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How to buy the best sat nav

Dedicated sat nav or a sat nav app for your phone? Free app or a paid one? Our guide to buying the best sat nav will help you choose.

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The best sat navs and sat nav apps get you to your destination fuss-free, and smoothly cope with any disruptions or delays. 

But we've also found sat navs and sat nav apps that struggle to cope with route calculations, making your journey longer and more stressful.

You can use our expert advice to help you find the right model for your needs and budget.

Just want to know which sat navs and sat nav apps we recommend? Head to our expert pick of the best sat navs.

In this article:

Video: how to buy the best sat nav 

Watch our sat nav video, below, to find out more whether it's worth spending your money on a standalone device, or if you can get away with a sat nav app.

Sat nav or sat nav app? 

Not sure whether you need to fork out for a portable sat nav or if you can get away with a sat nav app? Our interactive tool will help you decide. 

Free sat nav apps vs paid-for sat nav apps

Free sat nav apps are a mixed bag, in our experience. So check our sat nav app reviews before you download, otherwise you risk wasting your time with a poor quality app.

Paid-for apps are an alternative to the dedicated sat nav. They are often considerably cheaper, and have many of the features of their standalone counterparts.  

Free sat nav apps pros 

  • They're free 
  • Useful for occasional users 
  • Most smartphones come with one built in as standard.

Free sat nav apps cons

  • Anyone can make a sat nav app and make it available in an app store, so quality is highly varied 
  • Some have annoying ad banners or pop-up ads 
  • Free sat nav apps often lack the quality features you'd get from a paid-for app.

Paid-for sat nav app pros

  • Paid-for sat nav apps are cheaper than a standalone device and are easy to update 
  • They're also extremely convenient, as you're likely to always have your phone with you.

Paid-for sat nav app cons

  • Their performance can depend on the smartphone you have. 
  • Some require a constant data connection, which can be costly if you're on a limited data plan.

We reveal the best sat nav apps.

How much does a good sat nav cost? 

Standalone sat navs can range from anywhere between £50 to more than £300. Sat nav apps range from free to around £50. 

We've tested sat navs and apps from all the main brands, including Garmin and TomTom, and have found Best Buy sat navs for less than £100. 

Sat nav apps tend to be cheaper. There are lots of free options, including Google Maps and Apple Maps, and even paid-for apps will cost you less than £50.

Instead of having to put yourself through the stress of trying out inferior apps, use our expert test results to make sure you only download the best.

Use our expert sat nav reviews to find the right sat nav for your budget.

Dedicated sat navs

Dedicated sat navs are the traditional sat nav - standalone devices that work out of the box. 

The sat nav market has reduced considerably in recent years, with Garmin and TomTom accounting for the vast majority of models sold in the UK. But depending on your needs, a dedicated sat nav may be better for you than an app.

Sat nav pros 

  • Built with navigation in mind, dedicated devices usually have good speakers and matte, non-reflective screens
  • Most come with free map updates and some also offer live-traffic updates
  • If you have a caravan or motorhome, you can get a sat nav which includes features such as specific routes for larger vehicles. 

Sat nav cons 

  • A separate device to carry around - you won't be able to leave it in your car, due to the risk of theft 
  • If you require additional maps further down the line (such as for driving in Europe), purchasing them can be expensive 
  • Traffic updates often cost extra.

Best sat nav features to look for 

To make sure you get the most out of your sat nav, here are a few tips when you're looking to buy:

  • Free updates and mapping. Slightly older models may not come with this - they may appear cheap initially, but can represent a false economy as you'll need to pay to update the mapping at a later date.   
  • Live traffic data. If you regularly drive in congested cities or commute, this is really useful as it warns you of traffic building up so you can minimise delays.
  • Built-in Sim card. This ensures a standalone sat nav with live traffic data doesn't eat into your phone's data allowance - without it, you'll need to connect a sat nav with live traffic data to your phone via Bluetooth.
  • Size. Sat nav screens are anything from four to seven inches, diagonally. Some people like a larger screen, others find it obstructive. Cut a piece of card to the size you're thinking of buying and place it in your car to get a feel for the size.

Sat nav brands

It's important to be brand-aware when buying a sat nav. While there are only a couple of big-name brands on the market, there are plenty of cheap, rebadged models available on sites such as Ebay. 

We've tested a few of these rebadged models and the results have been poor. The lack of aftersales service from an unknown company means it's unlikely you'll be able to keep the sat nav up to date.

Find out which sat navs you should buy and which you should avoid - see our sat nav reviews.

Sat navs compared 

We've tested all the top sat navs and sat nav apps, including free apps.

Below we've listed key specs and features for some of the more popular sat navs.

Alternatively, head straight to the best sat navs to see which models perform the best in our tough sat nav tests.

Waze, free

  • Free app for Android or iOS

This free sat nav app uses crowd-sourced data to give you live updates of traffic and automatically recalculates your route.

Which means it needs a constant data connection, so bear this in mind if you have a limited data plan on your phone.

Is Waze the best free app you can install? Depending on your phone, see either our Waze iOS review or our Waze Android review.

Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S, £99

  • Portable sat nav

It's rare to find a portable sat nav under £100, but this five-inch one from Garmin fits the bill.

The Garmin Drive 51 comes preloaded with lifetime maps and has driver alerts for hazards such as dangerous bends and speed changes.

Is this cheap and cheerful, or should you spend more? See our Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S review to find out.

TomTom Go Camper, £350

  • Standalone sat nav for caravan and motorhome owners

This pricey sat nav has a sizeable six-inch screen and includes impressive features, including voice control and the ability to handle hands-free calls.

It also lets you tailor routes based on the size, weight and maximum permitted speed of your vehicle.

Is this expensive sat nav worth paying for or can you get a better, cheaper model? Find out in our TomTom Go Camper review.

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