GPS Navigation Systems are incredibly useful for driving. Unfortunately car manufacturers are still charging thousands of dollars to include them, and often their software is hard to use and understand. Fortunately there are now many products on the market that are simple to use and much more affordable, and can easily be used in any car.
A navigation system is not only useful to routing you to a destination when you don't know how to get there. They are also very useful just when driving, as they give you a view of the road ahead. On a very curvy road, or when driving at night for example, you can see ahead of time when there is a sharp curve or dangerous intersection ahead. I will turn mine on whenever I am traveling on a road that I'm not very familiar with. Also, most contain a database of businesses and attractions so you can easily find the nearest gas station, parking lot, or pizza place. How many times have you found yourself driving in circles looking for an ATM?
We are all familiar with the overhead map view, but you must think to make sense of it while driving. A few years ago, TomTom introduced its navigation software, the first to give you a third person 3D view. Almost like driving a car in a video game, it is much easier to absorb its information, especially in the split second that you are taking your eyes off the road to glance at it. That 3D view is now being adopted by other brands.
While it has been possible to use a laptop or PDA with navigation software installed on it, we now have small all-in-one portable units specifically for the purpose. In one tiny TV-like device you have everything you need, including the GPS satellite receiver. In fact they are usually battery powered, so you don't have to snake cables to your cigarette lighter if you don't want to when moving it from car to car.
Installation is as simple as suctioning it onto your windshield. You may instead want to add a clip for your dashboard to more permanently mount it (check Pro Clip and Kuda for car-specific mounts). Just make sure it is as close to your view of the road as possible without blocking it; you will be looking at it quite often and don't want to take your attention away from driving. For example, look at how I installed my PDA-based TomTom navigation here. Below are pictures the smaller Garmin system suction cupped to an easy spot on the left side of my windshield, as well as it suction cupped on my dash next to my TomTom PDA system (Yes, it is over my speedometer; this is more to show the difference in sizes).
My TomTom is slightly older than the newer TomTom GO all-in-one system; it simply wasn't available when I put mine together. I still recommend the TomTom system as the best. It has a large touchscreen and all of the United States is preloaded. The interface is the best designed and it has very extensive features. The highest model can even be used as a handsfree control for your cell phone. You can also customize the maps and voices.
The Garmin StreetPilot i2 represents the other end of the spectrum. It doesn't have the advanced features of TomTom. It only has a few buttons. Its screen is tiny and black and white. But it still serves the main purpose just as well: navigation with a 3D view. The i2 and i3 also do not come with maps pre-loaded; you must load them onto a PC and transfer only a selected number of states over to it--so it is not ready to use out of the box. However because it has less buttons and features, it could be considered easier to use for the simpleminded. However for its price, the Garmin makes the priceless ability to navigate available to everyone.
A navigation system is one of those things that is impossible to describe just how useful it is. Buy one and you'll wonder how you ever survived without it.
updated 1/11/06 ©Josh Wardell