Sat Nav Buying Guide

For years now, sat navs have been a key part of everyday life for drivers across the globe. Whether we need guidance on an unfamiliar journey, shorten trips we make every day, or want to be prepared for unexpected routes, sat navs can be a huge help when sitting at the wheel.

There’s a huge range of options on the market today, and so you might find yourself daunted when browsing. In this guide, we aim to provide all the answers you need, and help you find the perfect model for your specific requirements.

How do Sat Navs Work?

Sat nav is short for ‘satellite navigation’. These devices work by connecting with a network of Global Positioning Satellites (hence the term ‘GPS’), which orbit Earth in known locations, calculating your position with great accuracy, often within just a few metres. This has revolutionised the way many of us drive, providing greater convenience and reducing time spent pulling over to check complicated road-maps.

You can use your sat nav to plan routes in various ways: you can enter a postcode, a landmark local to your destination, or a full address. The device will then calculate the shortest, fastest route, guiding you from beginning to end.

Which Type should I Buy?

Once you’ve decided to invest in a sat nav, you need to find the model best-suited to your specific needs. Various types are available, featuring different maps and extras.

Sat navs are made in various sizes, from around 3.5 inches to 6 inches: the size you choose will affect the way in which you can interact with it – larger screens are easier to touch & navigate while driving, and allow you to see bigger areas of your map at a time. While a smaller screen may be cheaper, you need to consider whether you will struggle to use it on the road.

Depending on where you plan to drive in the foreseeable future, you should consider the range of maps you may need. You can choose from: UK & ROI (popular with those driving domestically, unlikely to leave the British Isles); Western Europe or Full Europe (great for drivers who like to drive abroad, and holiday often); and North America & Canada (useful if you are planning to drive in unfamiliar territory in these regions).

There are numerous additional features available in different models – we’ll cover those in greater detail later.

How much do I need to Pay for a Decent Unit?

Your budget will obviously affect the type of sat nav you go for, but do you need to pay over the odds to get a high-quality unit? Not necessarily. There are plenty of brands producing sat navs at various prices, with the cheapest starting at between £50 (if on sale) and £100. Costs increase depending on features & size, up to around £400 (or just under). Cheaper devices will offer less in the way of features, but still provide the same key functions.

Thankfully, most retailers now allow customers to review products on their site, and there are plenty of independent reviewers elsewhere online – try to find other people’s feedback on any models that attract your attention before you buy.

Is a Budget one Fine or do I need to Spend a Certain Amount?

Again, there is no right or wrong answer – a sat nav’s price need not necessarily dictate quality. Take a look at your budget, settle on a maximum price, and then search the range available. As we said in the above answer, explore online reviews to find what previous buyers have made of their purchases. For example, a TomTom model below £150 can include a six-inch touchscreen, pre-loaded maps for the UK, ROI, and Western Europe, as well as free lifetime map updates, and more. However, some of these same features can also be found in a Garmin Nuvi device, available for less than £70.

How Long will it Last?

There are two answers to this: in terms of battery life, you sat nav’s capabilities will vary from one to the next; in terms of overall lifespan, the answer is even more vague.

Which? recently revealed the results of their tests into sat nav batteries, assessing which models what allow them to travel the furthest based on their power capabilities. The TomTom Rider V5 came out on top (from their selection), allowing them to drive for more than 6 hours on a single charge. The Garmin Nuvi 2497LM ran for almost 4 hours, while the Mio Moov M419 LM lasted for just 1 hour 15 minutes.

This should give you an indication of the wide-ranging variabilities between different brands and models. Retailers should provide information on expected battery life in their product descriptions.

Will it Give Incorrect Directions and Send me into a River?

There are stories about people ending up in a river or ditch after following their sat navs, but the majority are the fault of the user, not the device: drivers need to make sure they input their destination correctly, programme it before they actually start driving, and stay aware of their surroundings without becoming fixated on the screen.

Generally, sat navs should only send drivers down roads that no longer exist if its maps are well out of date – keeping them updated can help you get around this.

Should I Choose Lifetime maps?

Some sat navs are available with lifetime maps: this means you get free updates for the device’s lifetime, ensuring you have the latest layouts and routes. This can avoid you following roads that are under construction or no longer there, increasing the device’s reliability.

If you choose to buy a sat nav without lifetime maps, you may find yourself having to pay surprisingly high prices for eventual updates, adding to the overall expense, so you need to think carefully before choosing.

Can I just Use an App on my Phone?

Today’s smartphones generally feature their own navigation apps, and most are good quality, too. So, can you simply get by with this or should you actually invest in a freestanding sat nav? Well, this depends on the amount of driving you do, and the places you need to reach. If you simply use your car to get from home to work and back, driving the same exact route each day, you may find an app will help you when you need to take a slight diversion or go somewhere close by.

However, if you drive to new places on a regular basis, using complicated & variable routes, you will likely find an actual sat nav is of better use. Sat navs also offer fewer distractions – incoming text messages, phone calls, notifications etc. – and, without these, its guidance will remain uninterrupted. You also need to factor in your data allowance and signal: if you end up out of range, or have a limited tariff, you may end up with no guidance at all.

Do I need Additional Features?

Even the cheapest sat navs carry various features that can prove hugely useful whilst at the wheel – but do you really need them? In a word – yes. Live traffic updates, for example, can be fantastic to help you avoid long, arduous tailbacks or hazards. Speed-camera alerts are handy, helping you to avoid the potential risk of fines, but may not be a deal-breaker if this adds much expense.

Other features you may receive include access to emergency assistance, lane guidance (to help you stay on the right track at junctions), and Bluetooth technology for linking to your phone. Depending on your own driving preferences, you might find some of these are unnecessary, but others – like emergency assistance and traffic reports – can be a big help.

It’s best to look into the range of features sat navs within your budget offer, and decide which ones you feel you really need, and which you can manage without.

Do I need European and North American Maps 

Buying a sat nav that features European and/or North American & Canadian maps is really dependent on the amount of travel you typically do, or expect to do. If you’re genuinely unlikely to leave the UK, then you can simply buy a sat nav with UK-based maps. However, if you’re expecting to go elsewhere, then the extra maps can save considerable time & and confusion in the long-run – even if you don’t take your car abroad with you, you can take your sat nav and use it in a rental vehicle. Hiring a sat nav along with a car can add extra expense – if offered on a per-day basis, the fee may appear low, but this obviously soon mounts up.

Which are the Main Brands and What Differences do they Offer?

TomTom and Garmin are the two key brands on the sat nav market. Each company manufactures various models, for all budgets and preferences – finding the right one can be easier than you think.

Both brands offer lower-priced, more basic models, as well as more expensive premium designs. Features and screen-size will vary between each one: some premium models include such luxuries as real-time pictures of nearby junctions, internet-search capabilities, and, of course, live traffic information. As we discussed earlier, the features you feel you need will depend on how much time you spend on the road, and how often you drive unfamiliar routes or those prone to traffic-jams. Some retailers will be able to provide all the advice you need in-shop, and may even allow you to test it in your car, to make sure it’s compatible.

How much more will you pay for European Maps (on average)?

On average, sat navs featuring only UK & ROI maps appear to cost below £100, as low as £60 in some cases. These models vary in size and design, with some 5-inch devices available. For domestic drivers, this is something of a bargain, providing reliable guidance and additional features (if available) at a cost-effective rate.

For sat navs featuring European maps (often Full EU), you can expect to pay a bit more – though not necessarily much. The cheaper models tend to be as low as around £60 (for Garmin), with the average being between £89.99 and £129 (though you may pay closer to £200 for a 6-inch model featuring live traffic reports, speed camera alerts, point-of-interest notifications, Eco-routing for fuel-efficiency, and more).

Sat navs featuring worldwide maps (UK & ROI, full Europe, and USA & Canada) tend to be more costly, running between £170 and £299 on average. For drivers who plan to spend lots of time abroad, or who travel for work, this is a worthwhile investment, particularly for a model with lifetime maps & traffic updates.

Do foreign maps need more updating?  

Before travelling abroad, you will need to make sure your sat nav’s maps are updated for any regions you plan to explore, particularly if some time has passed between visits. Whether all maps need updating at the same time may vary from model to model – for example, if you need to update your UK & ROI maps, you may be put off doing this if it also requires you to update all other maps too. Ask your retailer for more details before buying.

Are Foreign Maps Reliable?

As the data sat navs provide is updated regularly, foreign maps should be reliable – before travelling, be sure to see if any updates are available, to make sure you’re prepared. It may be best to get a paper map of regions you expect to visit, in case you find the sat nav is providing you with inaccurate information. You may want to study these before you set out.

Pros of Sat Navs: 

Why should you invest in a sat nav? Let’s take a look at a few pros

  • Save on fuel by finding the best, fastest, and shortest route for you
  • Save time by reducing the chances of getting lost or taking long routes & detours
  • More convenient than using complicated paper maps (which may be out of date)
  • Extra features can be hugely useful – live traffic reports, points of interest etc.

Cons of Sat Navs: 

  • Easy to become over-reliant on the guidance it provides
  • Paying for updated maps can be expensive if you choose a model without lifetime maps



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