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For many drivers today a satnav is an integral part of their car, whether it’s built into the vehicle or a portable unit. They help you find the quickest, shortest or even a route avoiding motorways. Modern satnavs also let you find nearby petrol stations, electric vehicle (EV) charging points, restaurants, hotels and other points of interest.

In this guide we’re going to look at the various types of satnav available on the market, and the pros and cons of each to help you work out which is the best option for you.

Phone Satnavs

Most people have a smartphone and these are all installed with a Map App, whether it’s an iOs or Android operating system.

You can also download various apps like Google Maps that will provide you with up to date traffic information and plan routes for you in the car, on foot and via public transport so you can use these on the go as well as in your vehicle.

If you decide to use your mobile phone for a satnav then we advise you turn the notifications off so these do not distract you from the road or interrupt the navigation system.

You should also get a holder to put your mobile phone in as you should not be holding a mobile whilst driving and looking down at it will pull your attention away from the road.

You can get a number of different types of holders that fit onto your dashboard, windscreen, or air vents to position your phone at a comfortable level that you can easily see whiles maintaining a view of the road.

Map apps are a great choice if you don’t want to pay for the upgraded spec that is required on some models in order to get the built-in satnav, or don’t want to carry around an additional satnav device.

However, they will use your mobile data and in order to give you directions so will need a strong signal at least when starting the journey. Most also require a strong signal for the majority of the drive in order to provide you with accurate and up to date instructions.

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Portable Satnav Units

The second option is a portable satnav unit.

Just like with a mobile phone these units offer you the flexibility of a unit that can be used outside of the car as well as in it.

There are portable satnavs that get live traffic, road closure and parking updates like most mobile apps do, and install any necessary software updates over WiFi or via a sim card.

However, there are also satnavs that do not have these live updates or need to connect to your mobile through apps like Garmin Smartphone Link to get the updates.

Some units require plugging in via the 12V socket in order to power or charge them when in the car, and you might need to connect a unit to your PC via USB in order to update software on models without WiFi or a sim card.

There are a number of different models available at various price points so you should be able to find one that’s affordable for you.

The two most popular brands of portable satnavs are Garmin and TomTom. You can find these, and other brands, online at Amazon, Halfords and similar retailers.

Unlike a mobile phone, satnavs do not need a strong mobile signal in order to provide you with a route and so can be better if you live in an area of poor signal.

If you use a model that sticks to your windscreen or dashboard and leaves a mark where it was placed we recommend keeping a cloth in your car to wipe this off, as some thieves take the marks left by suction cups as a sign valuables like satnavs are kept in the vehicle.

We recommend taking your satnav out of the car whenever you are not using it for security reasons.

Built-In Satnavs

Each car manufacturer has their own multimedia and infotainment systems, including a satnav.

The quality of these vary between manufacturers and even between the spec, as some only include live updates on upgraded models.

The benefit of opting for a built-in unit is that you will always have the satnav in the car and so never be stranded without knowing how to get home. You also won’t have as much of a security 

You don’t get as much choice in the satnav if it is a built-in one, other than whether there are live updates and similar features, and you will be dependant on the vehicle manufacturer for updates, either over WiFi or having to take it into one of their garages.

What to Look for in a Satnav

When looking at a satnav there are a few features you’ll want to look for, and we’ve rounded up what we think are the most important:

  • Initial purchase price
  • Whether software updates are free or if you will need to pay for these
  • Whether it has live traffic updates
  • How loud the sound alerts and directions are and ease of controlling these
  • How large the screen size is and how zoomed in the map
  • How much notice before actions that it provides directions
  • How easy the visual prompts that appear on the screen are to understand
  • If they have speed camera alerts
  • How quickly it reroutes if you take a wrong turn
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Of course, there may be other features that you'll want to look for like whether they give you live parking updates or local places of interest. But the importance of these vary between driver, which is why we've focused on universal key features and information you'll need to know.

We hope that you’ve found this guide useful in deciding which type of satnav is the best choice for you.

For more helpful guides just click here to head back to our guides homepage.

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