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When driving directions from MapQuest first became available a few years ago, I stopped relying on traditional maps and started traveling with a briefcase stuffed with printouts of routes. Now I rarely leave home without some sort of navigation device. They have gotten good enough—and cheap enough—that there's really no reason to go without.
The best navigation systems are the ones installed in cars, but they have three disadvantages. First, there's cost: The excellent system in the Acura TL, for example, adds $2,000 to the price of the car. Second, you may want a system but not a new car. Finally, you won't have built-in navigation when you're most likely to need it: driving a rental in an unfamiliar city.
Add-on systems basically divide into phone handsets and dedicated navigation devices. Handsets from Verizon Wireless, Sprint (S), Nextel (S), and Alltel (AT) include global positioning system (GPS) circuitry and offer services that provide maps and navigation information on the phone. (Phones from Cingular and T-Mobile, which use a different technology, require a much less convenient external GPS receiver, usually connected through Bluetooth wireless.)
I TRIED VERIZON'S VZ NAVIGATOR (a $10-a-month service provided by startup Networks in Motion), which is available on many high-end Verizon (VZ) handsets. You can mount the phone on the dash or windshield with a bracket, but I found it worked fine just propped up in what used to be called the ashtray. While the map on the small display wasn't really big enough to glance at while driving, listening to spoken directions through the phone's speaker or a headset proved perfectly acceptable. The timing of turn instructions was accurate, and the service quickly recalculated the route if I went off-course. Because it's just the handset you'd carry anyway, it's also great for use on foot. The service would be even more useful if it came with a pedestrian mode that ignores traffic restrictions such as one-way streets.
People who prefer the alternative—dedicated navigation devices—will be pleased to know that several manufacturers are in a price war. So you can get good value for $200 or less. These gizmos typically come preloaded with maps and offer a 3- to 4-in. touch-sensitive display you mount on a windshield or dashboard. Some high-end models add real-time traffic reports as an extra-cost option, though in most U.S. cities the information is too sketchy to help much. Just about all of these products use the same SiRF Technology gps chips and NAVTEQ or TeleAtlas maps, so there's little difference in performance among them. Products from Pharos, TomTom, Magellan, Navman, Pioneer, Mio, and others will all do the job.
The Pharos GPS135 I tried has a clunky user interface, but at just under $200 it's a good buy. At the higher end, the Garmin (GRMN) Nüvi 350 remains a personal favorite. It's compact enough to slip into a pocket and is very easy to use. Because of the turmoil in the market, you can easily find it for $200 less than its $642 list price.
Almost any Palm (PALM) or Pocket PC (MSFT) can become a navigation device with added software and a Bluetooth GPS receiver, but these two-piece solutions are clunky. Although a PDA with navigation built in seems like a natural, the idea has never really caught on. The latest entry is Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) iPAQ rx5915 Travel Companion, which is a car-mountable navigation tool and a full-featured Windows Mobile PDA. But it's fairly bulky, costs over $550, and belongs to the fast-declining class of PDAs without built-in phones.
For light duty, a navigation handset—a new cell phone, in other words—may be the best bet. It saves you from adding another gadget to your life, though the monthly charges can get annoying. If you want to take a step up, there's a dedicated GPS navigator for just about any budget.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom