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.
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.
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.
This Magellan unit also includes premium features typically found in pricier models, including spoken directions that include street names (example: "Turn left in 200 feet on Bonaventure Avenue"), AAA TourBook info (providing ratings and descriptions on AAA-approved places to eat and sleep) and a OneTouch menu that provides instant access to bookmarks of favorite places.
As with the Garmin model, the RoadMate 1440 includes an SD memory card slot in case you want to use the GPS unit's speakers to listen to music, audio books or podcasts.
For drivers who prefer a larger view, the Navigon 8100T ($599; navigonusa.com) has a 4.8-inch touch-screen and an exclusive Panorama View 3D feature — using NASA terrain data to provide elevation imagery, such as rolling hills and steep drops — as well as photorealistic "reality view" with actual road signs and lane guidance for highways.
For those who like to talk instead of tap, the Navigon 8100T lets you speak a destination address into the GPS unit instead of typing it in.
Often found in premium GPS units, the 8100T also includes free traffic updates for life, Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calls, text-to-speech (for spoken street names) and more.
Some points of interest include Zagat ratings and reviews for suggested places to wine, dine and unwind.