In-Dash vs. Portable GPS Navigation Systems

What's the difference between integrated and portable GPS systems?

Unless you're using a phone, there are two options for GPS navigation in a car: those built into the car and those that come in a portable, handheld device. We reviewed both to help you make the choice that works best for you.

In-Das vs Portable GPS
Lifewire / Jeremy Laukkonen

Overall Findings

In-Dash GPS Navigators
  • Controlled through the head unit display—no additional hardware to buy or install.

  • Clean look and feel with no mounts or wires cluttering the car interior.

  • Always plugged in—never runs out of battery.

  • Upgrades and hardware replacements can be costly or difficult to install.

  • Can't be easily moved to another car or user or taken on outdoor excursions.

Portable GPS Navigators
  • Available on the go: Easily move from car to car or person to person.

  • Generally less expensive than in-dash systems. Buying a new portable unit may be cheaper than updating an in-dash system.

  • Greater risk of getting lost or stolen.

  • Increased clutter: Require cables, adaptors, and mounts to install.

Built-in or in-dash GPS navigators use the car's head unit to control and display GPS maps and information. In contrast, portable GPS units are smaller and can be taken with you.

In-Dash GPS Pros and Cons

  • Clean, uncluttered GPS system.

  • Generally easier to use and control than portable GPS systems.

  • More expensive than portable units.

  • Often difficult or expensive to install and upgrade.

  • Cannot be relocated or taken with you.

The appeal of built-in GPS navigators solutions comes down to form factor. Whether it's an aftermarket upgrade or proprietary hardware, built-in units offer a clean and uncluttered system for GPS navigation. How easy the system is to use depends on the manufacturer—if the head unit came with the car or was installed second-hand—but, in general, built-in units are more seamless and easier to use than portable ones.

The downside is that in-dash navigators are generally more expensive than portable systems. While they include a number of onboard infotainment apps and features, in-dash navigators can be expensive to install or upgrade. They also lack the convenience of a portable or smartphone GPS unit. They cannot be easily relocated to another car or user or taken on hikes or outdoor adventures.

Portable GPS Pros and Cons

  • Portable: Can easily be moved to a new vehicle or carried with you.

  • Cheaper than in-dash GPS: Upgrades and replacements not a big deal.

  • Create dashboard clutter, with cables, adaptors, and mounts.

  • Smaller screens.

  • Greater risk of loss or theft.

Portable GPS navigators are preferred almost entirely for their portability. They are not as sleek or readymade as in-dash systems, but they can easily be moved from car to car or person to person. They're also less expensive than built-in navigators. Because they're generally cheaper, replacing and upgrading them are as well. That means a car doesn't have to be stuck with an out-of-date GPS system made by a company with little software experience.

The drawback with portable units is the size and clutter potential. They usually have smaller screens and require a host of cables, adaptors, and mounts to install. Because they're portable, they're at greater risk of being lost or stolen.

Should You Get an In-Dash or Portable GPS Navigator?

In-dash and portable GPS systems are different enough to appeal to individual needs. If you plan on driving the same vehicle for a while and are okay with occasionally updating your maps, an in-dash system may be the right call. If you want something that you can take between vehicles or hold on your person or something that costs less, get a portable GPS unit.

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