Different Types Of Sat Nav—Which Is Best for Me?

Just 15 years ago, satellite navigation units (aka sat navs) were something of a rarity. If you got into someone’s car and saw a screen mounted on the dashboard, you knew you were sitting in something special!

These days, however, it’s becoming more and more common to see sat navs fitted as standard to cars. Portable satellite navigation units have also become hugely popular, and most smartphones now have mapping capability.

But what are the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of sat nav, and what’s the best option for you?  Read on to find out all you need to know.

How do sat navs work?

Sat navs are based around technology known as GPS, which stands for Global Positioning System. GPS uses 24 satellites to detect where you are on the earth.

GPS logo

While devices capable of using GPS have actually been available to consumers since the 1980s, they only became practical comparatively recently. This is because prior to 2000, the American military scrambled the data from the satellites to ensure that only their version of GPS could be used accurately.

When in 2000 Bill Clinton signed a bill banning this practice, he paved the way for an entirely new era of consumer GPS.

Quickly, a whole new market was born, and sat navs became simultaneously more reliable and affordable.

You’ve just read a brief history of satellite navigation—why not find out about the history of the UK driving licence?

Different types of sat nav

There are three different types of sat nav that you need to consider. These are: built-in sat navs, portable sat navs, and mobile GPS apps. Each of these choices has different advantages and disadvantages.

Built-in sat navs

Built-in sat navs tend to be more powerful than their standalone counterparts. They also look a lot neater—you don’t have to plug them into a 9v power socket in your car, for instance.

This type of sat nav usually integrates really well with the other entertainment features of your car, too. For example, many built-in sat navs will duck the volume of the radio while directing you, and they often connect to your phone to act as a hands-free device.

Additionally, in comparison to portable sat navs or using your phone, built-in sat navs are much less prone to theft. It would be nearly impossible for someone to break into your car and uninstall a proprietary sat nav system.

However, they are generally much more expensive than their standalone counterparts, and can sometimes be difficult to upgrade. Also, certain car manufacturers have been known to charge extortionate amounts for upgrading the maps on a built-in sat nav unit.

Portable sat navs

A Garmin portable sat nav
Photo © Sean MacEntee (cc-by/2.0)

Portable sat navs, on the other hand, are generally very affordable: you can pick up an entry-level device for under £100. If you’re in the market for one, check out our top ten best budget sat navs!

The fact that they’re not fixed permanently in one car is really useful too. If you need to share the device with someone else in your household, or if you have more than one vehicle, then it won’t be a problem.

While in the early days of satellite navigation many portable units were under-powered and slow to respond, most models today have addressed this issue. For this reason, the gap between in-built sat navs and portable units is narrowing.

Yet, the price difference between the two remains roughly the same. So, if you’re not fussed about total integration, then a portable sat nav can represent great value for money. Still, there’s one more option to consider…

GPS apps for your smartphone

A dedicated GPS app on a smartphone
A dedicated GPS app on a smartphone

Using a GPS app on your phone is becoming more and more popular. Of course, if you already have a smartphone then you don’t need to buy anything extra, which is great. Equally, Google Maps is becoming more and more accurate.

That’s not to say you’re limited to Google’s offerings, however. There’s a wide range of apps available which each offer different features for different groups of people.

For example, Waze has community-submitted traffic reports so you can find the best driving route even in rush hour. Or, maybe you’re a keen cyclist or runner as well as a driver? Check out Strava if you fancy racing people from across the country using the power of GPS.

There are a few potential pitfalls to consider though.

For instance, phone screens tend to be much smaller than those of either inbuilt or portable sat navs, and while the software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, it doesn’t really compare with a dedicated system.

Using GPS constantly on your phone can also drain your battery significantly, so if you ever get caught without a car charger then you can run into problems.

As such, it’s fair to say that if you rely heavily on GPS, it would be worth investing in a different solution to your smartphone. Don’t forget that it’s against the law to use your phone while driving. To keep up to speed on driving law, why not check out our news section?

The importance of using a sat nav

Of course, being able to read a map will always be a useful skill. Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to use a satellite navigation device as well though!

After all, you are required to use a sat nav during the independent driving part of the practical test. Check out our article on the model of sat nav used in the driving test to find out more.

We hope you found this article helpful, but it’s not all we’ve got to offer! For example, you might want to check out our guide to passing the hazard perception test, or find out the rules surrounding taking the practical test in your own car. Alternatively, stay updated on all the latest driving news with our news section.

By Ben Scott

Ben's had a keen interest in all things driving from a very early age, so is perfectly placed to offer you all the advice you need. When he's not behind the wheel you'll either find him stuck deep into a novel or riding his bike.

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