/ 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.

Ron Adams says:
15 October 2010

Sat Navs
My first one was a Tom Tom One (£150.00) it was OK and lasted a year and then it went faulty. Fading soon after it was switched on. Then I bought a Merc car with a built in Sat Nav (The Audio 50 APS). Does not take post codes and has let me down several times. doubling the journey time and distance or failing to find my destination.
My wife has a Navman Sat Nav (£70). It is absolutly brilliant. Never makes a mistake.
To get to your point – many of us will still use Sat Navs because we do not require fancy expensive mobile phones. We just require basic equipment which will do a good basic job. I am 70 years of age.

Jennifer says:
19 November 2010

We have the same problem; new merc so thought their sat nav would be top quality – it’s rubbish, only taking part of the postcode and very unclear (fuzzy) maps and difficult to see which exit they mean from a roundabout. We’ve gone back to our beloved tomtom, though don’t like having it stuck on the windscreen.

Brianzim says:
15 October 2010

Since Pat & I came back from Zimbabwe to retire, we have see the Tom-Tom Sat Nav in action and it is great wen correctly set-up. Touring the wilds of Cornwall & Devon were lovely and soothing with a lovely voice to keep my mate Ralph on the right road. I’ve tried a Nokia 5230 Sat Nav application and, well yes it works, but who can drive and work with a Mobile equivalent – safely?
No, when we do eventually get our Smart, it will be with one installed! At 64+ I intend to get rightly up to date with all the new technology I missed for so many years – and drive on into the eventual sunset……with suitable guidance from the Little Nag!

Jim Simpson says:
16 October 2010

First (Toyota) built-in satnav was in a 52-reg Avensis. A bit cumbersome but reliable and helped a couple of times with motorway closures. Next was in a 54-reg: this was a disaster which frequently left you within about a mile of destination with the message “you are in the area” and no further help. I batlled with Toyota over this dysfunctional item for a year, during which I was given a similar car showing the same fault – the argument apparently being that “they’re all like that”. The cost for satnav was about £1300 yet Toyota expected me to accept this. With the help of Which legal team I arranged replacement with an 06 reg Avensis at a reasonable trade-in price (WITHOUT SATNAV) and since then I’ve used Garmins (plus CoPilot 8 on my smartphone for times I don’t have the Garmin). New maps every year or so at a fraction of the built-in price. I’d be very careful about buying a built-in – I gather other brands have serious problems too and it’s a helluva price to pay if you aren’t going to be satisfied.

ulstermarine says:
16 October 2010

My first sat nav was a Tom Tom Start 2 and nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Having made sure the latest maps were installed I set off to the southwest of Ireland and found myself constantly being told to accept directions that were patently wrong. More than once I completed a complete circular route without ever arriving at my destination. Their back up leaves a lot to be desired. I ordered and paid for a mains charging lead which duly arrived from Holland. Unfortunately the lead did not fit the unit. Re-ordered (using their incredibly complicated website) only to receive another dud. Tried a third time when the response arrived, ‘Can you photograph it and upload it to us?’ Whoever was in charge did not understand that the UK used 3 pin mains leads. That was enough for me, when a company given the full model details are unable to match an accessory they are clearly in trouble and that is generally the stage when the buying public need to be a million miles away from any fallout. As far as presentation of mapping it’s not bad at all but Garmin seem to be the ones to go for. My experience with TomTom has been an eyeopener to satnav.


Thanks for sharing your experiences. All very interesting and very different!

The cost of a built-in satnav is sky high and it doesn’t seem to be coming down much. Jim Simpson – I’m glad you got a new car with a reasonable trade-in price and that you now seem to be happier with your dedicated standalone sat nav.

One advantage of the built-in sat nav is a large screen however. Does anyone have positive experiences of these?

Brianzim – “Little nag”! That’s a nice name for your sat nav!

I am going to borrow an iPhone from the office and try a new sat nav app that’s just come out. I’ll let you know how I get on.


My colleague tells me that you can now find some standalone sat navs from £50!


Yes, you can lug a mobile phone, sat nav, digital camera, Nintendo DS and various other pieces of gadgetry around with you but if you could have them all in one handy pocket sized item then surely that’s more efficient and (for ladies with deadly heavy handbags) lighter.
I’ve just come back from a holiday where I was able to efficiently navigate to the airport parking, entertain myself on the flight, take 3.2mp pictures of my destination, phone my mum and text/e-mail my friends all on my Nokia. I can’t see a real need to carry all those other pieces of equipment.