Keeping the maps on your GPS devices up to date used to be a complicated and costly process. There are still some bothersome obstacles to keeping your maps current, but it has become easier than ever to acquire or download and install map updates and new mapsets. There are also more maps and types of maps available than ever before, ranging from general-use road navigation maps, to specialty maps such as nautical charts, to backcountry hiking maps, and even fishing maps, as just a few examples.
Dedicated Car GPS Map Updates
Dedicated car GPS mapsets should be updated yearly. Garmin, for example, offers hundreds of mapsets and offers a set of downloadable utilities to manage them. Garmin has simplified and consolidated its map update process with a Garmin Express "one-stop shop" free software download for Mac or Windows. Garmin Express lets you update maps, update software, backup restore and transfer favorites, install voices and vehicles, and download product manuals. Garmin also provides a centralized resource page for finding map updates for automotive, phone, marine, and other (handheld, etc) GPS devices. In addition to the bread-and-butter street maps that we all use, Garmin goes deep into map offerings, including topographic and specialized trail maps, water navigation charts including the oceans, and even lakes, city-specific maps, golf course maps that include detailed yardage, hazard and green maps, and avionics databases and maps.
TomTom also offers a centralized maps page, but unlike Garmin, is entirely focused on street maps and databases. For automotive GPS, TomTom offers a quarterly map update package for $71 per year. TomTom offers two map download and management utilities, including TomTom Home, and My TomTom. The version you need depends on the GPS model you're using. When these utilities are installed, they will automatically detect which devices you've connected via USB cable, and guide you through the update process.
Other GPS manufacturers offer similar utilities. Note also that many new dedicated car GPS models include free product lifetime map updates. If you buy such a device, be sure to register it with the maker soon afte purchase to lock in your free maps. The free maps offer can expire.
Smartphone GPS Map Updates
You can add easy map updates to the list of benefits of using your iPhone or Android smartphone as a GPS navigation device. Apple's Maps app and Google Maps for iPhone and Android constantly update their maps at the source. The disadvantage is that you may not be able to get any maps at all if you are out of cellular data tower range.
You can have it both ways with a smartphone if you buy a GPS navigation app that stores map data on your phone. The maps will always be available, even out of cell tower range. These maps tend to be more than 1GB in size, so keep that in mind in terms of available memory on your phone, and the time to download map updates.
Handheld Fitness, and Golf GPS Map Updates
Most handheld GPS devices (designed for hikers, mountaineers, geocachers, hunters & fisherman and others) mapsets are most easily updated or changed with the purchase and installation of microSD cards. I prefer the microSD because it is a quick, direct, and easy way to move and install a lot of data. Want all the topo maps for North America? Just pop them into the SD slot. Many fitness GPS devices don't have mapsets, but some of the high-end models, such as the Garmin 800 bicycle computer, do.
Golf GPS devices are a little different, in that their databases are smaller in size than the big road or topo mapsets. Updates to golf GPS devices are usually easily handled with a simple download. Golf GPS makers used to charge a hefty fee for course downloads, but competitive pressures have made the course databases low-cost or free.
Map update information can be scattered and somewhat confusing, but the manufacturers have made a significant effort to consolidate and simplify their map resources, and to lower the cost of map updates.