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  • Do You Need GPS?

    In the world of technology, the global positioning system (GPS) car navigation systems are a tool whose time has come: a real-time map display or, on some models, a talking map. GPSs are able to give directions and graphically map your route to show you a picture of exactly how to get from Point A to Point B―with a dot to indicate "you are here."

    Newer systems include advance traffic warnings, shortcut tips, and a prompt to tell you when to turn. Special antennas, either built into your vehicle or detachable, communicate with a minimum of three GPS satellites to determine your vehicle's exact position on Earth. Imagine, no more of those hard-to-read paper maps designed by an origami artist!

    What Is a GPS Unit?

    Most GPS systems are "plug and play," complete with preloaded maps on a DVD that you can just pop in and use. The GPS unit in your vehicle can determine your coordinates by triangulating the satellite signals it receives. Then it can pinpoint your vehicle's location on the roadmap you've loaded from the DVD, working out the best route for you to use to reach your destination.

    For an extra subscription fee, you can also have traffic updates in your city fed to your system automatically. The GPS can then suggest alternate routes if the freeway is gridlocked. The GPS is always recalculating your position relative to the map and is usually accurate to within 40 or 50 feet, so the system can alert you to conditions or road closures in plenty of time to take an alternate route.

    Do I Need a GPS?

    Probably. Unless you have an unfailing sense of direction and already know your way around each and every town you visit, you will quickly latch onto the joys of GPSs. In no time at all, a GPS unit can become an electronic necessity second only to your cell phone.

    There are several models on the market now that feature an amazingly accurate reading of your location, offering you directions as good as or better than those provided by online mapping services. And, the graphical GPS maps are almost always easier to understand than verbal or handwritten directions.

    Once you let GPS technology into your life, you'll find dozens of uses for it, even while you're standing still. Some systems will permit you to program several destinations in advance, or to determine a preset itinerary, such as for running errands, to help you make the best of your time and gasoline usage.

    Shopping for a GPS

    There are a few points you'll want to ponder while shopping for the right GPS guidance systems and service provider. There are several models available, each with different features. Take a look at them all before deciding on the one for you.

    Check Your Dashboard Space

    GPS systems run from small, handheld models that plug into the cigarette lighter to full-size units complete with monitor and other optional additions. The right system for you will depend on your driving and navigational needs.

    Some GPS systems have a monitor mounted on the dashboard or on a specially installed pedestal. Since most cars have not been designed with a GPS unit in mind, there could be air vents, radios, or CD or DVD players that this screen will block.

    Some display units are so complex that they make it difficult for a passenger to get in and out of the vehicle. Unless your passengers are contortionists, consider a different system.

    Opt for Data―Lots of Data

    Unless you're sure your needs will never change, go for the variety. Look for a system that is able to accept destination information in several different formats, including by business name, address, a personal address book, or a map coordinate.

    Make sure they system you choose is also programmed with point-of-interest data for your city, with regular updates to that information. If you opt for this service, you will always be able to find the closest ATMs, banks, restaurants, and hotels. This programming can also enable your unit to tell you the best route to the airport, the location of a public park, or even directions to a particular building based on the building name alone. This feature is handy enough in your own town, but if you purchase additional DVDs for other cities, you'll find it indispensable when you travel.

    Take the Talker

    A basic GPS system will show you a map and will use arrows to direct you to turns or off-ramps, giving you an indication of when to change direction. Make sure that your system is also equipped to give you verbal directions, freeing you from the distraction of a monitor. Audible directions are especially desirable because they let you keep your eyes on the road and drive more safely.

    Check the Installation Factor

    If you decide on a system that uses maps, a monitor, and other options, be aware that it will take longer to install and be more complex, with a steeper learning curve, than a very basic system. However, if you're on the road often, you will benefit from the more complex system and simply need to take the longer installation time into account. Check with your GPS salesperson to determine installation details before you make a final decision.

    Note: A GPS is an investment, and it is very important that it be installed correctly. Avoid the temptation to save on installation costs by doing it yourself or by having it installed by a private installer. Most manufacturers clearly state that if you have the system installed by an unauthorized installer, you will void your warranty.

    Check the Fit Again

    There is a considerable difference in the size of the various GPS units on the market. Some systems will fit in the palm of your hand, while others require a generous pocket or handbag. Still others take on the proportions of a large hardback novel or a small laptop computer.

    Just be certain that the model you choose can work within the confines of your vehicle, and that it can be installed properly. Take a few minutes to discuss installation options with your salesperson or the installation department manager if you have concerns, and make sure that any of the required modifications to your vehicle won't compromise the car's warranty.

    Welcome to the Future

    Enjoy heading in the right direction using the best route every time, saving you time, money, and stress. All that, plus no more origami maps. How cool is that?