Can you recommend a good GPS?

This is a bit like asking me what kind of car you should buy. Which GPS is right for you will depend on - what you want to do with it, how skilled you are at understanding new gadgets, and what your personal preferences may be.

That said, I do have some thoughts about what folks should consider when buying a GPS. 

First a small disclaimer...
I don't sell GPS units or represent any GPS manufacturer. These opinions are my own. The uses I have for a GPS may be different than yours, so my recommendations may not apply. The product development cycle is short, new models are released frequently. As I do not spend much time looking at or lusting over each and every new model, my information may be out of date.

The most common uses I have for a GPS are:

  • Getting a coordinate for my present location so that I can relate it to a map, save it for future reference, or report it to someone else by radio.
  • Navigating to a known coordinate that I have entered into the GPS. Note that the GPS will only give you the straight line path as a distance and direction. On land, this is seldom the right path to follow.
  • Recording a series of coordinates to use in adding a road or trail to an existing map.
  • Hooked to a laptop in the car to create a moving map. I like to take out of the way dirt roads when I'm traveling. A bit of adventure for me and a good place to let the dogs out for a break. Using the moving map feature of programs like DeLorme's TOPO USA or National Geographic's TOPO! (Yes TOPO works on my Mac iBook!) you can plan ahead on where to turn off and have some idea where the dirt road will take you. Being able to power both the GPS and the laptop from the car is a good thing when you're operating like this.

Lucky for me almost all of the GPS receivers can preform these functions. I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to both price and extra features.

Here are some of the things I'm not willing to pay much extra for:

  • - Built in maps
    • Who wants to look at their topo map through a 1.5" X 3" window! Paper maps give you good detail and they let you see the relationship of the various terrain features that are around you. On the GPS you have to zoom out to see the surrounding terrain, and when you zoom out you loose the detail.
    • Try it out, cut out a small window in a piece of paper and place it over your topo map, does it still seem as useful?
    • Plus the paper map is a necessary backup that doesn't require batteries.
  • - Color displays
    • Since I'm not interested in loading it with map data, I don't have much need for a color display.
  • - Built in compasses, altimeters, radios, mp3 players, etc.
    • I prefer to have these as separate devices. My compass is low tech, light weight and has never run low on batteries. Same is true with my altimeter. My GPS is usually turned off and tucked away in my pack. I only use it continuously, when I'm recording a track, or getting very close to the destination coordinates that I'm seeking.

Here are a few features that I think are useful.

  • Light weight, good battery life, uses 2 AA batteries
  • WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System)
  • External Antenna
  • "Map" display that shows current track and waypoints
  • Dual position format display i.e. Lat/Lon and UTM
  • Data port so you can transfer waypoints and tracks and use the moving map feature on your laptop topo program.

When I teach GPS classes, I usually group the students by GPS brand, so that they can help each other with the setup and operation details. The Garmin and Magellan groups are usually quickly on their way to the field problems while the Lowrance group is usually scratching their heads and looking at the manual. It seems the human interface Lowrance uses is just not as well thought out as the others. My observations do not necessarily reflect their latest models, they might have made significant improvements, as there has certainly been plenty of room to improve!

Some of the GPS units I own and why...

Garmin eTrex
I own a dozen of these that I use teaching GPS classes. They're just $89 from Amazon, and have all the basic features. If you were going to own just one gps, I'd move up the eTrex product line a bit to get one that does WAAS.

Garmin 12XL
Rugged and reliable. The XL flavor has an external antenna, which is essential for getting sufficient satellite signal in the deep wet redwood forests around here. This is a tough feature to find these days.

Magellan Map330
Fantastic user interface. Little things like displaying the datum along with the coordinates, and including the E and N to indicate easting and northing for UTM coordinates.

Garmin iQue 3600
Here I've broken all of my rules. It's pricey, and has maps and a big color display. My reason for buying this one is that it combines a Palm Pilot with a GPS, and is thus the first "all in one piece" GPS that I can write programs for. In my other life, I'm a software developer.

So I tried out the driving directions feature and was surprised to find it's actually useful. The voice guidance for turns is essential. Get it all set up before you leave. Don't even think of using the user interface while you're driving. But a skilled copilot can even locate a Starbucks on the route ahead using the built in yellow pages info. The copilot was me, the user interface was more complicated than my wife was willing to attempt.

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