There are too many GPS navigation devices out there to realistically look at every single one in the space of a single article, but there are a handful of categories and characteristics that can be vital to achieving a greater understanding of the technology and making informed choices as a consumer. For instance, in-car navigation is available in two major form factors: built-in and portable. Built-in units take the form of navigation head units and factory infotainment systems, while portable units consist of standalone GPS navigation devices and Smartphone GPS apps.
Nav Radios and Infotainment Systems
The main appeal of built-in solutions like aftermarket nav radios and factory infotainment systems boils down to form factor. Whether you’re dealing with an aftermarket upgrade or an OEM system, these built-in units don’t clutter up your dash with any additional gadgets, mounts, or power cables. However, there are also a number of drawbacks to consider.
What We Like
• “Clean” install without additional devices or wires
• No additional hardware to buy (factory infotainment systems)
• Varying degrees of integration with entertainment and other systems
What We Don’t Like
• High cost (navigation radios)
• Often difficult to replace the hardware (factory infotainment systems)
• Sometimes exorbitantly expensive map upgrades
Portable GPS Navigation Systems
Although portable units will never look at clean or integrated as nav radios or factory infotainment systems, they do have a number of things going for them. The most important factor to consider is that portable systems are portable, which means you can easily move them from one car to another, and they’re typically much less expensive than integrated options, which means you can always just buy a new device if map updates prove too expensive.
What We Like
• Typically lower in cost than nav radios
• May only need to buy an inexpensive app (cellphone GPS navigation)
• Easily portable between vehicles
• Buying a new device is sometimes less expensive than a nav radio/factory map update
What We Don’t Like
• Highly visible and easily stolen
• Power cables can create clutter
• Screen size (budget models and cell phone nav apps)
Consumer GPS Options: Diminishing or Expanding?
With the recent explosion in the availability of factory infotainment systems, you may wonder if consumer in-car satellite nav options are actually growing or shrinking. Although the OEM options have increased sharply in recent years, consumer options may actually be shrinking. Since the trend in OEM nav is integration with all-in-one infotainment systems, like OnStar and iDrive, that handle everything from the climate controls to engine information reporting, buying a vehicle with one of these systems can reduce your future options.
Integrated Vs. Portable GPS Navigation
While there is no simple answer to the question of whether integrated or portable GPS navigation is better, they are different enough that you should be able to which one is better for you. If you plan on driving the same vehicle for a long time, and you’re okay with just paying to update your maps every so often, then an aftermarket nav radio upgrade, or a new car with a factory infotainment system, will be a good choice. On the other hand, you’ll probably want to go with a portable unit (or even a cell phone app) if you value portability and cost.
It’s also important to do some additional research before you settle on one system or another. For instance, every OEM has its own policies (and associated costs) with updating GPS maps. So while the infotainment system may not be the most important factor to look at before buying a new car, the cost of updating maps may easily factor into the decision making process when buying a used vehicle.