/ 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.


Saves with the flight weight allowance also, JR!

Yesterday, I tried a new free sat nav app on the iphone that I borrowed from the office (the app is called “skobbler”). I also bought a very cheap, £3 mobile phone holder for the car windscreen from ebay. The iphone fits very nicely into it and feels secure. The app itself I was less impressed with (ignoring the price for a second!). Though the voice is loud enough through the iPhone’s loudspeaker set at high volume, it sounds a little muffled. Only a minor complaint though.

However, over a short 3 mile journey, it told me to turn right into a no entry street (which I didn’t). Then, it seemed a little slow when recalculating the route. Finally, after test-calling the iphone from a different phone and ending that call, it lost the signal – not sure whether that was a co-incidence…

Anyway, this is one of the apps that our lab are about to test formally and fully. I really look forward to the results!


We have had built in Sat Nv in our Vauxhalls since 2003.
They are brilliant. I cannot envisage using a small TomTom or such like stuck to the windscreen.
They are easy to programme and seem reliable. Bossy Bessie is in the Vectra Estate and Demanding Doris in hubby’s astra sport.
I only wish that getting a more up to date CD was not so horrendously expensive.
The Vectra’s older CD still insists that I carry straight on at a roundabout that was removed a few years ago!
As we have paid quite a considerable sum to have Bossy Bessie & Demanding Doris in our cars – you would think we could update CDs at a realistic price……………wouldn’t you?


My first SatNav was a Garmin GPS V. It was black & white and had a small display by today’s standard, but it gave reliable navigation via diagrams (no sound then). Downloading maps was slow, via the PC serial socket. I replaced this with a Garmin Nuvi 300 which has a much larger colour display + sound! It was well under half the price of the GPS mkV and has slightly fewer capabilities and flexibility in the display but is far more sensitive, finding signals indoors and under trees which the GPS V could not do, and it works very well. We have just returned from a long trip in the US using auxilliary maps on a SD card and it navigated us faultlessly over nearly 6000 miles. I also now have a Nokia 5800 with built-in satnav and FREE maps and map updates. It works reasonably well but is less sensitive to the satellite signals than the Nuvi. I much prefer portable units that can be taken with me when exploring strange towns. Now I can always find where I parked the car!

graham says:
25 October 2010

I have satnav built into the car because it gives me a bigger screen, is less easy to steal and is safer when driving than looking at a mobile which of course is illegal to use whilst driving anyway.


I wonder if anyone has had a built-in sat nav stolen!

John Renshaw says:
26 October 2010

I have a Tom Tom and a mobile with sat nav on it, my wifes car has sat nav built in. The Tom Tom, now over 4 years old, is far superior to either to the other 2. The features on the Tom Tom by far exceed the others.

jtwoodfield says:
20 November 2010

I tried to post a comment pointing out why this article was not only thin but pretty useless to the reader wishing to make any sort of comparision in that it unfairly did not mention Nokia maps. These are excellent, free and incur no network download charges in that the data can be downloaded in advance and they cover most of the world.


I’m surprised that in the description of mobile phone software there isn’t a distinction made between on-line maps and off-line maps.
The Nokia series use Ovi maps, which can be downloaded & stored on your phone. You can plan your route on your computer at home, and download that as well. With everything held locally, you can drive everywhere that there is no phone signal – Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, and much of the highlands and still your navigation works.
Android and Apple rely on a continual data update to show your map; so big download charges, and nothing works in a signal-free area. Google maps is one of those. The only exception to this that I know of is Android’s NDrive, which is a newish app that is still a bit buggy and needs tweaking. I don’t know of a downloadable map set for iPhones.
This distinction is really important for smartphone users.

Jim Simpson says:
21 November 2010

Sorry your survey of smartphone GPS appsin the Dec 10 issue didn’t include Copilot. I’ve been using various versions (the latest is CP8) for the past 5 or 6 years in the UK and USA/Canada using a succession of phones. My current phone (HTC Desire) has a 3.8″ screen so isn’t much smaller than my Garmin 1340. There’s a neat feature for “safety” which shows basic info like when to turn, which way, dist and time to destination. Screen is very clear and route changes are done quickly. Unlike Google Navigation it doesn’t need a data connection enroute. At around £25 for the app by download it’s way ahead of the competition – as every survey I’ve seen concludes. As I said a while back I’ve been turned off built-ins by the dreadful set I had in my 54 reg Toyota – at the price manufacturers charge it isn’t worth the risk!


Jim, just reading your review of sat-nav. My observation is that you should have saved yourself £25. Not sure how you concluded that Google required data connection en-route. The whole journey is actually cached to the memory, so the map works even after you lose connection.

I have long stopped using Tom-Tom as Google provides service that is well worthy of every day use. In fact i’d say that for my use it is better that Tom Tom. Not only it is free at the point of ‘purchase’, but also provides traffic info for free, where Tom Tom charges something like £7/month.

With Google seriously changing the rules of the game, I feel that the tradionanal makes are not doing enough to lead the game.


Sorry – wrt my comment above, I hadn’t realised that NDrive now market an app for the iPhone as well as Android.


I agree with Jim, why has Co-pilot Live 8 app been excluded from the review as the route accuracy is reliable, recognises one way streets, the on-screen and audio directions are easy to follow and clear and can be adjusted to your preference. Provides shortest and quickest routes, avoids motorways, provides detours and allows for other transport modes such as walking. We have used it over four years on various XDA and iPhones and the frequent free updates make it reliable and can be run on Windows Mobile, Android, iPhones and iPad.

I’m disappointed the review is slanted towards SatNav’s as the choice depends on my requirements and budget; one device does not fit all. If you always use the same car and don’t posses a smart phone SatNav’s are perfect however if you already have a smart phone and take it with you everywhere and already use it in the car to play music etc., it’s sensible to also have a reliable navigational app at a fraction of the price of a SatNav. If a large screen is required I don’t think you can beat the iPad.


Hi everyone.

Thanks for the additional comments.

We have some additional reviews including Nokia Maps on this page. http://www.which.co.uk/technology/computing/reviews/sat-navs/

Also on that page, we have a review of Co-Pilot Live 8, used on an Apple iPhone 3GS on the same page.

We’re also currently testing Co-Pilot Live 8 on an Android phone, a Samsung Galaxy S, results online soon!


You seem to have missed one of the largest mobile phone sat nav companies in the world – Telenav!

Their one works on most mobile phones, includes traffic and speed cameras and can be charged on a monthly basis on your mobile phone bill.

Its dead easy to down load – all you need to do is go to http://www.tnclient.com on the phone browser and down load it. You even get a 30 day free trial.

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.


Hello! Hope you’re all navigating safely in the snowy weather!

Look out for a review of the TomTom app (optimised for the iPhone 4 according to TomTom) soon.

My colleague will look into Telenav shortly.


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.