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Features You REALLY Need


Bluetooth, MP3, multi-destination routing, 3D terrain views…. What features do you really need when it comes to GPS? A few weeks ago I asked people in the forums what features they thought the needed but as it turns out they really didn’t need in their GPS. As a result of that discussion, I began to wonder… what is the minimum set of features you need to navigate?

Now I’m not talking about the ability to enter a destination, or map coverage of the area you will be traveling, but the actual features and display items for actual navigation. I began to wonder, do I really need to know the distance to the destination? No. Do I need the estimated arrival time? No. Voice prompts? Maybe. Do I even need the map display?

The Test

GPS Next TurnAnd so came the test. Pick about five locations that I’ve never been to before and see if I can navigate there with the GPS and a bare minimum set of features. So I got myself good and lost, and then picked a set of nearby Post Office locations out of the POI database and tried to navigate to them with as little feedback from the GPS as possible.

Without looking at a preview of where the location was on a map, and without even looking at the physical address, I had the GPS create a route to each of the destinations. I muted the sound. And I covered up the entire display with the exception of a tiny square that was one inch high and 0.75 inches wide. What remained was just two pieces of information, the distance to the next turn and the direction of the next turn.

The Results

So how did I do? I found them all without missing a turn. Now that is not to say that it made me very comfortable. There were times when the GPS indicated I should take a right in 500 feet and there were a couple of roads that could have been about 500 feet away by my estimate. By the end of the test I was actually much better at visualizing and estimating distances despite the fact that I use GPS daily.

Not knowing the distance to the destination or time to the destination was also a bit unnerving. I kept wondering, “how far away am I?”. But a little patience and I was able to make it to each of the destinations without incident.

There were also a few times where I approached a “Y” type intersection and the GPS said my next turn wasn’t for another mile or two. In that case I would have liked to have had the map to determine which way it wanted me to go, but I seemed to correctly guess which road was the “default” at the intersection.

I also missed not being told what side of the road the destination was on, however with the “countdown” distance to turn (which displays distance to destination on the final leg) at least provided some guidance about where to look.

GPS Design

GPS Distance RemainingSo what does this say about GPS design? Should we consider GPS devices without map displays, or without sounds? Of course not, the more cues we have the more we can focus on the road and the less distracted we will hopefully be by the GPS. But it does bring to light something about the two cues that I did have… that they are probably the most important pieces of information to have. How the manufacturers display those two pieces of information could play a critical role in how comfortable you are with the GPS.

For example I’ve always disliked how some of the Garmin devices display the next turn as “left/right” in the status display. I’d much prefer a graphical representation of the intersection like many other models will. I also don’t like how the turn direction is at the top of the screen and the distance to that turn is at the bottom. I need to look in two places to get the most critical pieces of information. Thankfully it looks like both of those issues will be addressed in the new Nuvi 2×5 series devices.

15 Responses

  1. Trying to stay between $150 & $200. We had a TT ONE but it was stolen. The on thing we both would like is if the restaurant category could be broken in to types i.e. Mexican, Italian, Barbecue. The advertisement s don’t mention this in POI’s

    Ken D. - March 20th, 2008
  2. Interesting experiment, Tim. My thought was that, almost by definition, a minimal personal navigation device would display the map and your position on the map. Everything else would be extra.

    Les - April 21st, 2008
  3. I’m looking for my first GPS. Perhaps you can advise me on the few to avoid or the few to serve my needs. The features that I think I need are as follows:

    timely information – I don’t know if this is an issue or not but it won’t help to know a turn is coming if you don’t have time to shift lanes to exit.

    reliability and accuracy;
    A good visual display;
    North America coverage – I live near the Canadian border.

    Items that would be nice:
    restaurants and motels – Do any of the systems have motel features? I travel with dogs and it would be nice to know if a motel accepted them. If not, do they list en route motel phone numbers?

    Wally - April 28th, 2008
  4. First time buyer. I want a basic GPS, with accuracy, text to Speech, loud speaker volume, good battery time,and possiblility to add Europe maps at reasonable cost. No other fancy features.

    I am considering Tom Tom One, 3rd edition, but what is next step up with Speech to text?

    How does it compare to Garmin Nuvi 260? Which Nuvi meets my spec. needs?


    Bonnie - May 1st, 2008
  5. What a great article! I’m in the market for my first automotive GPS (I’ve got one for running and one for cycling) and I’m going crazy trying to determine which features are most important. This article does a terrific job of highlight the bare necessities. I’m going to check out the Nuvi 255W tonight. Thanks.

    Bob - August 15th, 2008
  6. First time buyer as well. Looking for a good, but not expensive gps with map updates that I don’t have to pay extra for. Please help! What are my options?

    Cheryl - August 30th, 2008
  7. Map updates cost extra from everyone.

    Tim - August 30th, 2008
  8. What kind of price range do maps fall into? I’m looking at getting a Garmin, but I can’t get to the section of their website to update the map data without a Garmin GPS’s serial number.


    David - October 9th, 2008
  9. I a wondering why I would need the “Where Am I?” feature. Can’t you just select one of those destinations on the POI screen and navigate to it? Is the Where Am I? feature just a way to put all of the “emergency” type locations on one screen? It is higher in price than a unit without that feature.

    Jackie - October 12th, 2008
  10. Jackie, pretty much– yes. See our Where am I? page for more commentary on that.

    Tim - October 12th, 2008
  11. I have one more question regarding the text-to-speech feature (nuvi 255). I have looked through the manual and can’t find anywhere where it says how to change the voice or pick a voice without text to speech in order to disable that feature. I can only find where to change the language for voice and text. Since I’m not actually looking at a GPS and am only going by the manual, am I missing something? I think I’ve narrowed my GPS choice down to the 205 or the 255. It’s just a matter of price between those.

    Jackie - October 15th, 2008
  12. See our post on how to Enable Text-to-Speech from which you should be able to infer how to disable it as well. 🙂

    Tim - October 15th, 2008
  13. I’m looking for a hand held GPS system where you provide the longitude and latitude coordinates and the system maps you from your current coordinates to the ones you provide. I have a GPS system in my truck that only takes addresses, not longitude and latitude coordinates. I’m going to Alaska and most everything includes the coordinates. I don’t need the most expensive unit.

    John Wittstruck - March 8th, 2009
    • Every handheld device will allow you to do that.

      Tim - March 8th, 2009
  14. My Basic Needs adn i have an Garmin Nuvi 855:

    I need an big screen so my eyes can rest more when looking for information about upcoming street names and where to make an turn.

    I like to find the option to turn off the display completely between instructions or when i talk to it turns on the display again…

    I also like to get an estimate of when to leave when going some where and also the option to add stops for rests and food stops alike …

    I like my unit to be more intelligent and ask me questions and in that way know my needs instead that i have to program it and also scan the traffic for traffic jam ..

    TV and web browser to surf the webb and see wather forcast
    or play some music from the webb while waiting in the parking lot …


    Well that is my wishing list …

    Matthias Nilsson - August 9th, 2010

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