The car sat nav (or satnav or sat-nav – guys, make your minds up) is one of the most useful forms of technology ever invented. These days, with GPS-supporting smartphones and apps from the likes of TomTom, Garmin and the rest, you don't necessarily need a hardware sat nav, but they are still coming out.
There are pros and cons to both hardware and app-based navigation. Hardware devices perform better at the core navigation duties on the whole. It's generally easier to mount a dedicated device, and it keeps your phone free to act as, well, a phone.
On the other hand, phones generally have better interfaces and nicer screens, and plenty of users prefer to do everything through them, seeing dedicated devices as old fashioned. Phone apps from the big sat nav players tend to work well, and be cheaper than their hardware cousins. Some are even free.
Also, if you're set on using iOS or Android devices for the foreseeable future, once you've bought a sat nav app, you'll never need to buy a sat nav ever again...
We'll be adding more sat nav reviews in the very near future (these things take an age to test properly). In the mean time here are our top three hardware choices, followed by other favourites and their phone-based app rivals.
1. TomTom Go 6000
A real star, and the current finest sat nav in the world
The TomTom Go 6000 is an impressive piece of kit. The interface is intuitive, with TomTom's excellent routing benefiting from being able to draw on live traffic data to make for incredibly accurate journey times as well. The fact that it includes lifetime map and journey updates for 45 countries in Europe make it all the sat nav you should ever need. We would have preferred to have the camera data include for free as well, but if mobile camera positions really are that important to you, then the £20 a year cost is probably good value. The screen is bright and clear and easy to see whatever the lighting outside, and the voices are clear and precise too. The new mounting system is solid, yet it's easy to remove the sat nav from its cradle if you need to. You can charge the sat nav from a standard micro-USB connector, if you're away from your car too, which adds to its flexibility.
Read: TomTom Go 6000 review
2. Garmin nuvi 3490LMT
A slick smartphone exeperience in a satnav
Any standalone nav device has a tough time justifying itself in this age of apps. But a £270 (RRP) satnav? That's a very tall order.
Like its siblings Garmin nevi 3590LMT and Garmin nevi 3598LMT, the Garmin nevi 3490LMT-D has a pretty good stab at it. It starts with ultra-slim smartphone aping propotions. The phone analogy extends further, too. Garmin has gone for a capacitive touchscreen where most nav devices use a resistive screen.
The result is one of the slickest and most responsive satnavs on the market. Elsewhere, the steep sticker price buys you UK and Euro maps with updates for life, Bluetooth and voice control. You'll have to pay extra for Live services, of course. But it was ever thus.
TomTom Start 60
The sat nav with a bigger screen and a reasonable price
The TomTom Start 60 Europe is easily one of the best sat navs we've reviewed, offering good performance at a fair price. The large screen, clear navigation and accuracy of the maps makes it a joy to use. The voice navigation, complete with spoken street names, is calm and clear, and it's easy to switch to a different voice if you're not happy.
We did find the mounting a little fiddly, and would have prefered the power button to be allocated on the opposite edge to the mounting system, but you will get used to this with time. The camera warnings from the map share community need some fiddling with to get right as well, although again it isn't too difficult to get this right over time.
Read: TomTom Start 60 review
RAC 5000 UK & ROI
Why not try something a little more dramatic, like a widescreen
At a penny under £70, the big excitement of the RAC 5000 is the fact that it boasts a 5-inch widescreen display at an incredibly low price. In fact, you'd have to look very hard to find a widescreen sat nav even vaguely in the same ballpark as this.
The obvious benefit of having more screen space is that you can see more of the roads around you, and get more information about your journey on that screen. The great value of the RAC 5000 extends to the free safety camera updates for life, as well.
TomTom Start 20
Quality costs that little bit more
TomTom overhauled its Start range last year, and this, the Start 20, received a good amount of love in the process. While this is a little more expensive than some of the budget offerings out there, the general feeling of quality is incredible. While it lacks some of the features you can find higher up the food chain, such as bluetooth connectivity and traffic jam updates, it does boast a solid interface and a clear, bright screen.
You also get detailed junction views and road names on your maps, and an impressive number of points of interest to peruse in your idle moments. Overall, this is the budget sat nav that defines the market.
Read: TomTom Start 20 review
TomTom GO Live 825 Europe
Stay connected while travelling around Europe
TomTom splits its sat nav lines into connected and non-connected models, with the Live 825 falling firmly into the first category. These Live devices are for those that drive a lot, and need the latest road and traffic information wherever they go. Beyond this difference, which incurs an annual subscription after the first year, the delta in features is actually quite slight.
Even so, for the target audience, where time wasted on out-of-date maps is money, knowing where there are traffic jams and speed cameras is worth paying for. Factor in the 5-inch widescreen display and the maps for the whole of Europe, and this isn't bad value at all.
Keep your eyes on the road with Garmin's heads-up display
One day, car technology might put an end to just about all road accidents. But right now we're in a tricky phase where drivers are being bombarded with more and more features and functions. That's a major problem when it comes to driver distraction. It's never a good idea for to take your eyes off the road ahead, even to glance momentarily at your navigation screen.
That's exactly where the new Garmin HUD comes in. It's a head-up display that's compatible with literally any car, no matter how new nor how old. The idea is that is delivers heads-up navigation cues along with other information including your current speed and time to destination so that you can keep your eyes forward and on the road.
Read: Garmin Hud review
TomTom Go 60
The budget sat nav with a few compromises
Here we go, then, with yet another new TomTom navigation device, the TomTom Go 60. Surely the world already has enough TomTom's to choose from? Actually, the Go 60 does have a plausible raison d'etre. And a simple one, to boot. It's meant to be cheap. Cheap for a 6-inch TomTom from its top-to-bottom all-new range, that is. At £179, it's just over half the price of the range-toppingTomTom Go 6000. Intriguingly, it's exactly the same price as the mid-range five incher, the Go 500. It's a decent device, but the outdated resistive touchscreen might put you off...
Read: TomTom Go 60 review
TomTom Go 5000
The 5-inch member of TomTom's latest range is pure nav at its best
Dedicated navigation devices have gone through something of a crisis of confidence. That's thanks to the rise of the smartphone. With almost everyone now toting smartphones with navigation ability, who needs a TomTom? For a while, it seemed like the answer was every more complex nav devices that mirrored the functionality of smartphones. But TomTom's latest have proved what a dead end that idea is. The real answer is to makes navs so good at actually being navigation devices, they're worth having as well as a smartphone. The TomTom Go 5000 does just that. It's very probably our favourite navigation device.
Read: TomTom Go 5000 review
TomTom Rider 2013
A top sat-nav unit for a motorcycle
The TomTom Rider is a top sat nav unit for a motorcyclist, works terrifically well and should be one of only a couple of options you consider if you're in the market for one. With no car charger or mount included, in contrast with its biggest rival, Garmin's Zumo350, this is strictly for bike only.
Read: TomTom Rider review
Apple iPhone / iPad
Sat navs for the iPhone don't have to cost you a fortune
There are plenty of sat nav apps available for iOS. Apple Maps will get you there, and it's nowhere near as clunky and unreliable as it was when it first launched. And the main benefit of using this app is that it comes with your device, so you won't need to install it.
Of course, you can also use Google Maps navigation in the same way, which is an easy install from the App Store and it's free too. There are, in fact, plenty of free options, including Navfree which has sort of been brushed aside since Apple and Google released their free options.
But there are also a whole load more professional sat nav options. TomTom, CoPilot, Navigon and Garmin - the biggest names in navigation - all have apps out. They're not super cheap - you're looking at £40 to £60+ with further costs for traffic tracking, overseas maps and making your sat nav talk like Marge Simpson - but you'll get free updates for life.
Android phone / tablet
Are freebie apps really an alternative to premium navigation?
There's a variety of sat nav apps available for Android phones and tablets, and the great news is that on this platform there's absolutely no need to spend any money - the best ones are free.
Google Maps doesn't need much introduction, but surprisingly few have tried Navigation, its linked sat nav app. The driving guides offered by this tool are powerful and accurate, although we'll admit that some of the pronunciations can be clumsy.
A premium alternative is the TomTom app for Android. It brings all the goodness of TomTom's market leading nav devices to Android, and again, it means you'll only have to spend money once.
With that in mind, the best current bet for Android could be the CoPilot Live Premium. It's competively priced at £19.99 for the UK & Ireland version and combines all the usual turn-by-turn niceties with ActiveTraffic and some social networking bells and whistles.
Nokia Here Maps
Navigation has become a proper big boy's toy. All the major players including Google and Apple are at it. But mapping ain't easy and the stakes are high as Apple found when it ditched Google Maps in favour of its own flawed map app with the iPhone 5.
While all that was going on, Nokia has been trying to reboot its relevance as a smartphone maker and part of that effort is Nokia's Here Maps. Intriguingly, it's not just available on Nokia's swanky new Windows Phone 8 handsets. You can also download it for iPhone and Android. And it's free.
We're still getting to grips with how Nokia Here compares on different platforms. But the good news is that you can download map data to the handset. It also comes packed with funky online features like real-time traffic, public transport schedules, points of interest and more.
Admittedly, Nokia Here is more optimised as a general mapping app in the Google Maps mould. But it does have turn-by-turn navigation. It will be interesting to see how it develops.
Skobbler ForeverMap - Android and iPhone - Free
The perfect answer if you're not happy with the route your phone suggests
If you don't get on with the previous apps for your particular smartphone, then it's worth checking out Skobbler's offering, which is available in both iOS and Android guises. This app may not boast all of the features you'll find on high-end sat nav devices, but it does pack a punch, thanks to the power of its underlying technology - OpenStreetMap.
Akin to Wikipedia, but for maps, OpenStreetMap enables you to correct any problems that you see in your journeys. It does mean that some areas are a little patchy, but you can add in information yourself to bring it up to date.