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How to Choose the Best Portable Satellite Navigation Device

Fed up with getting lost? Think maps are a bit old-fashioned? Don’t want to pay the premium for a car fitted with satellite navigation? Follow our guide to decide what kind of sat nav best suits your needs.

Written by James Foxall
Written by James Foxall
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Dedicated sat nav or using a phone app?

If you don’t do many miles and only need navigation occasionally, you might consider using your smartphone as a sat nav. There are plenty of pros to this. For a start, you already own it. Plus, there are some great navigation apps for whatever mobile operating system you’ve gone for. One of the most highly rated sat nav apps, available for Apple, Google and Windows devices, is Waze.

However, using a phone does have its downsides too. For a start, it’s your phone so if you’re taking calls or listening to music it can be distracting if you’re using the nav too. Also unlike smart phones, portable sat navs have non-reflective screens so you can still see them clearly in bright sunlight. Additionally, the law says the phone must be seated in a cradle. And last but definitely not least, using a navigation app on a phone munches through battery power so a charging lead will also be required for longer trips.


Screen size

If you’ve decided you do want a dedicated sat nav, the first thing to consider is screen size. This varies from 3.5-inch to 6-inch. Obviously the bigger the screen, the more of the surrounding area on the map you can see, and the easier they are for big clumsy fingers to use the touch screen.


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Think about the features you want your sat nav to have. Do you want to be able to search destinations by post code? Not all systems have this. What about a display in three dimensions? And is it important for you to have it telling you which lane to be in at complicated junctions. Check the maker’s detailed information and compare product features closely.



Will you be going abroad or staying in the UK? If you take the car abroad for holidays or regularly use hire cars in foreign countries, it will pay to buy a sat nav with European as well as UK mapping. Hire car companies charge extra for sat navs so you’ll save money by taking your own.


Live or not?

Sat navs fall into two basic groups: those that acquire ‘live’ data about traffic conditions on route and those that don’t. Those that do this enable you to modify your route depending on the state of current traffic. The best ones update every few minutes meaning you won’t be stuck in a traffic jam or impromptu roadworks. Non-live sat navs have to be updated manually, usually over the Internet.


Speed cameras

Although fixed speed cameras are usually easy to spot at the roadside, it doesn’t do any harm to have advanced warning of them, a feature that many sat navs can provide. And having the speed camera function on a sat nav helps ensure you’re aware of the speed limit too. When buying a sat nav, check if the speed camera function is for life or you have to pay for it to be updated.


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Points of interest

Points of interest refers to places to stop along your route or at a destination. It can actually prove remarkably handy if you need to find a petrol station, hotel or somewhere for a snack on the hoof.



Do you have to pay one? Some of the more upmarket systems come with a lifetime of mapping updates. On others there is an annual subscription to ensure it maintains the most current mapping and points of interest.


How clear is it?

Visiting a store and getting hands-on time with a selection of units is a good way to compare ease of use. As with most things electronic, how easy sat navs are to use varies greatly. Some have simple, clear instructions that you can use instantly. Others have cluttered screens and the most popular functions on menus hidden within menus.


How good is it at giving directions?

Sat navs do vary in how they give directions, how early they warn you of junctions, speed cameras and so on. You want one that has a clear screen and gives you plenty of advance notice. After all, the whole point of the exercise is to buy something that will get you to your destination with the minimum hassle.


Brands to look out for

Since the beginning of portable sat navs, TomTom and Garmin have ruled the roost and that’s still the case. Independent reviewers at Auto Express rated the TomTom GO6100 ahead of the Garmin nuvi 2699LMT-D.

Written by James Foxall
James Foxall

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