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Choosing the right satnav system can be a bewildering experience these days. There are now hundreds of choices of navigation assistants, ranging from free smartphone apps to factory-fitted systems that come with your car. But what satnav should you buy? What do you get at each level of spend, and what will provide you with the best value? Never fear – the Car Expert is here to help you!

How does satnav work?

A navigation device uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network to identify your precise location on the planet. The satellite system was originally set up as a military tool, but was subsequently made available for civilian use and is maintained by the US Government. It is freely available to anyone with a GPS receiver (ie – your satnav device). Your device shows the GPS location on a map so that you know where you are.

Types of satnav device

For most people, there are four types of satnav device they can choose from, ranging from free to very expensive.

Firstly, pretty much every smartphone and tablet has Apple Maps and/or Google Maps already built in, which you can use as a free navigation system. Secondly, you can buy a dedicated turn-by-turn navigation app for your smartphone or tablet. Thirdly, you can buy a standalone satnav device from companies like TomTom or Garmin. Finally and most expensively, you can buy a car with a built-in satnav system. We will now look at the pros and cons of each type of device.

Free satnav – Apple Maps and Google Maps

Google Maps vs Apple Maps on an iPhoneIf you have a smartphone or tablet, you will know that you already have a map application – usually Google Maps or Apple Maps. Despite the initial poor reception for Apple’s mapping application, they are now about equal in their performance.

You can use your phone or tablet as a satnav anywhere you go, but the options are fairly basic and it tends to drain the battery quite quickly. It also requires you to have a data connection to stream the maps, as they are not stored on your device.

PROS: it’s free (you probably already have it); highly portable
CONS: very basic navigation options; drains battery quickly; needs 3G/4G data plan to stream maps; lack of integration with car.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: not a lot, really. There’s not a lot of difference between Google Maps and Apple Maps these days, so take your pick.
BEST BUY: Apple Maps works seamlessly with your other iOS apps if you have an Apple device, but Google Maps is still more popular.

Paid satnav apps for your phone or tablet

NAVIGON satnav app for iPhoneThe app store for your phone offers several dedicated navigation apps that you can purchase, usually for about £50. These apps will download the relevant maps to your device, so you can use it even without a phone signal. They also give more navigation options.

The Car Expert is currently using the Garmin StreetPilot and NAVIGON apps, and they provide all of the functionality of dedicated satnav units, as well as integration with other phone features like Wikipedia and Foursquare, plus the ability to navigate to addresses from your contacts. In fact, these apps deserve to be ranked as a ‘Best Buy’ for navigation, as you get full navigation functionality at a decent price without having to buy a separate navigation unit.

PROS: all the functionality of dedicated devices without having an additional device; integration with other phone apps and features; cheaper than a dedicated portable satnav unit
CONS: using additional features will drain your phone rapidly so you will need to keep it plugged in while driving; will need a separate mount to be usuable while driving; lack of integration with car.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: check what’s included in the price and what is only available as an additional in-app purchase
BEST BUY: NAVIGON iOS or Android app. £54.99

Portable satnav devices

TomTom Go 5000 satnav (The Car Expert)The last decade has seen millions of satnav units sold all around the world, and they have become a must-have device for most households. Brilliant for finding your way around unfamiliar territory, especially when you are in Europe and don’t know the local language. They usually have a larger screen than your average smartphone, and come with a suction cup to mount to your car windscreen.

The Car Expert has recently been playing with two of the best new units in the UK market: the Garmin nüvi 65 and the TomTom GO 5000.  The Garmin unit – from their new Essentials range – is very decent, with a large 6” screen and intuitive controls, and priced well for the features offered.  But the TomTom is simply the best satnav device I have ever used.  The screen isn’t the biggest at 5” (you can get a 6” model if you prefer), but that wasn’t especially important because the system is very cleverly laid out.  Everything functions exceptionally well, and one of the pre-installed voices sounds rather like Benedict Cumberbatch.  Both units (and most others) struggle for battery life when left unplugged, though.

PROS: Still the most complete portable satnav option; models for every budget from £50 to £300; includes windscreen mountings; most units offer speed camera alerts
CONS: Really need to be kept connected to power, which means wires dangling around your car cabin; smartphone apps offer most of the functionality for much less money; lack of integration with your car
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: screen size; what’s included (eg – the TomTom GO 5000 offers both lifetime map updates and lifetime traffic data); what maps are included (eg – the Garmin nüvi 65LM only covers the UK unless you upgrade to the European version)

BEST BUY – over £150:  TomTom GO 5000 £259.99
BEST BUY – under £150:  Garmin nüvi 65LM (£139.99)

Built-in factory car satnav system

Mercedes-Benz S-Class COMAND satnavNearly every new car on sale comes with an option to add an integrated satnav system, or in some cases it comes standard. These units tend to be much more expensive (£500 to £2,000+), but often include other functionality for the car’s stereo and other systems.

The mapping is usually exactly the same as the portable devices, but the system is much better integrated with the car’s functionality. For example, when the satnav is giving you a driving instruction, the stereo will mute so you can hear the nav; or you can have the directions repeated on a second screen in the dashboard (or maybe even a heads-up display); or when your fuel light comes on, the satnav will suggest petrol stations along your route.

Some luxury cars are integrating the satnav even more closely into the car’s functionality. If you travel across the English Channel into Europe, some Audi models will automatically update your clock, switch your display from miles to kilometres and even flick your headlights over for driving on the other side of the road. Other cars are using satnav info for cruise control and gearchange information to provide a smoother and safer drive.

PROS: Integration between navigation and car functions, depending on make and model; no cables (they’re my personal pet hate!); no stick-on windscreen mounts, which may also be a theft deterrent; usually include traffic information service
CONS: much more expensive than other navigation solutions; only works in the car (obviously); most don’t provide speed camera alerts; map updates are usually expensive.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: what you’re getting over and above the navigation itself, since the mapping will probably be exactly the same as any other mapping option.

As you can see, there are countless choices for assistance in navigating yourself across the countryside.  Without having to spend a penny, you can get basic satnav support as long as you have a 3G signal on your phone, but if you want to splash out on a proper satnav system, you can get a great solution regardless of how much you want to spend.

* Satnav units and apps for this article were provided for review by Garmin, Navigon and TomTom. The author also used and referred to privately-sourced Navman, Pioneer and TomTom satnav units, and factory car satnav systems from Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.

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Stuart Masson
Stuart Massonhttps://www.thecarexpert.co.uk/
Stuart is the Editorial Director of our suite of sites: The Car Expert, The Van Expert and The Truck Expert. Originally from Australia, Stuart has had a passion for cars and the automotive industry for over thirty years. He spent a decade in automotive retail, and now works tirelessly to help car buyers by providing independent and impartial advice.