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Ultimate satnav buying guide

Team PC Advisor took to the streets and tried to get lost. We then asked the very latest GPS-equipped satellite navigation kit to help us back on the straight and narrow. Here's our assessment of the best new GPS models on the market, together with in-depth advice on what to look for in a satnav.

For reviews of more than 20 brand-new satnav kits - dashboard, mobile phone and PDA kits included - click here. Read on for our unique, invaluable advice on buying an inexpensive, feature-rich and accurate GPS satnav device.

Novogo

The excellent Novogo S700

There was a time when most of us could read a map – at least we could if we'd been in the Scouts, were practical-minded or had parents with an insatiable wanderlust. But it's becoming a forgotten skill. Maybe, as with handwriting, it's something that technology has simply rendered semi-obsolete.

Whether it's through sheer laziness, or via a combination of our love of gadgetry and the convenience of an in-car navigator, satellite navigation systems have really taken off. But as we'll see over the following eight pages, even an electronic buddy can get it wrong. While none of us found ourselves teetering on the edge of a cliff, the updated – and theoretically more accurate – maps on the in-car navigators we reviewed weren't infallible.

Mapping chaos

It's the maps themselves that make the real difference. GPS (global positioning system) units vary greatly – largely in the amount of detail and the number of countries they cover – but if the maps are five or six years out of date, it's little wonder the route from A to B can end up being a circuitous one.

It's easily done: we grabbed a copy of the London A-Z and thought we'd found a cunning shortcut. A couple of backstreet turns later and we were confronted by the tube line that had been built across those roads some years before. That'll teach us to hoard ancient mapbooks and not rely on common sense.

It's more apparent than ever that, while technology can help you on your way, you can't let it take over. Act the sheep and you'll have only yourself to blame if you end up in a back street (or if the campsite you were heading for is now an industrial estate).

On-the-hoof updates

Several satellite-navigation manufacturers are pushing the idea of dynamic updates, largely because they have a new rival to contend with: the mobile phone. We tried Telenav's software for the BlackBerry and Nokia's Navigator GPS phone on pages 114–115 of this round-up, but if you have a Palm, Treo, one of the handful of Nokia handsets or a smartphone that runs Windows Mobile 5.0, you can install GPS on it.

Unlike traditional maps that come preinstalled on your device, or those which can be downloaded from an online store, this software is constantly updated. Be warned, though. It can take a couple of years for a mapping company to entirely refresh its maps of the UK, let alone further afield, so there's plenty of room for error.

Traffic updates continue to be a pull. Even when we know where we're going, knowing about traffic problems before we hit a jam can save us a lot of time. If TMC (traffic message channel) is a feature you're looking for when choosing your satnav, check the small print. Usually, you'll find the package includes the TMC service for six months or a year, after which you have to pay a subscription fee. Few will provide you with real-time traffic updates on an ongoing basis.

Another important factor to consider is whether a GPS unit comes with POIs (points of interest). Of course your device's idea of something interesting may turn out to be a particular hotel chain or fast food restaurant with whom the mapping or GPS hardware manufacturer has a commercial arrangement. Knowing where you can refill your thirsty people carrier is useful information, but the ability to deactivate POIs is often as compelling as their inclusion.

Venturing abroad

If items such as speed-camera alerts aren't included, you may be able to download these from the vendor's website. Similarly, if you're buying a satnav with European maps, as well as the standard UK and Ireland one, check out in advance which POIs you can download specific to the country (or countries) you're travelling to. TMC and speed-camera alerts may well be available for France, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, but it's usually the case that licensing terms mean the vendor is able to offer them only in the country in which it is sold.

There are value considerations for those who crave guidance in mainland Europe. You can buy a slightly more expensive product that includes major road mapping for western – and occasionally central and some of eastern – Europe. But if you're only likely to venture as far as France, you may be better saving £30 or so on the initial GPS hardware and buying a separate map of that country, complete with a travel guide and street-level map of Paris.

What to expect

The types of map themselves are a matter of taste: some people find 3D maps far more intuitive, while others find the third dimension confusing. Most satnavs include a 3D mode anyway, and in some cases you can display routes in partial 3D. You should be able to deviate from the prescribed route and get Night mode as standard. But options for fastest, shortest, non-motorway and non-toll roads routes aren't a given. And if you want to use GPS away from the car as well as when driving, a pedestrian mode is now being included on plenty of compact devices to help you find your way around.

Smartphones with GPS capabilities lend themselves especially well to use on foot because of their dainty dimensions. You won't find pedestrian settings on all satnav units, though.

While dashboard models have become slimmer, some have beefier features such as MP3 players, games, built-in cameras and hard disk storage. While we've largely focused on the budget-end of the market here, you needn't shell out vast sums for such additions.

The satnav market has evolved and the range of people acquiring such units has diversified, so the models themselves have begun to differentiate from each other with extra features and customisation options. It is still all about the maps, but with a fresh set on the latest units – as well as a move towards dynamic updates – the value of these extra features could be important when choosing your model.

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