Another unit's map accurately pointed me to the left, but its voice told me to bear right. Moral: When in doubt, trust the map.

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List prices for GPS units bear no relation to reality, and ordering online is usually cheaper than buying from a big-box retailer. Although you may find a cheaper price at another e-tailer, Amazon.com has the best selection.

For basic navigation, consider the TomTom One (recently $142; compare current prices, Garmin NÜVI 200 ($138; compare current prices) and Magellan Maestro 3100 ($130; compare current prices). Should you spend more to get better directions? No, says Fletcher Previn, of GPSmagazine.com. The best-kept secret in the GPS world, says Previn, is that within a particular product line, "the $200 model will choose the exact same route as the $1,000 model."A basic model can also direct you to nearby gas stations, restaurants, police stations, parking lots and points of interest. You can tell the unit to take you via the shortest or quickest route, to avoid toll roads, or to travel by way of a favorite road.

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You'll need to update your maps at least once a year. Garmin's annual updates are $70 for the continental U.S., and Magellan's run about $80. TomTom offers updates by region. For example, the New England/Mid Atlantic map costs $60; the entire North American map is $100.

WORTHWHILE UPGRADES

Beyond the basics, you have a few add-on choices to help you get from point A to point B more conveniently. Two are worth the extra money: a wider screen and text-to-voice capability.

The jump from an entry-level GPS unit's 3.5-inch screen to 4.3 inches makes for a surprisingly big leap in ease of use. True, you get a more panoramic view of the roads you're navigating, but you also get a less scrunched view of how far it is to the next turn and your estimated time of arrival. Also, middle-aged eyes will especially appreciate the extra space when you switch to menu pages (which can list a half-dozen icons or a dozen addresses).

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Perhaps the biggest advantage is the margin of error when you're fumbling to tap in a course correction or see if there's a gas station at the next exit as you're zipping along at 75 miles an hour in heavy traffic. Expect to pay about $40 to $100 more for a wide-screen model, such as the Garmin NÜVI 200w ($199; compare current prices), Magellan Maestro 4000 ($209; compare current prices) and TomTom One XL ($237; compare current prices).

The text-to-voice feature translates road names into speech. So instead of hearing, "Turn left, 200 yards," you hear, "Turn left on Laurel Street, 200 yards." It's a good option if you're uncomfortable glancing at the map in an area dense with crossroads, or you need to hear actual street names to drive with confidence. The computer will mangle the occasional street name, but it's usually close enough to understand. This feature would have prevented my Beltway mishap because instead of just "Bear right," I would have heard, "Bear right onto Interstate 495."

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To get a text-to-voice unit, you usually have to spring for one with a 4.3-inch screen, such as the Magellan Maestro 4040 ($268; compare current prices), TomTom One XL-S ($279; compare current prices) and Garmin NÜVI 260W ($301; compare current prices). One exception is the Garmin ÜVI 260 ($226), which has a 3.5-inch screen.

CAUGHT IN TRAFFIC

In congested metro areas, traffic reports may sound like the coolest idea since car-pool lanes. With this service, your GPS gives you a heads-up on congestion and construction, and then reroutes you around the trouble.

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But at about $70 a year, the traffic-reports feature is a work in progress you may want to skip for now. The reports are available only in certain cities; alerts, even on major highways, may come late or not at all; and the GPS unit's suggested detour could take you to an even more congested secondary road that's not covered by the network of traffic sensors, news organizations and other information sources from which reports are cobbled. Previn, of GPSmagazine.com, says that if you have a long commute along a stretch of road that's well covered, the service is worth it. That's a big if for most people.

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Expect traffic reports from the major GPS players to be much improved in about a year. Manufacturers are scrambling to use data collected from GPS units and cell-phone signals to get instant info on traffic speeds, which will translate into congestion information on both primary and secondary roads. Current GPS units that can receive traffic reports may or may not be able to receive these upgraded reports, manufacturers say.

Other options offered on GPS units have nothing to do with navigation. For a price (generally more than $500), those who like all-in-one gizmos can get a GPS with an MP3 player, an audiobook player, a photo viewer and Bluetooth. And if you think you really need these features and don't mind paying for them, the GPS makers are happy to take your money. But as Joe Mehaffey, of GPSInformation.net, says, "The complexity can be confusing. I tell people that maybe the very cheapest unit is the one you need."

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