Satnav buying advice: what to look for in a satnav

Sat Nav Buying Advice

Satellite navigation is ubiquitous these days: everyone’s using it. Whether it’s built into your car,  you have a standalone device or you’re using your smartphone (or even tablet), there’s no shortage of choice.

So let’s say you’re looking to upgrade from whatever you’re currently using. What do you look for in a satnav in 2014? Can you get away with using a smartphone’s GPS for navigation?

These are all common questions, and we’re here to answer them.

Satnav buyer’s guide: Should you ditch the TomTom?

With satnav being part of virtually every smartphone on sale today, you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would buy a dedicated device.

But, before you go down the smartphone route, standalone satnavs still have several advantages. First, they’re dedicated. It might sound obvious, but think about it: it does one job. No distractions such as phone calls, texts or notifications; no power worries and, hopefully, no falling off the windscreen and causing an accident.

Dedicated devices tend to have more options and features and most have a matte screen that isn’t reflective like a smartphone. Plus, you can lend a satnav to someone. You can’t if it’s also your phone.

If you have an older standalone satnav, it might be worth updating the maps.

Satnav buyer’s guide: Are smartphones any good?

Yes. Smartphones are great satnavs. You’ll need to buy a mount for your car – we like the Kenu Airframe or OSO Dash Grip for this – and a USB adaptor that plugs into your 12v accessory supply. In all, you shouldn’t need to spend more than about £20.

Satnav buyer’s guide: What to look for

You can use the smartphone’s battery, but using the GPS receiver and screen for a few hours continuously can easily drain a fully charged battery.


Apple Maps is installed by default and is a pretty good satnav. You can control it via Siri, telling it where you want to go. It does need an internet connection, though, and it will eat into your monthly data allowance.

There are scores of other satnav apps for iOS, including Google Maps (see Android below) and NavFree.

However, unlike paid-for apps such as TomTom, Garmin and others, free apps tend to lack features and offer only basic navigation. For example, Apple Maps won’t warn you of speed cameras, nor tell you your current speed, or the road’s speed limit. It’s rare to find free apps that report current traffic conditions and base your route around this information.

Other options you’re unlikely to find in a free smartphone app are routing preferences. You may not be able to specify the types of road you want to avoid.

These may be insignificant details for some, but deal-breakers for others.


Google maps has improved a lot since it first appeared on smartphones, and turn-by-turn navigation is impressive. It checks traffic conditions and even offers to re-route you if there’s an incident while you’re driving. On the latest version there’s also an option to dim the screen between turns to conserve battery power.

Traffic information can be shown or hidden, but like Apple Maps, there’s no speed readout, or warnings if you’re speeding. Again, map data is downloaded on demand, so you’ll need a 3G or 4G connection.

You don’t have to use Google Maps, of course. There are many free alternatives, including Waze, Skobbler and NavFree: a similar choice to the one faced by iPhone users.

The good thing about free satnavs is that their maps updates are free. Whether the maps are up to date is another matter, but this is where crowd-sourced apps such as Waze come into their own.

See also: 5 best Android satnav apps

Windows Phone

We don’t want to leave out Windows Phone users. In fact, Here Maps is one of the better free offerings as it allows you to download various country maps so you can use the app offline. It’s not the most feature-packed satnav app, but it’s easy to use and offers clear guidance.

Satnav buyer’s guide: What else to look for

It isn’t enough for a satnav to tick all the boxes for the features you’re after. It’s how they work in practice that counts. For example, any satnav worth its salt will have a points of interest database which includes car parks, petrol stations, hotels, cafes, cash points and more.

But is the information any good? Can the satnav intelligently list potential points of interest based on your route, or does it merely list them based on distance as the crow flies? Only satnav reviews can tell you this kind of information.

And as well as speed warnings, another feature that will make your journey easier is lane guidance, so you don’t accidentally leave the motorway at the wrong junction. Some satnavs even go as far as to show you a photo-realistic view of the junction to help you know where to turn.

Free map updates are worth seeking out when buying a new standalone satnav, as paid-for map updates can be almost as much as buying a new satnav in some cases.

Finally, if you’re buying a standalone satnav or paying for an app, make sure you get the maps you need. If you drive to Europe, it’s worth spending the extra £30 or so on maps of Western Europe as adding individual country maps can be costly.

Satnav buyer’s guide: Which sat nav is right for you?

If you drive a lot, it’s worth paying for a device or app that gives you up to date traffic information. You could save hours and hours by avoiding jams.

You might drive only occasionally (to places you’d need a sat nav) and for these kinds of trips, a basic standalone unit should be fine. You’ll probably need no more than a free smartphone app, in fact.