Satnav: what to buy
Finding your way is easier with a GPS-powered satnav tech, but how do you find your way through the seemingly endless choices?
What is sat nav and GPS?
Broadly, there are three types of road-going sat nav: GPS units built into a car, standalone satnav devices and apps. Although the in-car versions are usually powered by the big sat nav companies (the likes of Garmin, Navigon and TomTom), they’re often hampered by poorly thought-out interfaces that can be tricky to use, especially while driving. That’s why many people opt to buy a dedicated GPS device, even when the functionality is already available in a new car.
What are the benefits of a standalone sat nav?
Dedicated gadgets designed to help you find your way have the most powerful satellite fix. A satnav needs to be able to ‘see’ three satellites to tell you your position, and a fourth if you need altitude data as well. The GPS capabilities of a standalone satnav should be able to ‘see’ plenty of satellites in most areas and they won’t be foxed by built-up areas where buildings can block the direct signal from the satellite. Some standalone satnavs even take a SIM card to bring you live traffic data.
Using smartphone apps for GPS
Smartphones often have built-in GPS receivers that can be paired with satnav apps to do much the same job as a standalone sat nav device. But they have their limitations, too. A smartphone’s GPS antenna isn’t as powerful, meaning inaccuracies are more common, even though smartphones are able to triangulate mobile phone antennae to give the app a better idea of its location.
More smartphone satnav app problems
There are car docks that boost the signal, but that’s not the only problem. A smartphone’s battery is drained quickly by straining to pick up satellite signals, often depleting in around an hour. We’ve even heard reports of smartphones plugged into the cigarette lighter socket draining faster than they can charge while running satnav apps. And some smartphone sat nav apps download maps over 3G while you drive, so if you travel through an area where there’s no data signal, all you’ll see is a marker on a blank screen: you’re lost. For all that, a sat nav app is much cheaper than splurging on a standalone unit and the better ones (TomTom’s is very good) store maps on the phone. Because a SIM card is always available, all smartphone app-based sat nav can get traffic data, though you’ll have to pay a subscription for live traffic information in most cases. Travelling abroad? Beware: your data roaming bill might cost more than buying a dedicated satnav in the first place.
Which sat nav should I buy?
Satnavs come in a number of shapes and sizes. Look for something that’s designed for your preferred use – cycling, walking or driving. It’s no use buying a marine satnav for a car. The tech is the same, but it won’t help you much on the road. You should also check the size won’t obstruct your view, make sure it’s easy to use while driving and check its got maps for the areas and/or countries you need. If in doubt, check out our sat nav Top 10.