Car sat-nav vs smartphone: which is better?

With smartphones as common as they are, is it worth having a specific car sat-nav?...

What's the best free sat-nav app for smartphones?

Smartphones serve as modern replacements for lots of gadgets – clocks, calendars and cameras to name but a few – and they’re also handy navigation devices.

The abundance of smartphones has caused many drivers to turn to their handheld devices in favour of standalone car sat-navs – either built in or aftermarket models. There’s no denying that it’s incredibly convenient, especially if your car has a system such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which allows you to display your phone’s screen on the vehicle’s infotainment system.

There’s still a case for proper car satellite navigation systems, though, because they have the edge over smartphones in a number of areas. We explore the pros and cons of each.

The case for smartphones

It’s difficult to find someone who doesn’t own a smartphone these days, all of which have a GPS function and at least one navigation app (and you can always download more).

Providing you have a sufficient amount of space on your phone and an up-to-date app, the navigation functions are often just as good as a dedicated sat-nav unit. They may even be better at pinpointing your location, because smartphones can use local cell towers to improve their GPS signals.

Your phone will have to be connected to the internet to receive the live information and traffic services common to navigation devices, but many popular apps have an offline mapping function, so they can get you where you need to go without an internet signal.  

More than anything, a smartphone is something that pretty much everybody already owns, so using it as a navigation device is cheaper than specifying sat-nav as a solitary option on a new car, or buying a dedicated aftermarket unit.

Volvo XC90 2021 infotainment


Dedicated sat-nav units

The fact that a smartphone navigation is effectively free (if you don’t count the cost of the phone and a data plan) makes in-built or aftermarket car sat-nav units appear almost redundant as a result of their prices. Good quality aftermaket sat-nav systems usually cost at least £100, and factory-fitted versions can be an expensive option on a new car.  

There are still reasons to go for a dedicated car sat-nav, though, not least because they’re generally more sophisticated than smartphone app navigation systems and offer better traffic information and features.

Running out of space on your smartphone is a common problem, and mapping systems use a lot of it, which isn’t particularly appealing to the average smartphone user. That simply isn’t a problem with a proper sat-nav.

It’s much easier to use a proper sat-nav system than it is a phone, too. They’re better designed to be used in cars, with larger screens and, with built-in systems, the sound is louder and clearer because it plays through the car’s audio speakers (although you can do that by linking your phone to the infotainment system). With a built-in unit, you don’t have to worry about charging the battery or detaching it from the dash every time you park, either.  

It’s also worth remembering that many cars come with sat-nav as standard anyway. It’s often included with mid-level versions of popular mainstream cars such as the Volkswagen Golf or Nissan Qashqai, or perhaps as part of an option pack, which will include a number of other desirable bits of equipment. Premium models of a certain size are almost guaranteed to have it, too. Buyers expect sat-nav to be included with upper-end models and would likely turn their noses up at a luxury model without it.

What's the best free sat-nav app for smartphones?


Smartphones are definitely the cheapest and easiest way of accessing a navigation service, because almost everyone has one and they all come with some sort of mapping function. They aren’t the best navigation devices out there, though, and dedicated sat-nav units do a better job – the catch is that they’re more expensive.  

If you don’t have a sat-nav unit and you only occasionally need a navigation system, then your smartphone may well be enough, because it will probably suffice for the odd trip here and there.

If you regularly rely on a navigation service, spend a lot of time on the road and find yourself frequently stuck in traffic jams, then a proper sat-nav could be a good investment. A phone may well do the trick, but it probably won’t match a more advanced device.   

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