/ Motoring

Has the sat nav been outmuscled by protein powder?

Sat nav in car

Have you fallen out of love with the standalone sat nav and rely instead on a phone app or a built-in system to get around? The answer seems to be yes, judging by an annual look at what shoppers typically buy.

Each year the Office for National Statistics makes up a virtual shopping basket that it uses to calculate consumer price inflation (CPI).

This year’s shopping list has 703 items including, for the first time, sweet potatoes, e-cigarettes, craft beer and protein powder.

But apparently frozen pizzas and yoghurt drinks no longer have a place in your hearts – or rather your basket. And neither it seems does the standalone sat nav. The ONS says that sat navs were removed partly due to people using smartphone apps, but also because so many new cars have built-in sat nav units. But is that right?

Sat nav: standalone or all alone?

So have you removed the sat nav’s rubber sucker from your car for the last time? Well, perhaps not. Our recent survey found that standalone sat navs are still popular with Which? members.

When we asked more than 1,300 Which? members, 49% owned a standalone sat nav. Far ahead of the 30% that have a smartphone app and 28% with a built-in system.

My Waze or the highway

I’ve just joined the Which? cars team and now find myself hopping in and out of different cars all the time. So it was a question of which of the three options to use. On my first trip into Which? HQ in London, I trusted the built-in sat nav (that didn’t have live traffic) to take me to work.

The result? Inching through East Croydon at rush hour, crawling past the Houses of Parliament and up Oxford Street at an achingly glacial pace. Journey taking an hour longer than usual.

I admit it, the next thing I tried wasn’t the standalone, but an app called Waze – it gave me several en-route amendments to miss traffic and it cut loads of time off the journey.

Having a sat nav on my phone suits me because I don’t need to carry round extra kit (other than the small holder I use to attach my phone to the air vent in different cars).

So which are you using: standalone, smartphones or a built-in sat nav?

What type of sat nav do you use?

Standalone sat nav (42%, 442 Votes)

What’s wrong with a normal map? (24%, 250 Votes)

Built-in sat nav (18%, 194 Votes)

Smartphone app (16%, 167 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,053

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The area where I’d like to see big improvements is built-in sat-navs. It’s great having the sat-nav linked to the car’s wheels (in addition to GPS) when driving through tunnels with multiple underground junctions. This is particularly advantageous in places like Monaco for example.

However, car manufacturers are behind the times. They force you to use their choice of map data provider and then charge hundreds of pounds for map updates which are released only several times per year, unlike Google which provides continuous updates for free. Built-in sat-navs also lack the ability to superimpose real-time traffic speeds on maps, unlike Google Maps. Car manufacturers need to stop seeing sat-nav as a revenue earner on top of the price of a car and instead keep up to speed with the free map and traffic data provided by smartphones.

Of course, there’s the issue of Google maps requiring a mobile data connection, but a car’s sat-nav could cache map data for a large area in the same way that Android phones can, so that map data doesn’t need to be constantly loaded via mobile data.

Unlike other GPS-enabled devices, my BMW doesn’t even obtain the time from GPS. On a GPS-enabled device, it is necessary only to choose one’s time zone and not the time itself. This results in a clock that is constantly wrong, even though a free time source is constantly available from the car’s hardware. This goes to show how little effort car manufacturers put into the design of their built-in sat-navs, despite charging thousands of pounds for them as optional extras.

I have a couple of standalone sat navs, one about three year old and the other about six. Either will sit nicely in the ashtray of my car, so I don’t bother about rubber suckers. One stays on charge in the boot and on a longer journey I swap over when I stop for a break, so no trailing wires to cope with.

My sat navs have not been updated since I bought them, but using road signs and my limited sense of direction, I can cope. I try to avoid driving at rush hours.

Wavechange, it is dangerous to position a sat-nav at such a low level as the ashtray. A sat-nav should be positioned as close as possible to your line of sight (but not actually obstructing your line of sight). The optimal position is at the top of the dashboard, which where most car manufacturers position built-in sat-navs. If you position it at a low level, you have to look down and take your eyes off the road. Even if you look at your sat-nav only while stationary, for example at traffic lights, you are still taking your eyes off the road and can miss events around you, such as the lights going green.

I’ve had a basic TomTom now for over 12 years sitting on its arm suckered to the drivers quarter light. It plugs in to the cigarette lighter socket, but when I forget the internal battery still has plenty of life in it. I can move it to another car easily. I’ve never updated the maps and sometimes end up apparently travelling across fields but with faith we always arrive. So why spend hundreds on a built in device?

We should all still learn to read maps and direction signs though. Total reliance on something electronic is not good – what happens when you lose the signal or the satellites as happens to me from time to time? And planning the basic leisure journey from a paper map, showing places of interest whether scenic or historic, makes it more interesting. Then put it in your satnav using the “travel via and “avoid” options.

Having built-in sat navs in the centre of the dashboard is often criticised for the same reason, though I don’t know whether they result in more accidents. I’ve never had an accident except when someone drove into the side of the car when I was a teenager, so I hope I can manage risk. I don’t think I even move my head to glance at my sat nav.

Oops. That was a reply to NFH. I really should not make coffee in the middle of composing a post. 🙁

Like Malcolm, I plan routes using maps. I doubt that I would learn much about places, distances and roads if I just relied on a sat nav.

I have observed many people who don’t look at the satnav but just listen to the voice instructions so the ashtray might be a good place to put it to avoid being distracted. I expect there are others who just look at the satnav and not at the road ahead.

I do rely heavily on the voice commands and passengers are sometimes amused when I say NO to Jane TomTom at new junctions. 🙂

I wonder if having a sat nav close to the line of sight could distract us from safe driving. There must be a reason why so many built-in sat navs are in the centre of the dashboard.

There are safety arguments either way wherever you position the device. In any case most of the time it’s a quick glance to check what you’ve got to do next, no different to a quick glance at anything else.

Ease of fiddling with it is more of an issue. For example may car satnav is combined with the radio – if I want to zoom out to get a bit of context on the map, eg to see if there’s a petrol station coming up, I just need to turn the volume control. With Waze on my phone it means doing a fiddly two fingered touch screen thing, not really possible safely when moving and if you’re me you’re almost certain to do something unintentional meaning having to stop and set it all up again.

Good point about polarised sunglasses. Even the built-in sat-nav in my BMW appears black if I tilt my head to one side while wearing polarised sunglasses. I can imagine these problems are far worse with a head-up display.

I use both the built in satnav and Waze. Each has advantages.

Waze is maintained by its user base – more a hard core of enthusiasts than the wider ‘community’ they like to make out – and is pretty up to date when it comes to road closures and map changes. It routes based on real-time data from other users as well as historical data so you do get a chance of avoiding snarl-ups. That does mean it likes to send you down narrow residential streets or make you turn right across busy roads to save a couple of minutes; you might not desire the increase in stress levels. It doesn’t know to avoid certain schools morning and afternoon. I used it for a couple of years commuting into central London and found it immensely useful, and developed much expertise in suburban rat runs. You can take its ETAs with the same pinch of salt you do with your car satnav in the London rush hour, but it’s pretty accurate on long runs. With either you do have to fall back on your own knowledge or, heaven forbid, a proper map sometimes.

Waze’s drawbacks include needing a mobile data connection, which as well as meaning a cost for some depending on tariff (and watch out if you’re abroad) means that it stops working altogether if you lose the signal, something that happens surprisingly often, and not just in rural areas – a lot of high buildings will do it. No signal means you can’t plot a route or lose the one you’re on. And you’ll typically get a weaker GPS signal than the car satnav with its better aerial. Again a lot of high buildings can cause problems.

Finally, Waze belongs to Google. As well as that in itself being an issue for some it is beginning to show adverts on the map or as pop-ups which can be annoying.

Using a map to pre-plan a journey helps to anticipate what the sat nav is going to do next, when driving, and also allows the driver to question any given route change. I am disappointed with my latest in-built sat nav which doesn’t give me much time to anticipate the next move using its audio instructions and has a supposedly up-to-date map which does not include a road opened in Easter 2014 and has missed numerous mini roundabouts and junctions on minor roads. Its three dimension function is a complete waste of time. However I would not enjoy the argument that might ensue if I were to use an additional, portable, sat nav to supplement this in-car one. Does a sat nav have an inventory of expletives at its command?
It seems I am stuck with what the car provides, but welcome the lack of trailing leads and rubber suckers which I have found to be insecure in the past. My map updates -for what they are worth, are free, but one needs a degree in computing to get them into the car.

My satnav is several years old but still works well enough for me. Unlike mobile phones, satnavs have never really been fashion items. Hence, if market saturation has been achieved, they are now unlikely to sell in vast quantities.

I still also use paper maps for route planning. My main use of my satnav is for showing where I am but I do also find its directions useful for guidance on longer journeys.

My experience has shown that some of my satnav’s options – like the “shortest route” option must be used with extreme care – because the satnav will literally come up with the shortest route, as opposed to the shortest sensible route.


I do not recommend using an air vent attachment.

I used one in a rental car and it broke a fin on the air vent.

Having given up on the various ways of attaching a satnav – the suckers that fall off the windscreen, the beanbag/stand on the dashboard type that are fiddly, difficult to hide and can fall off, the vent holder that broke a fin etc, my Tomtom now sits in between the 2 front seats or my passenger has control of it. I can hear it but not see the screen.

Journeys are planned beforehand, any awkward junctions are made easier by goggle-walking them and there is always a map in the car.

The unknown cost of “live” services and now mobile apps put me off using them.

Roderick Snell says:
1 June 2015

I have used built-in satnavs for years, but still consider a printed, reasonable up to date map a desirable if not essential drivers tool. Knowing the shape of the journey including the topography, nearby towns, railways etc is a free lesson in local geography, and is an insurance against the sillier mistakes of the Satnav software (Oxford to Portsmouth via Birmingham, and a local shortcut in Hampshire from which my son’s new VW had to be dug out with the help of a local farmer being two examples of real, personal experiences). For tourists and foreign visitors a proper, detailed map adds hugely to the enjoyment of any serious trip, and for daily use, an A3 sized four-inch to the mile map has a detail resolution way beyond that of the SatNav and usually costs about £2 in the petrol stations. Strongly recommended!

Never having encountered protein powder, I was intrigued to learn what else is in the CPI basket. It makes interesting reading: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/user-guidance/prices/cpi-and-rpi/cpi-and-rpi-basket-of-goods-and-services/cpi-2015-basket-of-goods.pdf

Hi Wavechange. I agree. It gives a nice snapshot of our history too, when you look back over the years. In the late 1940s, the ‘shopping basket’ included men’s and women’s hats, cod liver oil and iron bedsteads!

Thanks Paul. I will waste more of my time looking back at our history. 🙂

Knowing people who have recently bought standalone sat navs (because they asked for my advice), I would have thought that removal of from the CPI list seems premature, but there is no doubt that we are moving towards built-in systems and phone apps. In the same section we have re-writable DVDs. Who uses them now that DVD-Rs are cheap?

What I’d find useful would be another index – for living essentials that represent cost changes in those items necessary for existence such as basic foods, energy, housing, essential travel and so on. Then we might see just how costs affect the poor and the vulnerable, who do not (have to) buy the long list of items that make up the CPI – tobacco and alcohol, flower delivery, on-line gaming subscriptions, restaurants and hotels, speciality beers, foreign exchange commission and so on 🙂

Indeed it would. It would also show how foolish it is to claim growth in GDP when inflation is taken into account. Also, growth in GDP/head would be even more illuminating.

Alan Gauld says:
6 June 2015

A built-in satnav is no good if you travel a lot and use hire cars. Especially useful in Europe or the USA. And paying for a satnav with the hire car is expensive. I tried the phone but most (free) phone apps require internet access and/or run down the battery faster than the car can charge it. And if you need to use the phone you lose the satnav, maybe at a critical junction. If I didn’t already have a satnav I might try a paid-for phone app but I’d rather use what I have.

I take my standalone sat nav when I hire a vehicle. It will run for about three hours without needing to be plugged in.

michael mckee says:
14 June 2015

My needs are different than most and I use a sat nav. I love to visit empty places.

In densely populated areas such as Europe or the eastern US a phone is fine. Google maps is frequently updated and for most, free with the phone they already own. If I drove mostly in or around cities that’s what I’d rely upon.

When in less populate areas such as Canada they can lose signal when driving in forested or mountainous areas. Stand alone sat navs are much more reliable and accurate in such circumstances. Newer vehicles have multiple charging ports and cables are inexpensive, so I don’t consider the relatively short battery life a disadvantage. Map updates are free.

Built in units are much more expensive, both in auto purchase price and map updates. I could buy and discard a new sat nav every couple of years and still save money. Built ins are also less feature rich and can lose signal in the Canadian Rockies and the Northwest Territories, Alaska, too for that matter.

I sometimes want to put a location in my sat nav so that I can find it again or let a friend know where I am so that they can find me. For years I have wanted to know how to find the postcode of where I am.

Here is a website that I have used on my phone, tablet and laptop to discover your postcode area: http://gb7dl.co.uk/getpostcode/

Andy Kirk says:
28 April 2016

I feel strongly that mobile phones should not even be in the drivers’ area (or even the actual cabin) – too much of a distraction and possible attraction. Mobiles should be connected to a power source in the boot or glove box and have some form of connectivity to a heads-up or similar screen. The ‘mock-up’ on page 37 of May 2016 Which issue can surely only be that – it shows Messages as an option! The car is an extremely dangerous machine and manufacturers and UK law makers have a moral duty to reduce the number of distractions in our cars. Give it a few years and we will be video streaming to the dashboard!