Which Garmin GPS Unit Is Best?

Michael Mohr

You ranked Garmin as the best GPS brand in our inaugural Readers' Choice poll. So we decided to create a little friendly competition between three of its devices, awarding top honors based on performance, cool features, value, and looks.

The 21-year-old, Kansas-based Garmin took 61 percent of the 3,784 votes cast in the best GPS category of our Readers' Choice poll—beating out second-place entry TomTom by 1,484 votes.

We have to admit that we weren't too surprised by the result. After all, Garmin's products are innovative and easy enough for even a Luddite like me to use. But even if you're already sold on the idea of a Garmin, the company has dozens of GPS models on the market—from a budget-friendly $120 unit to a game-changing $450 one—and sorting through all the options can be tough.

So we decided to determine which of Garmin's GPS car units is best for what—and for whom. I field-tested three different models on a road trip in the wilds of Minnesota's North Woods and then ranked them according to user-friendliness, features, and value.

Model: nüvi 3750, $350

The basics:The 3750 has navigation capabilities and perks like a sleek, pocket-size design that resembles an iPhone, so you can use it when you're navigating a new place on foot, too. I loved the look, and I didn't feel like a dork at all when I pulled out the device to find an out-of-the-way bistro while walking around Minneapolis.

How it works: Rather than just giving you basic audio instructions (e.g. "Turn left") like Garmin's cheapest model, this one also includes specific street names ("Turn left on Main Street"). This may seem like a small detail in print, but in practice—when I was driving in an unfamiliar area—I really appreciated hearing the street names aloud, as added confirmation that I was on the right track.

Cool add-on features: The unit studies daytime traffic trends to improve your route and estimated arrival times. (This really came in handy when I was driving in Minneapolis during rush hour!) It also monitors the routes you take most frequently, so if you use a shortcut—across a parking lot, say—on your daily commute to work, this model will soon pick up on that and start including your shortcut in its directions. Finally, the 3750 comes preloaded with maps for Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, and Canada, along with the lower 48 states.

Verdict: It was my favorite of the bunch. This one has enough cool add-ons to make using it that much more fun—and they weren't complicated to figure out. It's worth the splurge.

Model: nüvi 205, $120

The basics: This is Garmin's cheapest model, but you still get plenty of bang for your buck. "It has point A to point B navigation capabilities that are very similar to our more expensive models," Jessica Myers, Garmin media relations manager, told me. "With the higher-priced units, you're really paying extra for the bells and whistles like real-time traffic."

How it works: It's your standard touch-screen setup: You type in the address of your destination, and the device guides you there with directions that pop up on the screen along with short, basic audio instructions ("Turn left," etc.).

Cool add-on features: This model has access to maps for the lower 48 U.S. states and to the 6 million "points of interest" (gas stations, restaurants, etc.) Garmin provides. You can purchase additional maps for as little as $10 each, and then upload them to your unit.

Verdict: This one offers great value for the price. (You can often find this model on wholesale sites like amazon.com for $90!)

Model: The nüvi 3790T, $450

The basics: This model has all the cool features of the 3750—and ups the ante with real-time traffic, voice-activated navigation, and Bluetooth capabilities.

How it works: All you have to do is tell it where you want to go, and it will recognize your commands and talk back to you. You basically never have to touch it, though you do still have the option to manually type in your destinations, if you'd prefer.

Cool add-on features: You can wirelessly link your Bluetooth-compatible cell phone to the 3790T, and whenever you receive a call, an icon appears on the GPS screen to alert you. If you choose to accept the call (you can either press the icon or say "Answer call"), the GPS acts as a speakerphone. During your call, the audio directions are silenced—so it won't interrupt you. The result: hands-free navigation and communication, a revelation for people who log a lot of time talking on the phone in the car. It also has 3-D maps; major landmarks, like the Empire State Building, are shown in especially lifelike detail.

Verdict: I am a fast-talker, and I felt frustrated by how often this unit had trouble recognizing my spoken commands. More often than not, I found myself giving in and typing in my destinations, so I'd rather stick with a cheaper unit. However, if you like to talk on the phone a lot while you drive, then this one may be worth the extra money.

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