Although the big names in GPS navigation are probably familiar to you, there are actually dozens of suppliers offering hundreds of different models. You could buy a navigation system for around $50, but these lower-cost navigators often have difficult-to-read screens and poor battery life.
When you're navigating unfamiliar territory, you need reliability. Your concentration should be on the road, not your GPS. With those parameters in mind, we've selected five of the best navigation systems available. They're not all expensive, but paying a little more can get you some valuable extras.
We do not accept products directly from manufacturers for our reviews; we use our own funds to purchase the same “off-the-shelf” products that you do. Our finalists, from all the models available in the market today, are:
Screen Size & General Ergonomics
There are currently two main screen sizes for GPS navigation (five-inch and seven-inch), and some debate exists as to which size -- the larger or the smaller -- is better. The there are options for mounting and different cables for charging, etc., all of which affect how comfortable people feel with each model.
Mapping & Ease of Use
Accuracy of mapping is vital, but do cheap GPS navigators give you the same detail as more expensive models? We address questions about ease of set-up, ease of use use, and more.
Any good navigation system should be able to plan your route reliably and deliver directions clearly. Some models offer extra perks like Bluetooth connectivity and traffic data so you can avoid jams. We examine the extra features offered in this section of our ratings.
Here's where we get down to dollars and cents. How does price relate to the value offered by each product? We take real owner feedback into consideration, as this information is invaluable when choosing a GPS system.
Dale brings over 40 years of automotive industry experience to the BestReviews table. An avid DIY guy, he has worked with, rebuilt, and led maintenance on a variety of vehicles. He’s also well-versed in fleet management and operation. Dale’s past experiences include distinguished service as an officer in the US Army.
The Garmin nüvi 57LM Portable Vehicle GPS has a five-inch screen (measured diagonally) that is often complimented for its clarity — though it's not to the standard of some photo-realistic versions. It's touch sensitive, and the majority of owners tell us it's quite responsive. (One or two owners received defective units. These should be replaced under warranty.) Mounting is a simple process: simply adhere the GPS to your car windshield via suction cup. This is a secure set-up in most cases, but if a car is parked in extremely hot weather, the GPS should be removed. Other mounting options are available for an extra cost. The in-car charger cord is just a simple wire, and it does have a tendency to get a bit tangled. Several owners commented that they would have preferred a curly cable.
With a screen that measures seven inches, the Magellan RoadMate 9400-LM GPS Navigator certainly looks impressive. Add the border, and it's about 7.5 inches wide by five inches tall. This larger size draws mixed reactions. Some feel it's simply too big for anything but vans and trucks. Others, particularly seniors, consider the Magellan's size to be a considerable benefit. A suggestion made by one owner: if you want to know what the Magellan will look like in your car, cut a piece of dark paper down to the dimensions of the GPS and hold it up inside your vehicle. This method is not particularly scientific, but it's effective nonetheless! The Magellan features a touch screen and a simple suction mount, neither of which are known to cause problems. However, nighttime glare on the windshield was found to be uncomfortable by some, and several thought that the charging cord was too short.
The five-inch Garmin nüvi 2539 Portable Vehicle GPS shares some similarities with the Garmin 57LM. At a glance, you'll notice a chrome trim along the bottom with a similar-looking touch screen, suction cup, and charge cable. The big difference between the two is that the nüvioffers photo-realistic junction, interchange, and "Up Ahead" information. ("Photo-realistic" photos aren't real, but they come very close. They even include landscape detail so you can easily recognize direction signs and landmarks as you drive.) There were occasional complaints about screen contrast being too low, and there were infrequent complaints about screen sensitivity. However, the majority of owners think the screen is easy to read both day and night.
The TomTom VIA 1535TM GPS Navigator is another product that features a five-inch, touch-sensitive screen. It offers the additional benefit of hands-free voice recognition. It's not the most modern-looking unit, but TomTom is keen to point out that the graphic display has been upgraded to provide sharper detail and increased clarity. There's also a night-driving mode that a number of owners really love. In bright daylight, however, some find the screen to be a bit washed out. The biggest complaint about the TomTom, in terms of ergonomics, was the fact that the suction cup cannot be removed. This makes it difficult to store, and it also rules out other ways of mounting it, such as placement on the dash.
Our final choice is another Garmin, this time with a seven-inch touch screen and optional voice activation. Like the Magellan, the Garmin nüvi 2789LMT Portable Vehicle GPS is a sizable device. As such, it sparks some debate as to whether the extra real-estate is a bonus — or just too big. The big Garmin mounts via a suction cup; this location also serves as a connection point for the mini-USB charge cable. It has been suggested by some that the Garmin 2789LMT, with its larger size, could cause a blind spot on your windshield. However, that's not a common complaint, and you could buy a dash mount to avoid the problem. The Garmin 2789LMT comes with photo-realistic junction, interchange, and "Up Ahead" functions, and the larger screen gives even more room to display this information. There's no specific night-vision setting, but screen brightness can be toned down when needed.
Map data for the Garmin nüvi 57LM GPS is provided by Navteq. Each company puts their own spin on the information supplied by Navteq, but Garmin's North American maps are widely regarded as the best available. You do need to be aware of exactly what you're getting, though. The 57LM comes with lifetime maps — in other words, you get updates for free — but only the lower 49 states are included. Any extras you want (Canada, Alaska, Europe, etc.) would need to be bought separately. In use, the 57LM interface receives few criticisms. There is certainly a learning curve, and some feel there are too many taps or clicks required to get to specific information. To be fair, however, you'll find the same criticism made of every navigation system! Geographically speaking, there are always areas that could be covered better, and there are always changes to junctions, signs, and speed limits between updates. In general, however, owners find the Garmin 57LM to be an excellent entry-level device. They're relatively happy with both its voice (which can be changed via download) and the way directions are given.
The Magellan RoadMate 9400-LM offers lifetime map updates. (This seems to be the norm in the industry nowadays, and it's a welcome change from having to pay for updates every time they're made!) Maps supplied by the Magellan include the full United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Data is supplied by Navteq (just like the Garmin models), but oddly, owner feedback shows a higher level of complaints about inaccuracies than with the Garmin models. One thing users particularly like is the Magellan's "Landmark" feature. This feature directs consumers by easily recognizable landmarks rather than street names. For example, it might say "Turn left at the gas station." One drawback: a number of owners found the GPS voice to be too quiet, even at its loudest volume.
As we've already mentioned, Garmin gets its high-quality maps from Navteq. However, the higher-spec Garmin nüvi 2539 gives you a wider range of maps than the 57LM. In addition to the US map, you get the Bahamas, Canada, the Cayman Islands, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. You also get direction enhancement similar to that offered by the Magellan. (Garmin calls it "Real Directions.") This enhancement tells you "turn right at the light" as opposed to just giving street names. In spite of these perks, a greater portion of owners complained about map accuracy with the 2539 than the 57LM. Additionally, a small number of owners found the unit to be frustratingly slow, complaining that it often gave directions too close to turns, leaving little time for the driver to react.
Data for the TomTom VIA 1535TM comes from a Netherlands-based company called Teleatlas. (TomTom is also based in the Netherlands.) Their European maps are considered extremely good, but some owners feel that their US maps are not to the same standard as Garmin's maps. TomTom claims that you get a million more miles of US mapping, but they don't say who the comparison is with. The TomTom VIA 1535TM provides lifetime updates for the US, Canada, and Mexico, but several owners had problems getting those upgrades. At the time of this writing, TomTom was aware of the problem and was working on solutions.
The range of maps provided with the Garmin nüvi 2789LMT is "whole of North America". Lifetime updates are also included. Owners enjoy "Real Directions" as well. Overall, owner reactions are positive, with fewer complaints about map accuracy for this model than the other products on our shortlist. Many consumers tell us that the larger screen makes it easier for them to take in the required information quickly. While a few think it slow at times, the voice gets plenty of compliments for volume adjustability and clarity.
As an entry-level navigation system, the Garmin nüvi 57LM GPS delivers point-to-point information that's as reliable as any. But, as you might expect, it's not overloaded with extras. The "Lane Assist" (in which the screen splits to show junction or interchange detail) is useful, but it's also rather standard on most navigators these days. You get speed limit data (not always accurate because states keep changing them) and an arrival time that's almost always accurate because it relies on a satellite signal rather than map data. Finally, the system identifies POIs (Points of Interest) such gas stations, hotels, stores, etc., and a "Favorites" function that allows you to record your preferred places. (Again, both of these are just about universal with modern navigation systems.) Battery life is notoriously poor on many GPS devices, but the 57LM can carry on for about two hours, which is not bad by comparison.
The Magellan RoadMate 9400-LM is another product that offers speed limits, arrival time, POIs, etc. (As we've already mentioned, these features are common nowadays.) Where it ups its game isn't just the larger screen; the Magellan also features a "Phantom ALERT" system that warns you of upcoming speed traps, red light cameras, and — if you pay for an upgrade — rail crossings, school zones, and sharp bends in the road. According to owners, these features all work as expected. Battery life is no more than half an hour, so owners should not take this device away from their car.
With the Garmin nüvi 2539, you get all the features of the 57LM and a couple of enhancements. First off, you have "Real Voice" — a more human speaking voice for directions. Some owners prefer it, but most are non-committal; after all, there's nothing really wrong with the "plain" voice of the cheaper 57LM. Thanks to the photo-realistic view, the 2539's lane guidance is better. However, the major bonus with this model is its traffic alerts. The alerts warn you of impending problems — accidents, blocked roads, and other delays. Conveniently, the 2539 provides expected delay time and offers alternative routes. In spite of what might be considered "power-hungry" functions, the 2539's battery life is around 2.5 hours.
The TomTom VIA 1535TM features a traffic alert system and "Roadside Assistance" that can put you in touch with someone if you are unlucky enough to break down. A major bonus with the TomTom GPS is voice recognition, so for many functions — particularly those you need while actually driving — you don't even need to touch the screen. A further benefit is Bluetooth connectivity. Paired with a compatible cell phone, your TomTom can tell you when you've received a call and let you respond — or make a new call — hands free. Owners say the voice recognition feature is okay overall, but some don't like it. If you're a consumer who doesn't like to use voice recognition, you could always stick to the TomTom's touch-sensitive screen. Regarding battery life, the TomTom lasts about 90 minutes when not plugged into a vehicle.
The Garmin nüvi 2789LMT gives you the all the basic features of the 57LM plus "Real Voice," photo-realistic view, and traffic alert options. Like the TomTom, it is voice activated, and owners can link the device via Bluetooth to Android smartphones or iPhones. Depending on the way your phone is set up, you don't just get things like hands-free answering and calling; you could also potentially get access to pre-existing POIs, favorites, and things like weather updates via Garmin Live Services. Owner ratings for the voice system are varied, but overall, the Garmin 2789LMT gets higher marks in this area than the TomTom. Like the TomTom, it's not very energy efficient, with battery life limited to 60-90 minutes.
Finding an affordable, high-quality navigation system is not easy, but at $99, the Garmin nüvi 57LM GPS fits the bill. What you get for your money is a good entry-level navigator. It may not have all the features and functions of some of the more expensive models on today's market, but it will almost invariably get you from A to B without fuss. Really, that's all most of us need! A few people would like the interface to be simpler, and some aren't happy with Garmin's customer support. Nevertheless, this is a tremendously popular device, and owners are largely delighted with it.
If you're looking for a seven-inch model in particular, then at just $152, the Magellan RoadMate 9400-LM is a remarkably cheap GPS for its size. It doesn't have the voice activation of some of its rivals, but they can't compete on price. Owners are mostly complimentary, but while many think it's quite intuitive, others have described the interface as "clunky." Some also thought it too quiet. The big question concerns map accuracy. It's something that always crops up as an issue — with every manufacturer — but there are perhaps more negative responses from Magellan users than others. Having said that, if a big screen is at the top of your list, this is a tough deal to beat.
There's no doubt the Garmin nüvi 2539 is a good navigation system, and at $138, it's not overly expensive. The question — and this is common with mid-range devices — is why you'd choose it over the cheaper 57LM or the feature-packed 2539. Actually, there are several good reasons to choose the mid-range Garmin 2539. It offers traffic alerts, has a larger range of built-in maps than the 57LM, and can be outfitted with Bluetooth for a small additional cost. It's got the ''human' voice and photo-realistic images of the top model, but not the seven-inch screen — which some people don't like anyway. The fact that it gets more complaints about map accuracy than either of the other Garmins on our shortlist is difficult to explain because all Garmins use the same Navteq data. Apart from that, however, the mid-range 2539 has a lot going for it.
At $119, the TomTom VIA 1535TM is a mid-range system that offers lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, Bluetooth connectivity, and voice recognition. Owners tell us it's quick to re-route if you need to (though the interface is a bit slow), and it gets compliments for its nighttime view. However, there are a couple of negatives. The fact that you can't detach the screen mount is not a particularly big deal, but it is annoying. Then there's the question of whether the TomTom's US maps are as good as the Garmin's. Finally, there's the ongoing issue with map updating. If you want the benefit of voice recognition, this product is definitely worth considering. If you take that out of the equation, the decision is much less clear.
The Garmin nüvi 2789LMT will cost you $279. It's not a cheap navigation system, but it does offer a significant value. In a nutshell, it has everything: all the map and traffic data you could need, an easy-to-read, seven-inch screen, photo-realistic images, and more. It doesn't have a specific nighttime setting, but brightness is adjustable. It's got Bluetooth and voice activation so you can concentrate on driving rather than fiddling with the device. However, not everyone likes it. There are the usual complaints about map accuracy, and a number of owners think the voice recognition has weaknesses. For the majority of consumers, however, it performs exactly as expected and is highly recommended.
We've already mentioned the Garmin 2789LMT's voice activation, but that's only part of the advantage this device offers. With Bluetooth connectivity, you can pair an Android smartphone or iPhone to the 2789LMT. In this way, you can use the Garmin to receive and make hands-free calls. This is a major safety benefit.
Some consumers do feel that a seven-inch GPS screen is too big. That's a matter of personal choice. A handful of owners have criticized the 2789LMT's map accuracy, but every navigation system gets similar complaints. There are those who think the voice recognition could be better; this is something that very well may be improved via free software updates down the road. Interestingly, we haven't come across any owners who think it's too expensive, and an enormous percentage of people agree that the Garmin 2789LMT is simply "the best GPS so far."
It's not often that our "Best of the Best" and "Best Bang for Your Buck" products come from the same manufacturer. However, Garmin's products span a wide range of price points. All of Garmin's products are excellent, although subtle gradations do exist between the lowest-priced and highest-priced models.
Not surprisingly, the entry-level Garmin 57LM shares a lot of technology with its more expensive siblings. The five-inch screen is complimented for its clarity, and while it doesn't have the pure real-estate of a seven-inch model, nobody complains that it's short on information. Likewise, while it doesn't have the high-resolution graphics or "real voice" of some others, nobody told us that they were confused by the directions given.