/ Motoring, Technology

Will sat navs be replaced by mobile phones?

Sat nav

‘I told you we should’ve taken the first left at that roundabout!’ This and other such exclamations have been tempered by the sat nav. But with the rise of mobile phone apps, could the dedicated sat nav simply disappear?

This now humble little device helps us get to our destination without fanfare (usually). When used properly, it’s also safer than struggling to read a paper map. All-in-all, it’s been a boon to many drivers.

But there’s a threat to the dedicated car sat nav – the also humble mobile phone. Well, not so humble this time. Most smartphones now have access to sat nav apps that can give you turn-by-turn instructions, some of which are free.

A few of my Which? Tech colleagues think these apps will eventually see off the dedicated sat nav. And the stats seem to back them up – in the past year there’s been an almost 60% rise in the amount of people using their mobiles to navigate. There are now 44 million people doing this worldwide, with 195 million expected by 2015.

Still room for the dedicated sat nav

But I think there will still be a place for the dedicated sat nav. You don’t have to spend hundreds like you once did – you can buy them for as little as £75. Plus, our current Best Buys start from just over £100.

We’ve tested mobile phone sat nav apps and have actually found them to be quite poor in comparison. They’re not as clever. They aren’t as easy to use. Mobile phone screens are usually smaller. The GPS signal is often weaker. And voices are harder to hear, especially in noisy traffic.

I appreciate that you can buy cradles, loudspeakers, car chargers and other paraphernalia to make your smartphone app more usable. And it’s a given that the technology will get better in future. But I think that innovative sat nav manufacturers will stay a step ahead.

The future of the sat nav

There are already some very sophisticated and useful live traffic features on some dedicated sat navs. Perhaps in the future we’ll see the likes of TomTom and Garmin moving into retro-fit heads-up displays where directions are projected onto the windscreen? Who knows.

We’ve had a similar debate before – the death of the compact digital camera at the hands of mega megapixel camera phones. In the end that argument was greatly exaggerated.

Of course, the survival of the digital camera isn’t proof that dedicated sat navs will live on as well, but I still think there’s enough interest and “added value” in the sat nav that the soothing voice of Brian Blessed will happily direct us for years to come.

Mike Stansell says:
1 December 2010

Your review of sat nav apps on mobile phones was very basic. Why you did not review the most obvious market leaders together I do not know. TomTom + iPhone is an obvious match. have had two TomTom stand alone satnavs and found them very effective. However I now have the TomTom app on my iPhone 4 and cannot fault it. It has most of the options of the stand alone version and has not let me down. It finds the sattelites without delay and when combined with and adjustable windscreen mount offers a very useable landscape view.

Whilst this review was written a while back, I must strongly protest against results of the test lab in December issue of Which?. In fact it appears that whom ever was given the task to review app based solutions went to the “pub” instead of testing Google maps based device.

I currently own two sat navs. The Tom Tom 740 live and google maps on the HTC Desire. I have used both for long enough to know them inside out, so my comparison is very fair.

Therefore if I say that with the exception of re-routing capabilities, where the Tom Tom wins, the Google maps solution is far superior to the Tom Tom in day to day use. Why do you ask?

Well for start, once your trial of live data expires with Tom Tom, you will shell out a hefty monthly connection charge, if you want to benefit from traffic reporting. Not such a case with Google with its always on connection. I hear critics saying what happens when you lose connection? Actually your journey is cached to you device, so it navigation works even when you have zero bars. Of course if you try to program a new journey, when in no signal area you are ‘stuffed’. However, over the 12 months I have been using google maps on android, this has happened extremely rarely.

However, where Tom Tom and others can’t compete or even come anywhere close is google’s integration with other services, such as street view or points of interest. I have found my Tom Tom useless for POI, as it hardly contains anything of use. This is contrast to google maps which benefits from constant updates.

In my opinion the fact that you can check where you are going in street view, before you get there is a feature that is unbeatable. Many a time i knew what i’m looking for so finding the right building or knowing where to park was invaluable.

I have not found the voice commands a problem in recent months. They had undergone major improvement early last year and since i’ve been more than satisfied. If I do need to hear them loud and clear, then i have a connection through my in car stereo.

with the latest update of google maps, which has seen maps being drawn as vectors, rather than tiles, google has reached another milestone, 3D map views.

Lastly, the the one thing I like the best. When navigating to a person who is in my contacts, all i need to say “navigate to John Smith” and the contact’s address is found in phone’s memory and navigation is launched.

In conclusion, your review has in my opinion failed to appreciate the versatility and the full potential of google’s solution and considering it comes free, it should be featured near the top of your list.