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Sat nav apps for your smartphone: to pay or not to pay?

We've reviewed the latest free and paid-for sat nav apps in the Which? test lab. Should you use a freebie or would you be better off with a paid-for app?

Sat nav apps for your smartphone: to pay or not to pay?

If you’re happy using your smartphone instead of a dedicated sat nav, you could be wondering whether there’s much difference between free sat nav apps and the ones you pay for. Wonder no more, as our tests reveal whether you can get away with a freebie.

We test the biggest names in sat nav apps – both free apps and paid-for. Because the apps are constantly being updated, we regularly retest them, to see whether the latest changes have improved things or simply made matters worse.

Our latest tests have uncovered three new Best Buys that make it a breeze to get from A to B, as well as two Don’t Buys that will leave you scratching your head in confusion.

Best Buy sat navs – choose one of these for a trouble-free trip when you’re out on the road.

Sat nav apps to avoid

On one of the apps in our latest test, we spent ages searching for a destination, as you have to type in the exact key word. So good luck trying to second-guess it if you’re in a hurry.

We also found an app that changes the scale of the map to reflect your speed. This means it’s too small to see when you’re doing 70mph on the motorway and wondering where you need to turn off.

Two of the apps were so problematic to use in our tests that we’ve made them Don’t Buys.

See our Don’t Buy sat navs.

Sat nav features worth paying for

Phone with sat nav app

Paying for your app can get you a few features above those found on the free apps. One feature that’s worth having is motorway lane assistance: this shows you in advance which lane you need to be in, and can help to avoid a last-minute dash across lanes to the exit.

The CoPilot Europe Offline Sat-Nav for Android (£35 for European maps) and the NNG Software iGo Navigation for Android and iOS (£29 on iOS and £24 on Android for European maps) come with lane assistance.

For those going further afield, these apps also cover other areas of the globe but you’ll need to download (and pay for) the map regions you want.

Countries can be bundled in small groups – for example, one map covers just the Benelux countries in the case of CoPilot’s Europe Offline Sat Nav – or whole continents.

But CoPilot users who are off to far-flung locations should note that maps of Brazil, Africa and India are only currently available on iOS and not Android.

With the iGo Navigation app you need to pay for your region, such as Europe. You can then choose which of its countries you want to download – so you won’t have to clog your phone up with maps of places you aren’t planning to visit.

Free sat nav apps with free world maps

These free apps come with free world maps you can download at will:

The Magic Earth app can even navigate without a map installed. It just downloads a map of your route as you go – although you have to be online for this to work.

Sat navs for pedestrians and cyclists

All of the apps on test can be optimised to give routes specifically for pedestrians or cyclists, as well as car drivers.

The free Magic Earth Navigation & Maps and WeGo City Navigation Offline Maps also provide information and links for public transport, while the Maps.Me Offline Map & Navigation offers an estimate of the cost and waiting time for an Uber taxi.

Click on the links to the full reviews of each app above to discover which of these sat nav apps is worth downloading.

Avoid the traffic queues

Sitting in a queue of traffic can play havoc with your plans when you’re trying to reach your destination, and all of the apps we tested offer up-to-date traffic information to help you avoid congestion.

You’ll have to pay around £10 a year for traffic data with the CoPilot (you get the first 12 months free) and iGo apps, but it’s included for free with the free apps we tested – although it can be rather more basic with some of these.

If you are using your phone as a sat nav, make sure you’re doing so legally. If you’re caught improperly using your phone as a sat nav, the penalty is six points on your licence and a £200 fine.

Find out how to use your sat nav legally and safely.

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