In 2000, researchers found that London cab drivers who spend decades negotiating the tangled warren of Britain's capital actually have larger brains than the general population. Researchers observed that the cabbies' work seems to make the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with direction and navigation, increase in size. For the rest of us, there is GPS.

Global positioning technology was born with the space race, when scientists realized that they could track Sputnik by listening to changes in the satellite's radio frequency. Early developments in the technology conceived of the system as having mostly military applications. The system of 24 satellites that we now call GPS was launched by the Department of Defense in 1973. 

Now, the technology is both widely applied and affordable, and today's market favors the buyer says Jamie Lendino, an editor for PC Magazine who regularly reviews GPS devices. It no longer makes sense to skimp and buy a budget device. "This is the best time to buy one. A couple hundred dollars can get you a top of the line unit," Lendino says. The GPS market can seem bewildering, with a handful of top companies all offering similar devices. "Garmin and TomTom bring it on themselves," Lendino says. "If you go to their web sites, it makes no friggin' sense."

But for this very reason, it's hard to go wrong. If you stick to a budget, know your own company, and research your options, you should have no problem picking a GPS model for your business.

How to Choose a GPS: Know Your Needs

When sorting through the various models available, have a sense of what your drivers will need while using the devices. The screen size of most models on the market tend to hover around 4.3 inches, but if your company has drivers who need to always make the right turn the first time, you may opt for a model with a larger screen, like the Magellan RoadMate 9055, which features an exceptionally wide 7 inch interface. Some companies may require flexibility not offered in the commercial market.

Chicago Messenger Service employees 400 drivers, and executive vice president Paul Pitaro says that when they were considering GPS options, they decided to load a Motorola model with custom-designed software. "The GPS we're using right now is particular to the Motorola MC75, and it's integrated with a couple different software packages we're using," Pitaro says, explaining that the custom software is mostly for dispatch management.

When they were choosing among GPS units, however, their concerns were not much different than those of any other buyer. "At the time it was between several devices. We liked it for the screen, for the color, and the price was within our budget," says Pitaro.

Dig Deeper: GPS for Truckers


How to Choose a GPS: Weigh the Gimmicks

Many GPS devices offer identical or similar features with some small variations. Maps, in particular, and the frequency of map updates is one of the most significant features for most users. On some devices, guaranteed lifetime maps means the lifetime of the device as determined by the manufacturer. Caveat emptor. The TomTom VIA 1535TM ($249.99) offers true lifetime map updates. There are also less expensive options with the same feature. "You can now start to see devices at low price ranges that do lifetime map updates," Lendino says.

Other devices will try to sell their size and shape. The Garmin nüvi 3790T may offer a sleek profile, but that likely won't justify the  $350 suggested retail price to most small businesses. Live traffic updates may appeal to some small companies, but this feature is not always reliable. Updates only tend to be about 50 percent accurate, Lendino says. If drivers want traffic info, it may still be best to switch on the radio.

How to Choose a GPS: Test Them Out

Because many devices are so similar in size and design, the choice between them may depend on the user's idiosyncrasies. The best way to differentiate between devices may be to try a number of them out. These differences may be small, but for a driver on the road all day, they'll quickly turn from piddling inconvenience to migraine-inducing techno-foible. These details are often what make the most substantial difference to users, Lendino says. "I find it very hard to get this across to readers," he says, "but the TomToms tend to show the most information on screen. Garmins, in my opinion, have the best points of interest search." 

Many small companies may have to coordinate several stops along the arc of a larger route. Some GPS models will allow them to do this easily. Turn-by-turn audible directions may make the difference for other companies, as their drivers work to coordinate multiple stops, particularly in an urban driving environment. Garmin nüvi devices now feature ecoRoute, a free software update that allows drivers to choose the route that will consume the least fuel.

How to Choose a GPS: Use Your Smart Phone

When it comes to looking for a GPS, your best resort may already be in your pocket. Lendino says that part of the reason GPS prices are so low right now is because smart phones have put the standalone units up against the ropes.

"It's kind of obvious where the market is going with the cell phones, but it just might take a while," Lendino explained. Phones like the Android, and providers like Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon all offer GPS services that are either bundled into a data plan or available at some extra cost. Verizon Navigator, for example, runs about ten dollars a month. At this rate, it may simply be most cost effective over 7 or 8 months' time to buy a standalone.  

There may be other drawbacks to relying on a smart phone, the kind a company may not want to face when they are trying to keep to a tight schedule. "Manufacturers aren't going on the record as saying this, but some phones don't have quite the same GPS reception," Lendino says. "I can tell you from reviewing cell phone apps that I see more dialogues than with the standalone devices." Pitaro says that they faced similar issues when exploring the smart phone option: "The Droid versions are even slower than what we're going with right now."