How To Choose Your First Sat Nav

No navigation system is completely foolproof. Maps can be held upside down, sat navs instruct people to drive into rivers, and guiding yourself home using the stars doesn’t work very well during the daytime. However, if your sense of direction is less than perfect, a sat nav is probably the best system that humanity has come up with at the moment (rivers aside). They have the additional benefit of being an entertaining toy, if that’s the kind of thing that gets you excited. So how do they work, what do you need to look for when choosing one, and how cheaply can you pick up a decent one? Let’s find out…

How They Work

Sat nav (satellite navigation) and GPS (Global Positioning System) are currently more or less interchangeable terms. GPS is a US system of satellites orbiting the Earth at about 12,500 miles; Russia, China India and the EU also have systems that are either working now or due to come online soon. Sat nav systems work by communicating with these satellites and determining your exact position on the surface of the planet. Early systems had no maps (or very simple ones with no roads shown); today’s versions, assuming their maps are up-to-date, can tell you if you’re going the wrong way up a one-way street.


First, it’s important to note that it is possible to use a smartphone and a free app as a sat nav system. These are definitely worth trying out if you’re on a very tight budget, but will generally lack some features of the units from companies like Garmin and TomTom. These two companies are currently the biggest on the market, and both offer paid-for apps that are also worth trying out before you opt for a separate device.

What To Look For

Perhaps the most important thing to look for in any system is an interface that you’re happy with. It needs to be clear and easy to understand while you’re driving; you don’t want to be looking at the screen and trying to work out what’s going on while you’re negotiating a busy junction. Secondly, try to find out how up-to-date the maps are, and what you’ll pay to keep them updated. If you’re buying from an actual shop rather than online, you may be able to check that the unit works in your car as well; there have been cases where heated windscreens have interfered with reception, though this can usually be cured by fitting a separate aerial.

RAC 5000

This big-screen, low-cost unit covers the UK and Ireland (not continental Europe) and costs just £70. The price is the main attraction; while the screen is unusually wide for the money, online reviews are mixed, so try and test it out first.

Garmin nuvi 2568LMT-D

This is one of the best units you can buy for under £200. European maps are included, as well as traffic updates, and the screen is big and clear. Some retailers are offering it for just under £150, and map updates are free for life. One very useful feature is Garmin’s “Real Directions”, which uses actual landmarks to help you find your destination.

TomTom Start 20

Finally, in between these two price-wise comes the Start 20, another good choice for anyone planning to drive in Europe. It’s available for around £120. The 3D maps are very clear and you can switch between male and female guide voices. The database also has a large number of “points of interest”, which you may want to switch off if you need to be somewhere in a hurry!