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Eight features that a 5-star GPS navigator should have

As GPS technology improves and manufacturers innovate, we must raise the bar for what counts as an "outstanding" navigator.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
7 min read

Garmin Nuvi 200
When the Garmin Nuvi 200 (my first GPS device) was new, we expected so much less of our portable navigators. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

There was a time when all that a GPS device needed to do was get you from point A to point B -- preferably alive and in one piece. Over time, we began to expect so much more. We wanted hands-free calling, syncing of contacts, large databases of local destinations, and traffic data. The bar for what counted as a good GPS device had to be raised.

That bar is still rising, faster yet and higher than ever now that GPS navigators must compete with smartphones and tablets. Simply getting from point A to point B isn't enough when dozens of apps and competing hardware models all seem to do the same thing. A truly outstanding GPS navigator has to add value to the driving experience, make the driver's life easier, and increase the safety of each trip.

With that in mind, I've rounded up eight features that would separate an outstanding modern GPS navigator from the masses of merely good.

Smarter destination search
This is actually the feature (or rather, the common lack thereof) that annoyed me enough to write this list. Most navigators that I've tested can search for a destination nearby, but there are better methods than a simple radius search. Destination search engines need to get smarter.

A good first step is searching for destinations along the current route. If I'm halfway into a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles and decide to stop for fuel or food, odds are good that I'm not interested in places I've already passed. When you're already heading somewhere, backtracking a few miles is often more trouble than it's worth, so any destination search should be biased toward locations along the chosen route.

Also, the system should be smart enough to know how to search without the user specifying. If I'm partway through a trip, searches should be along the route. If I'm near the end of my trip and search for parking, default to a radius around the destination. If I'm stopped and don't have a destination chosen, then a simple radius search is perhaps best.

Garmin K2 platform takes over the dashboard.
Garmin's previewed K2 platform was demonstrated at CES 2013 and integrates with the rest of the user's data. CNET TV

Some degree of automation would be nice
Sometimes, the navigator should handle the destination searching for me. I'd like to see more automation on the part of portable and OEM navigation systems, with authorization by the user, of course.

This could be as simple as integration with calendars, events, and social-networking services. If I've RSVP'd to a Facebook event that starts soon, the GPS should ask if I want to get going. If I'm out driving around and running errands, the navigator should notify me when it's time to start heading to an important meeting on my calendar that's across town. I should not have to dig into a separate Events menu for these things.

In the case of OEM systems, navigation could even integrate with other vehicle systems to add more automation. If the low-fuel light comes on, the navigation system could start searching for gas stations along the route in the background, even while prompting the driver to stop for fuel.

Now that you've got a destination locked in, GPS should feature...

Scout by Telenav
I was able to bend Telenav's ear and make suggestions for better pathfinding in its Scout app at the 2013 Waypoint summit. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Quick and intelligent routing and rerouting
Pathfinding is probably the single most important feature that a navigation device can offer. Routes chosen should make sense and be easy enough to follow without endangering or confusing the driver.

I'd rather be given three simple, spaced-out instructions than six rapid-fire commands, even if the simple trip is slightly longer. Of course, a smart navigator should be be able to balance saving travel time with saving my sanity. Once the trip is under way, this same intelligence should apply to rerouting when the driver makes a mistake and misses a turn.

Here's an example of what not to do: San Francisco's SOMA district is a grid of three-to-four-lane, one-way streets in alternating directions. If you miss a turn, perhaps a left, most navigation systems' next step will be, "In 300 feet, turn right." Now, you've got less than a block to cross three lanes of traffic for that right turn. When you inevitably miss that turn, the system will suggest a left at the next intersection, which means that you'll have to get back to the far left lane. Rinse and repeat.

I learned long ago to ignore the navigation system at this point and figure things out myself, but to a stranger in my city this could be extremely frustrating. The system should be smart enough to know that if it has just asked the driver to prep for a right turn, then it should bias toward a subsequent right for the next rerouted turn, even if that perhaps goes a block outside of the "optimal" path. It's easier on the driver that way, sometimes.

Mercedes-Benz Comand system in the SL 550
I don't need to be able to read my friends' Walls like Mercedes-Benz' COMAND system allows, but I'd like to know where they've checked in. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Integration with contacts (and possibly social networks)
This one doesn't take much explanation or imagination. Most GPS systems integrate with some sort of Bluetooth hands-free calling system and can sync contacts with your phone. But then most systems that I've encountered only sync the phone numbers and ignore the addresses. Isn't the point of GPS getting to a place? Give me those addresses!

While I'm syncing contacts, I'd like the option to, for example, add the work addresses of my LinkedIn contacts. Perhaps I'd like to see where my Facebook or Foursquare friends have checked into over the last hour, so I can hang out with them. I don't need to read their timelines or look at their baby's pictures, but the location-sharing aspects of social networks are intriguing.

Some people find location sharing scary, but I'd like to see more opt-in, privacy-protected location sharing with these synced contacts and social networks. Services and apps like Glympse let users temporarily share their destination with select individuals or groups of people. I'd like to be able to tap a button to send my destination to someone I want to meet there or my current live location to someone who cares about my well-being.

Excellent spoken voice features
This means text-to-speech spoken directions for the turn-by-turn directions given when the trip is under way. I like to hear street and highway names rather than distances and directions. When drivers hear, "Take the exit for Electric Avenue," or, "Turn right onto Broadway," they can spend more time looking at street signs than at the navigation screen.

Systems that use natural language and landmarks for directions, such as, "Turn left at the Honda dealership," or, "Go 5 miles past the Big Chicken," give an even better heads-up on upcoming turns as large landmarks are easier to spot from farther away than street signs.

But we also want to reduce the amount of physical interaction -- we want hands on the steering wheel and less touching and typing -- which brings us to...

TomTom GO Live 1535M
TomTom's voice command system lets you speak a full address without pausing, but I'd like to see even more natural speech recognition. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A voice command system that works and works well
A good voice system should understand things like "Navigate to 123 Main Street" and should be able to parse such a phrase without multiple button presses or pauses. Systems that require separate prompts for street number, name, city, state, and so on, are annoying, so I usually just don't use them. Ain't nobody got time for that!

While simple commands are good, a good navigation system should also understand more natural commands and queries, including proper nouns. Right now many portable navigation systems' voice command engines can understand a limited list of commands and even certain proper nouns, as in, "Navigate to Starbucks." But what if your favorite barista doesn't work at a Starbucks? What if you actually want the system to "Find the nearest movie theater where 'Starbuck' is playing" or want to know, "What's the cheapest gas price within a few miles of here?"

These are subtly complex queries, often too complex for a portable processor to work out. When you ask Google Voice Search or Siri a question, your phone is actually relaying that query to the cloud where the heavy lifting happens. I rather enjoy talking like a regular person, so a good navigator also needs...

Magellan SmartGPS
Magellan's SmartGPS integrates smoothly with Foursquare and Yelp, but its interface is perhaps a bit too cluttered. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A connection to the Web/cloud
A fast enough Web connection can help naturalize voice inputs, but the primary advantage of a Web connection is the data that it brings to the dashboard. Connecting a navigator to the cloud could get you up-to-the-moment-accurate traffic data, live-updating local fuel prices, and other deep metadata such as what movies are playing at the theaters in the area.

Of course, it's up to the manufacturer to figure out smart ways to implement this data (and to know when not to implement it), particularly when dealing with the temptation to include social networking. For example, I don't need to be able to browse or even listen to my friends' tweets while I drive, but knowing which of the dozens of coffee shops nearby offer free Wi-Fi and have been highly rated by my friends on Yelp or Foursquare is important information.

Google Maps
Even when using a navigation app like Google Maps, users must resist the temptation of the notification bar. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

A cohesive interface that's not distracting to the driver
By now, more than a few of you are thinking that the smartphone in your pocket does all of this, which is true. But it's also tempting you with text messages, e-mails, Facebook notifications, sports scores, and the latest episode of your favorite TV show. Phones also spread out their functions across multiple apps. You can search for a destination via voice, start navigating, and share your location with others, but on an Android phone that involves three separate apps.

I'm not saying that phones are bad for navigation, but using them so requires a healthy helping of self-restraint, which can be difficult in this information-addicted age. I'm also not saying that portable or OEM navigation devices are there yet either, but I'd like to see them and navigation apps move toward blending, automating, and streamlining the seven features outlined above while blocking everything else while on the road.