It’s a nightmare scenario every driver hopes to avoid — driving around unfamiliar surroundings, short on time, and running into dead ends at every turn.

A knot forms in your stomach when you realize – gulp! – you may even have to stop and ask a stranger for directions.

But fear not: thanks to modern technology, it no longer has to come to that.

Gone are the days of listening to tedious directions given by locals that know their town by vague landmarks; no more are you forced to try reading a crumpled map spread out across your steering wheel.

Now you can instead opt to buy one of several widely available digital GPS navigation devices – easy to use and smart enough to direct you out of any backwater town.

Think you’re ready to enter the world of GPS navigation ownership? Here’s everything you need to know.

The “global positioning system” – GPS – these navigational aids use is made up of a group of 27 outer-space satellites in orbit 19,000 kilometres above the Earth. The satellites were put there by the U.S. military for, at first, their own navigational use, though they soon after opened it up to the public.

The satellites circle the earth twice a day in a pattern that works so that four satellites can be “seen” – at least by digital devices – at any time from any spot on the planet.

In short, the space-age technology is doing all the hard work. All your GPS receiver has to do is check in with these satellites and see where it is located in relation to them. By analysing radio signals sent out by the satellites, the receiver can figure out the distance between you and at least three of these satellites. Using that information, the GPS can triangulate your exact location on the Earth in terms of latitude and longitude – your numerical coordinates on the global “grid.”

The GPS device can then place your location on a map using on-board software. As you drive and your distance relative to the satellites changes, the location on your map is updated and you can see the progress you’re making to your destination.

In many ways, the hardware specs on most modern GPS devices are very similar to those of contemporary tablet computers or smartphones. Important specs include display quality indicators like resolution – 800 × 480 is fairly standard – glass quality, and size. Also consider whether the device supports Bluetooth for hands-free calling via your cell phone, and what sort of battery life it offers.

Many premium-brand GPS devices offer a treasure trove of features beyond just showing you your location on a map. Your device shouldn’t require a subscription to maintain service – that’s a too-costly option largely relegated to the past, now. Even real-time traffic updates are often standard.

Also look for different options for navigation – perhaps you’ll want to have the device guide you when you’re on foot sometimes, which would require directions suited to walking. Or, if you’re big on saving gas, some GPS units can calculate a route for best fuel economy. An emergency feature to direct you to the nearest help is also worth considering.

There are a wide variety of GPS devices you can choose from specifically designed for in-car use. Since cars with standard in-dash GPS devices showed up only recently, the market for third-party units made to install in your existing car is very busy. Competition is always a good thing for consumers, assuring you’ll get a fair price and loads of features when you make your purchase. Here’s a look at the top five GPS manufacturers:

Garmin

Consumer Reports cites Garmin as the biggest-selling brand, claiming more than half of the total market. Its units consistently receive top-level ratings when reviewed. Garmin’s current line of nuvi GPS devices range in screen size from 3.5 inches across to five inches. The devices often include a touchscreen interface or voice-activated navigation.

Other features included in some units include lifetime map updates, traffic reports, 3D visualizations, and a smartphone link. Prices range from about $150 to $400.

Magellan

This California-based firm is credited with selling the first handheld GPS receiver, the NAV 1000, in 1989, according to Consumer Reports. It continues to make navigation devices for on-person use as well as in-car use. It supplies the Hertz car rental company with its “NeverLost” units. Magellan’s devices score well in reviews, especially the newer models.

Magellan’s RoadMate GPS devices range in price from $120 up to $300. The high-end option includes a rear-view camera that shows you what’s behind your vehicle as you’re backing up. The products are sold with free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts. Many have features like Bluetooth for smartphone pairing; an AAA TourBook guide for destinations in Canada and the U.S.; and a touchscreen interface. Screen sizes include 4.3-inch, 5-inch, and 7-inch.

Mio

This brand isn’t as big as some of the others, according to Consumer Reports, but competes in the market by offering a range of models, from budget to feature-rich. Its device reviews score in the middle of the pack.

Mio’s Moov series of units come in 3.5-inch or 4.3-inch widescreen displays and include preloaded maps of Canada with a text-to-speech feature. The C series include a built-in MP3 player, hands-free calling, and a touchscreen interface.

Nextar

This newcomer to the GPS market is netting sales by marketing its low-priced units in drug stores, not electronics stores. Budget prices come with a compromise in performance, though, and Consumer Reports is not recommending any Nextar devices at the moment.

Nextar devices typically sell for around $100 to $200 and come in 3.5-inch and 4.3-inch screen sizes with a touchscreen interface. An MP3 player is included on these units.

TomTom

This global GPS provider claims sales in more than 30 countries. Consumer Reports rates its devices as among the easiest to use, with options for power-users to customize their devices. TomTom’s GO series features world maps, hands-free calling, and an included magnetic mount. The screen size is five inches and comes with a touch interface.

Lifetime map and traffic updates are included, and Bluetooth is a standard feature, too. Prices range from $170 to $350. The Via series includes some larger screen sizes and premium features that allow for more customization. Prices range from $199 to $229.

Modern GPS units are complete computer systems unto themselves.

Most come with an option to connect with your computer via a USB cable so that you can customize them with free software (often packaged with the product or available for download from the Internet).

Using these options with your GPS can really enhance the value you get out of your navigation experience.

The most basic tweak you’ll want to know about is how to upgrade your firmware. Manufacturers regularly update their software, and downloading those updates to your GPS could unlock new features or improve its performance.

Altering the voice your GPS uses to dictate directions can be a source of endless amusement. Manufacturers will often sell recognizable voices via their websites – the Garmin Garage offers Star Wars characters’ voices like Darth Vader’s, for example – and even give away some more generic funny voices for free. Third-party sites like Pigtones.com offer an even wider selection.

You’ve probably noticed the “Points of Interest” option on your GPS that highlights places along your route you might find useful or entertaining. But did you know you could create your own points of interest to drop onto your own map, or a friend’s?

Software offered by POIEditor.com or included with your manufacturer’s software lets you drop points on a map, add your own description, and then save them to a file. Copy them over to your device with a USB cable and you’re ready for a self-directed cruise.

Looking for more ways to get the most out of your GPS? Check out these other programmable features available on select devices!