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Our Sat Nav Buying Guide Gets You From A to B

If you’re fed up with always asking for directions or stuck with a huge atlas of the UK in your boot, then it’s probably time to invest in a Sat Nav.

A Sat Nav (Satellite Navigation) or GPS Navigation device directs from you A to B with ease and can even make sure you find C, D and E along the way to your destination. It uses satellites in the sky to track your position, hence the name.

And given all the incredible technology packed into such a little box sitting on your dashboard or windscreen, these gizmos offer great value-for-money.

As well as featuring maps for the UK, Europe or America, many can also tell you the latest traffic news on your route, direct you to the nearest petrol station or cashpoint and play MP3 music streamed wirelessly from your mobile phone.

Our Sat Nav buying guide below will help you find out all about the different types of Sat Nav system available, the features they offer, which one will suit your journey the best and we’ve also thrown in a handy jargon buster at the end too to simplify the more complicated terms.

How much will a Sat Nav cost me?

The more you pay for a Sat Nav, the more features you’ll find included but that doesn’t mean you will find a use for them all during your daily commute or travelling while on a holiday.

TomTom are the market leaders and have a wide range of devices covering many price points, starting at around £100 and going all the way up to more than £250.

Another popular make is Garmin, which again has a range of products to suit all pockets.

You can also buy much cheaper units for less than £80, but these are no frills systems simply designed to get you from one place to another and may feature maps that are less up-to-date, a battery that won’t last as long, a GPS positioning system that isn’t as strong to track your location signal, and fewer search options.

What countries will the Sat Nav cover?

This is one major factor in how much you’ll pay for a Sat Nav. Cheaper units come with maps of the UK and Ireland as standard and as the cost increases you’ll find them installed with maps for Western Europe.

If you want to travel further afield then you’ll need to ensure the unit you’re purchasing can be upgraded with downloadable maps from the manufacturer’s website, allowing you to add in the likes of the USA or Australia. This can prove expensive though.

Some units offer a latest map guarantee allowing you to continually update the Sat Nav for free to ensure you have any new road information included. Others allow you to even update the maps yourself if you find any route on screen is wrong or a street is no longer there. This feedback from users is then collated over the internet by plugging the Sat Nav into your computer and distributed to all owners.

What features should I look for?

All Sat Navs are controlled using a touchscreen and allow you to type in the postcode of where you’re going. You will then see on the display a marked out route to follow using an animation, voice directions or a run of text instructions.

Most will also included a database of safety cameras to show these on the screen as you approach them, but not all will display the speed you should be driving at in those areas. Higher priced Sat Nav devices can actually show you the speed you’re going by tracking your position through GPS and then matching that to the amount you’ve travelled in what time.

The basic Sat Nav units also include Points of Interest. These are places specified by subject or name such as cashpoints, petrol stations or landmarks. These allow you to search for them and get directions, even when you don’t know what street they’re on or have the postcode to hand.

But as you move up the Sat Nav pricing, the number of Points of Interest and the amount of categories available will increase to include restaurants, bars, hospitals, and much more.

You should also be able to plan a route with multiple stops and set ‘favourite’ routes so you don’t have to keep typing them in. This is helpful for getting you home, wherever you start out from.

A car charging lead will be included with every Sat Nav but not every cheaper model will have a cradle in the box to attach it to your windscreen.

What about live traffic updates?

If you drive a lot in the rush hour, then a Sat Nav can help you find an even quicker route when there’s a traffic jam, warning you of problems ahead before you even get near them and suggesting another way to go.

You won’t find these on basic units and it’s advisable to check on other models exactly what traffic setup they offer. For example, if there is not one built-in, you may need to buy an extra receiver that connects up to the Sat Nav. This is known as a TMC Receiver.

You may also then need to pay an additional monthly or yearly subscription depending on the level of information you wish to receive. Some models include this in the initial price, and while this means the cost is greater, the overall amount you pay could be less. It’s worth doing your sums.

Other Sat Navs can connect via Bluetooth to your mobile phone and use that signal to receive the traffic updates from a central computer. Using it this way will cost you via the data downloaded from your handset, so be aware whether you have an unlimited mobile data plan or what you’re paying per MB after a smaller allowance runs out.

It’s often well worth the cost to have this service, as it can estimate hold-up times and then re-route you back when delays have cleared.

What size screen shall I get?

Sat Navs come in regular 3.5 inch and widescreen 4.3 inch and 5 inch sizes. A bigger screen makes the maps and directions much clearer and makes touchscreen controlling less fiddly. This therefore means it is less distracting on a tricky drive. The most expensive Sat Navs naturally have the highest quality displays.

What other features should I be looking out for?

TomTom’s Smart IQ is very popular and watches the way you drive on frequently travelled journeys, collates this data with millions of other drivers who’ve been down the same roads and then modifies its routes accordingly. It also takes account of time of day, ‘real’ speeds that cars are doing on that stretch and, if you have the service, the traffic.

Garmin adds to the usual ‘fastest’ v ‘shortest’ route debate by adding ecoRoute. This finds the most fuel-efficient journey, saving you money on petrol and helping you do your bit for the environment. This is not always the shortest route however.

TomTom’s Advanced Lane Guidance and Garmin’s Lane Assist are both very useful features, which simply tell you what lane you need to be in when, for example, you’re driving on a motorway or dual carriageway. It prevents that mad dash across lanes when you find out you need to turn right.

A similar feature is Junction View to display complicated and confusing turnoffs with lots of lanes well before you reach them.

If you fancy using a Sat Nav out of the car, then look for those with a pedestrian mode to show you walking directions as well as driving ones.

And if you have a Sat Nav with Bluetooth onboard then you not only get the chance to use it with your phone for traffic but it can also act as a hands-free speaker for making calls or playing songs you have on your handset.

Voice controls are included in pricier Sat Navs to save you reaching to press the screen, as well as text-to-speech conversion allowing you to say an address or place you’re looking for and have it appear.

If you do a lot of night driving, you might also want a Sat Nav with an automatic backlight to ensure you don’t have any issues seeing the screen when it’s dark.

Other features such as searching in conjunction with Google, different voices including real celebrities or imitations, audio books, direct booking of hotels and restaurants and faster locating of your GPS position are available.

It simply comes down to how much you’re prepared to pay and how much value you think you’ll get from spending more to have these functions.

What accessories do I get in the box?

Almost all Sat Navs will come with the two essentials – a car charger and a window mount included, but double check this before purchasing as very cheap ones leave out the mount.

Most costly devices have magnetic mounts to make it easier to stick them to the Sat Nav unit. Some may also come with a case in the box to keep it safe from scratches and harm.

If you want to learn any more, then check out this article on PluggedIn packed with more Sat Nav tips and answers.

Jargon Buster

  • GPS – Global Positioning System, or a fancy way for saying that the Sat Nav uses satellites in space to track your journey
  • Latest Map Guarantee – This means you can plug the system into your computer after purchase and instantly get all the latest maps. Be careful though, as this may be a one-off download with future updates needing a subscription
  • Memory – This tells how much space the Sat Nav has to store new maps or, in some cases, music and photos. Some also allow you to plug in memory cards for extra storage or to listen to songs or view images contained on them

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