GPS navigation units more popular as prices fall

Summer travelers might be sticking closer to home, but many are finding room in their bags — and their budgets — for a GPS navigation unit.

Growing awareness, falling prices and new features are bolstering the popularity of GPS systems among people interested in turn-by-turn directions and nearby "points of interest," such as restaurants, hotels and gas stations.

The Consumer Electronics Association earlier estimated that 17.4 million units would be sold in the U.S. this year but now says sales might be lower because of the struggling economy. However, sales remain on track to surpass 2008's 15.1 million units.

"Despite the current economic climate, we're seeing a steady increase in consumer interest," says Scott Steinberg, publisher of Digital Trends, a consumer tech website.

In addition to stand-alone GPS units, Steinberg says part of the category's "growing ubiquity" lies in the popularity of smartphones. They often include a GPS chip and offer subscription-based navigation services for about $10 a month.

Stand-alone units from Garmin, TomTom, Magellan and Navigon don't require monthly fees. They can be expensive, but prices are falling. Some full-featured GPS units have dropped in price to the $200-to-$215 range, while more premium products hovering around $600 are also available.

Here's a look at several popular models:

Best bang for your buck

TomTom's XL 340S ($219; tomtom.com) includes preloaded maps of Mexico, along with U.S. and Canadian cities — and more than 7 million listings for tourist attractions, restaurants, hotels, bank machines and gas stations.

The 4.3-inch touch-screen displays routes, street names and distance, along with IQ Routes technology that calculates the fastest route using user-collected speeds on roads (such as a highway that often sees bumper-to-bumper traffic) rather than relying only on posted speed limits. (Users choose whether to transmit their driving data.)

For those who like to move their GPS unit from one vehicle to another, the TomTom 340S features a convenient "fold and go" mechanism that collapses the mount into the back of the device. As with other TomTom units, the 340S supports downloadable celebrity voices, so you can hear, for example, John Cleese or Kim Cattrall giving directions.

Which lane?

Avoid a hasty, unsafe lane change because you're not ready to make a turn. With the aid of large arrows and detailed road signs, the Garmin Nüvi 785T ($599; garmin.com) includes a "lane-assist" feature that guides you to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit.

In many cases, a 3-D transparent view of buildings will appear on the 4.3-inch touch-screen, giving you a more realistic view of your surroundings.

Free lifetime traffic info in select cities helps drivers navigate around congested areas. The Nüvi 785T's integrated receiver can also display wireless content from MSN Direct (including weather, gas prices and news), while Bluetooth support lets you wirelessly sync with your compatible mobile phone for hands-free calling.

Road-worthy companion

The newly redesigned Magellan RoadMate 1440 ($249; magellangps.com) now offers a 4.3-inch touch-screen display to better show your location, as well as a thinner frame and preloaded maps for all of the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico.

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