An Explanation of GPS Features

by Ken Burnside Google

    GPS personal navigation devices have plummeted in price and grown a wide range of features. With the rise of GPS applications on smartphones, these trends are only going to continue. As GPS devices have matured as a category, many features that were formerly the province of one manufacturer are now widespread. It's difficult to go wrong with any GPS unit in the current market.

    Mapping and Navigation

    This is the reason for auto GPS units. All GPS units come with some maps preloaded. These maps may also have a preloaded database of points of interest (POIs) such as restaurants, gas stations, hospitals and local sights to see, as well as entertainment options such as parks and movie theaters. Most GPS units let you add your own POI data to the database. An important consideration for maps is how often they're updated, the method of getting the updates to the unit and how much those updates cost. Smartphone apps give advertising-supported map updates, which have driven GPS unit manufacturers to include lifetime map updates or annual map subscriptions. Most stand-alone GPS units have to be plugged into your computer to get updated maps, though a handful have built-in wireless communication and can do over-the-air updates.

    Live Traffic and Road Updates

    Some GPS units can get traffic reports from your municipality and give traffic-aware routing instructions. This service usually requires a subscription of some sort, though a few bundle lifetime traffic updates with the purchase of the device. This kind of service can also route you around road construction or closed interchanges. Lane-assist directions are often bundled with this kind of service, where the GPS will tell you when to change lanes and what lane to be in to make a freeway exit. This type of unit will also give estimated times of arrival to your destination as a routine feature. A few devices show isomorphic views of the road, including upcoming street signs and the shapes of buildings, to help you recognize landmarks and exits while you drive.

    Screen Size and Human Interface Features

    GPS devices range from the size of a cell phone to a tablet, with diagonal screen sizes ranging from 3.5 inches to 7 inches. Larger ones are easier to read when driving, and you should make sure there's a mounting system. Human interface features include Bluetooth connectivity, so you can hear the device's directions through a Bluetooth headset, and text-to-speech processing. Some use voice-to-speech processing, which lets you dictate your destination's address rather than type it on screen.

    Internet Access and Multimedia Playback

    GPS systems are getting competition from cell phones, which do a lot more than just navigation. In response, GPS manufacturers are giving devices cellular wireless capability, so they can get real-time updates of data, download new maps and allow you to browse the Internet for information about your destination. They've also become secondary multimedia devices, playing music and television. The line between an inexpensive tablet computer and a GPS navigator gets blurrier every year.

    About the Author

    Ken Burnside has been writing freelance since 1990, contributing to publications as diverse as "Pyramid" and "Training & Simulations Journal." A Microsoft MVP in Excel, he holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alaska. He won the Origins Award for Attack Vector: Tactical, a board game about space combat.

    Photo Credits

    • Ethan Miller/Getty Images News/Getty Images