Buying a GPS Receiver

What to Look For

Here are some things I learned when looking around for a GPS unit for use on a motorcycle. The "big three" considerations are display, memory, and cost. Others include ease of use, water resistance, and physical size. My own experience is with Garmin products, but the same considerations should apply to other brands.

Why buy a GPS in the first place? My personal feeling is that they're most useful for riding in unfamiliar towns and cities, when you want to find your way to an exact address. When you're riding around the countryside, being "lost" isn't a big deal. The baseline maps that come with most GPS units are They don't contain the street-level detail that you'll find most useful.


A large, color display is easier to read than a smaller, black and white one. Although I haven't ridden with a color display at night, I'd expect its advantages to be multiplied even more after dark. That's important when you're trying to take a quick look while you're riding. The tradeoff comes in cost and portability of the color units, which tend to be expensive and bulky. Although I wound up with a B&W unit, it wouldn't have taken much to tilt me to color. Prices continue to come down, so that decision will become easier. (Note: All color displays are not created equal, even from the same manufacturer. If possible, visit a store to look at actual displays, to see how readable they are in direct light and in reduced light.)

A negative characteristic of color displays is that they use up internal batteries faster than B&W displays. If you always use your unit on a motorcycle or in a car, where you can hook it to the vehicle's battery, this isn't a problem, but if you use it away from a vehicle, it's a consideration.

Water Resistance

All the GPS units have some resistance to water. At the time I bought my eMap, none that I was interested in were listed as truly "waterproof," so this was not a factor; I just haven't used it in the rain. Newer units do much better in the rain; check what the manufacturer claims for the unit itself, and what protection from the elements your mounting system provides.

Here's some info on the cryptic definitions for water-resistance:


GPS units come with some amount of internal memory, which enables saving geographic points in the form of waypoints, tracks, and routes. For holding maps covering large areas -- a common need for motorcyclists -- you'll definitely need a unit that accommodates removable memory cartridges. My personal opinion is that you'll need at least a 64 MB cartridge, but more is better. Consider, for example, that a Garmin CD holds about 650 MB of data, of which about 500 MB is map images; a 64 MB data cartridge will hold less than 15 percent of those images.

The data cartridges may be proprietary to the GPS unit manufacturer. If so, you'll pay more for them than you would for, say, the same amount of memory for a digital camera, where there's more competition among media manufacturers. Avoid proprietary memory cartridges if possible


The cost of the GPS unit itself is only part of the equation, since you'll need other things to go with the unit. The BMW package that's available for the K1200LT appears outrageous at nearly $1500, but isn't nearly so bad when you consider everthing that's bundled with it. What you'll typically need are:

The above items may total more than the cost of the basic unit. The good news is that many of them are common to all units from a given company, so if you upgrade the GPS unit, you don't necessarily have to buy the other accessories. On the other hand, you'll probably wind up upgrading the software as improved versions come out. You don't have to pay full price for everything. There are dealers who offer discounts on most items; search on the internet for key words like the brand and unit name.

Other Considerations

A lot of your interaction with the GPS unit will be with the desktop computer software that lets you download waypoints, routes, and maps to it. Garmin sells or includes a line of MapSource software that contains maps, points of interest, and topographic features for the US and other parts of the world. The nice thing about this software is that it's tightly integrated with Garmin GPS units. However, it's not as flexible as other brands, like Delorme's Street Atlas and Microsoft Streets and Trips, which enable you to import and export text files of geographic positions, and let you look up street addresses. The bottom line is that I use all three (Garmin MapSource, DeLorme Street Atlas, and Microsoft Streets & Trips) to take advantage of the best features of each. Again, this adds to the cost


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