The three options
On a basic level you have three main sat nav options: the stand-alone sat nav device, which is usually slightly bigger than a smartphone and affixes to the inside of your windscreen or on your dashboard, the sat nav app on your smartphone, or an integrated sat nav which is built into the car.
While we’re not suggesting you buy an entire new car for the sake of a sat nav, there are some things to look out for if you’re planning on buying a new car anyway and you’re interested in one with an integrated sat nav.
The stand-alone sat nav and the sat nav app are obviously cheaper options, but there are things you need to look out for there too.
Sat nav apps
So many of us now have expensive, powerful smartphones with GPS capabilities that it might seem a bit of a waste of money to then go and buy a stand-alone sat nav as well.
After all, you’re likely to always have your smartphone on your person, so you’ll never be without your sat nav either.
On the down side, there are sat nav apps which cost upwards of £50, so in some instances they’re actually not a lot of cheaper than a physical sat nav device.
Most of the best-known sat nav manufacturers such as Tom Tom and Garmin have app versions of their sat navs.
For the most part, these apps install maps onto your smartphone so being in an area with a poor signal won’t make a difference. However, some apps download maps over 3G as you travel, which means if you roam into an area with poor reception or no signal, you could end up lost.
The other drawback is that smartphones are power-hungry at the best of times, without the added burden of GPS use and loading your maps, so if you’re planning on using a smartphone app for a long journey, you might find the battery being drained very quickly.
And speaking of long journeys, if you’re driving over to the continent this Easter and your sat nav app does download maps over 3G, you could get hit with hefty data roaming charges for using it. No matter which type of sat nav you buy, you’ll probably have to buy and download the map software for the region you’re visiting before setting off too.
Because your phone has a SIM card, it means you can also get live traffic data over 3G, but of course this will also take its toll on your battery.
Stand-alone sat navs
The traditional stand-alone sat nav can be picked up for as little as £30 but can cost up to as much as £328. The obvious trade-off is that the cheaper the model is, the fewer features it will have.
At the top end of the scale you can expect large, multi-touch touchscreen interfaces, in-built flash memory and voice control. The cheaper models tend to have smaller screens, less memory, poorer quality touchscreens and so on.
The software of each device, its features and usability will vary. The more expensive models tend to have easier-to-use software, making it easier to navigate your way out of the middle of nowhere, should you happen to find yourself there.
An obvious advantage these stand-alone devices have over your smartphone is that they have their own batteries and can be connected to your car’s power supply. This means you don’t have to choose between making a call and finding your way to your destination. The more expensive models also tend to have longer-lasting batteries.
Stand-alone sat navs are arguably more reliable than app versions which can be limited by your smartphone’s capabilities. Dedicated sat nav devices are designed to ‘see’ enough satellites, even in built-up areas, to be able to guide you.
Integrated sat navs
If you are looking to buy a new car and you’re interested in one with built-in sat nav, there are a few things to look out for.
Many built-in or integrated sat nav systems use software from the big names in satellite navigation, like Garmin or Tom Tom. So, just like a portable, stand-alone sat nav device – the software needs updating every now and again, or if you’re making trips across foreign soil.
A Which? Investigation earlier this year found that a single map update for an integrated sat nav can cost nine times as much as an update for a portable, stand-alone sat nav. However, newer cars with in-built sat navs can be updated for free or the same as their portable equivalents, according to the investigation.
If you’re buying a car with integrated sat nav and plan on using it, it’s worth asking the dealer how up-to-date it is and roughly how much it costs to update. If they don’t have the answers, get online and find out.
A positive factor is that integrated sat navs are built to last for the life of the car and run off your car’s power source, so you don’t need to worry about charging them. On the downside, they might increase the value of your car and push up your car insurance premiums.
Which is best?
Clearly each type has its own benefits and drawbacks, but as the easiest to use and update and perhaps cheapest, portable, stand-alone sat navs appear to be the best option – particularly if you plan on using the sat nav fairly infrequently.
If your idea of fun involves being told by a celebrity which direction to take, you’re well catered for. For a fee you can download and install famous voices onto your sat nav, replacing the standard voice.
Examples include Mr T of the A-Team, who pities the fool who takes a wrong turn, or John Cleese channelling the oft baffled and exasperated Basil Fawlty. The latter is one of Tom Tom’s most downloaded voices, along with Sex and The City’s Kim Cattrall, in character as Samantha.
For as little as £4.75 you can even have Darth Vader instruct you to “bear left, to the dark side.”
Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct.