© 2013 Dennis F. Marr, Ph.D., PMP

So you want to buy a GPS? If you’ve tried to do any research on the subject, you’ve found that there are literally hundreds of choices, making your search frustrating or overwhelming. Hopefully, the following tips can cut through the confusion and give you a path to finding the best GPS solution for you.

Just like any tool, you need to find the best tool for the job at hand. This means first knowing exactly what you need, then looking for the product that fits those needs. Anyone that tries to tell you that a particular product is “the best” without considering your specific needs is just trying to make a sale.

As you do your research (and you should), there are 7 key things to consider to ensure that you are finding the right product for you. Of course, many of these areas are interrelated, but breaking them down and deciding which ones are most important to you will help narrow down your choices.

1. The User

Who is going to be using the device?  You?  Your kids?  Your parents?  Are you a hiker loaded up with lots of gear?  Are you a busy mom that wants to have a GPS device with you at all times?  Or are you a non-technophile that just wants an easy-to-use GPS device to point you in the right direction?  The end user will determine the size, features, and complexity of the product that’s right for you.

2. Features

There are a lot of bells and whistles that you can get with a GPS: maps, color displays, data downloads from the internet, recording your travel details, etc.  If you are buying a GPS for your car, then you need a GPS that displays roadmaps.  If you will be using it for hiking or simple tracking, then maps may not be necessary.  Additional features usually require some sort of LCD user screen, which in turn, requires more power from the battery.  Some small LCD screens may be hard to see for those with poor vision.  More features can also make the GPS more complicated to use.  If you need lots of features, great.  If you don’t, don’t waste your money to buy a pricier unit – you have a choice.

3. Size

Yes, size matters.  If you plan on carrying your GPS with you all the time so that you have it whenever you might need it, you don’t want a large device.  However, if this is a device that you’re packing along with other gear in a backpack, perhaps a larger device will be just fine.  Remember though, the smaller you get, the less features and battery life you’ll get.  That’s the trade-off.  But then again, that may be exactly what you need.

4. Battery Life

Are you going to be away from civilization for extended periods of time?  If so, you won’t be able to charge your GPS often, and you’ll need a device that has a large capacity rechargeable battery, or you’ll need to find a device that uses replaceable batteries and bring extras with you.  Two main things affect your battery life: 1) size of the battery (which, of course, affects the size of the device), and 2) whether or not your GPS uses an LCD screen (the LCD is a pretty significant power drain, especially if it is backlit).

5. Environment

Does the device need to be waterproof?  Does it need to be rugged?  If you’re going to be in the woods or in a big city with lots of buildings, you want to get a GPS with a powerful, “active” antenna to be able to find satellites when you need them.  Some “passive” antennas will fare better (e.g. helical antennas) than other “passive” antennas, but “passive” antennas will generally not perform as well as “active” antennas under challenging conditions.

6. Satellite Lock Time

It’s tough to know how long GPS devices will take to locate satellites and be ready to use, but there are some things that might give you an indication.  Larger antennas usually give better performance.  Also, GPS devices that advertise having “active” antennas (as opposed to “passive” antennas) tend to find satellites more easily; however, since these types of antennas are powered, they also drain the battery.  Keep in mind that satellite lock time will always depend upon where satellites are at the time of use, weather conditions, if you have large buildings or trees blocking your view of the sky, etc., so there will be some variability every time you use your GPS device  Also, remember: it is normal for any GPS product to require extra time to locate satellites during the first few uses, after an extended time of non-use, or after moving large distances since the last time the GPS device was turned on.

7. Price

You get what you pay for.  Generally speaking, GPS devices tend to be properly priced – if it’s cheap, then it’s probably for good reason.  Features, size, performance, reliability, quality, etc., all factor into the price of the device.  If the price doesn’t seem right, then don’t buy it.  It’s your money, so you should only pay what you are willing to pay.

Hopefully, you’ve picked up some useful information and now have a better idea of what to look for as you begin your search for a GPS device.  The introduction of commercial GPS devices has significantly impacted and enhanced people’s lives.  The technology is amazing, and once you benefit from its use, you’ll rely on it for the rest of your life.  Good luck!