Do you need a dedicated GPS screen on your car dashboard, or is a smartphone app actually smart enough to get you from A to B these days?

This guide will help you decide which type of device suits you best, and what to look for when you're shopping for reliable car navigation.

With a good quality GPS system, you should be able to "reach your destination" without having sworn once at that smarmy, know-it-all, robot-voiced son of a... send me down a dead-end street, why don't you?

How navigation systems work

A GPS navigation system consists of:

  • a Global Positioning System (or GPS) receiver that picks up satellite signals to determine your exact position 
  • a screen displaying maps and route instructions
  • a loudspeaker for verbal instructions
  • a computer processor to calculate routes, distances and times
  • a map database, including points of interest such as schools, police stations, car parks, petrol stations and hospitals. Most car navigation systems available in Australia use the same mapping data, so the difference between models is how they let you use and display the data.

How you use them

Type in where you want to go and your device plots a route, calculates the travel distance and estimated time of arrival, and displays the route on a map. You can usually choose between the fastest or the shortest route – which aren't necessarily the same – or specifically exclude toll roads or highways.

Some units want you to put in the suburb first, which can be frustrating if you don't know; however if you simply put in the city instead, the GPS unit should be smart enough to suggest addresses with a selection of suburbs.

Using satellite signals, the system keeps track of your position and guides you along the plotted route with visual instructions on the display and verbal instructions via a computer-generated voice.

Car navigation devices

While car navigation systems started off a bit clunky back in the old days (it seems everyone has a story about arriving late and flustered because their GPS led them down somebody's driveway or across a wheat field), the technology has improved enormously.

Depending on the robustness of the map database, they can really come in handy when navigating unfamiliar terrain.

Portable or integrated?

Portable units sit in a cradle with a suction cap that can be attached to the windscreen. They plug into the cigarette lighter, but also have a battery that provides a few hours of operation. They're installed within moments, and can therefore easily be moved from car to car.

Integrated systems are usually connected to the car's electronics, and can overcome some of the limitations of portable units. For example, they can use speed information to keep calculating your position when there's no satellite signal (for example, in a tunnel).

Do you need one?

Before you buy a car navigation system, consider how often you usually have to use a street directory or map, and whether you can justify the cost.

What to look for in a car navigation system

  • Data entry: Check how easy it is to enter addresses and routing preferences.
  • Display: This should be large and glare-free, and show the information you want to see – such as a two- or three-dimensional map view, distance to the next turn, current street name, time of arrival, and distance to destination.
  • Installation and portability: Check how easy the system is to install, but also how easy it is to remove and carry – you're likely to take it with you when you park the car somewhere, as it could be an attractive target for thieves if you leave it prominently displayed on the windscreen.
Necessary features

Most units offer these necessary features, but it's worth checking to make sure.

  • Battery for use away from the car for a short amount of time (no more than a couple of hours)
  • SD memory card slot
  • Australian map data (to street number level)
  • Option to buy map data for other countries
  • USB PC connection
  • Touchscreen
  • Option to store your home address
  • Option to select a location on the displayed map
  • Option to calculate fastest or shortest route
  • Option to exclude highways and toll roads
  • Display car speed, distance to destination, and estimated time of arrival
  • Display street name and distance to the next turn
  • Option of two- or three-dimensional map display
  • Volume control for voice instructions
  • Points of interest: schools, police stations, car parks, fast-food outlets, post offices, petrol stations, airports, railway stations, hospitals
  • Option to search for a point of interest.
Optional features

If you're a multilingual walker who's prone to visiting obscure neighbourhoods and foreign lands, some units offer the following handy features:

  • Walking option: The system can plot a route for pedestrians – for example, ignoring one-way streets, or using walkways through parks.
  • Languages: You can select a number of other languages for the display and voice instructions (such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish and Dutch).

For more information see our car navigation system reviews.

GPS apps for smartphones

In the age of the app, many drivers have turned to their smartphones for guidance, with a range of GPS apps to choose from for the Apple iPhone, Android and Windows Phone.

Most smartphone owners know about Google Maps, which provides basic information on where you are and how to get from A to B. Android and iPhone users also have access to the free Google Maps app, which shows your current position and offers voice direction.

However, if you are willing to spend $35 to $70, you can get an app on your phone that will work just like a car navigation device, with safety camera warning, trip planning and advanced lane guidance. See our review and comparison of car GPS apps.

Downloading a GPS app

You can download apps directly to your phone, but because most contain the maps as part of the app itself, the file size will be so large you'll need to use Wi-Fi (wireless local area networking) rather than 3G. Alternatively, you can download iPhone GPS apps using iTunes on a computer and then transfer them to your iPhone.

What to look for in a GPS app

  • Points of Interest (POI) are a great way to quickly find landmarks such as hospitals, police stations, shopping centres, tourist attractions, and so on. Some apps also allow you to phone these places by selecting the phone number on the screen. While the free apps Google Maps, Apple Maps and Nokia Drive do have some POI categories, they largely depend on a search function rather than category selections available on the other apps.
  • Advanced lane guidance tells you when to move to the exit lane and displays complex multi-lane manoeuvres clearly.
  • Routing options can exclude toll roads, unsealed roads or highways from the calculated route.
  • Walking mode allows you to plot a route for pedestrians, such as taking a short-cut through a park.
  • Speed alert warns you when you exceed the speed limit for the road you're currently on. However, speed limit data can sometimes be inaccurate so don't rely solely on the GPS for this information - check the speed limit signs.
  • Text to speech (TTS) announces the street name so you know when to turn without having to glance at the screen. Some apps provide a choice of more than one voice (though no guarantees of correct pronunciation!).
  • School zone alerts when you're approaching a school. Some units show a speed alert only.
  • Full-route display - shown as a line on the map from your existing position through to your destination.
  • In-app purchasing allows you to start off with a basic car navigation app and add features and functions you may want later on.
  • Remote trip planning (also known as A-B routing) allows you to plan and run through your driving route in virtual mode before leaving.
  • Trip log records your travels and saves the information to post online in an application such as Google Earth. Although common on dedicated car GPS devices, this feature is also beginning to appear on car GPS apps as well.
  • Traffic information as a paid option, usually available as an in-app purchase, has live traffic information delivered to you as you drive. Some apps offer the service as a one month trial, others offer a yearly subscription, while the Roadmate app provides the service for the life of the product.
  • Liveview is a fairly new feature with photographic representation of the street to help you more effectively determine where you are.

Different rules for Tasmanians

Unless you live in Tasmania, you can use a smartphone as a car GPS as long as it is in a dedicated hands-free mount. Tasmanian state legislation introduced in 2009 prohibits the use of a mobile phone for navigation, even if it's in a cradle. A fine of $300 and three demerit points would make a dedicated car GPS or a printed map (and a calm co-pilot to interpret it) the best option in Tassie.

Hands-free mount kits

For the rest of Australia, there are several in-car mount kits available ranging from simple cradles to hold the phone, to devices with an embedded GPS chip to enhance the phone's inbuilt GPS performance.

Chargers

If you plan to use the app often and for more than a few minutes, you'll need a car charger, as GPS can quickly drain a phone's battery.

Free vs paid GPS apps

Free apps, such as Google Maps and Apple Maps, offer social networking features - for example, peer reviews of destinations along your route and photo images instead of illustrated maps.

A mobile network signal will help all navigation apps to establish a positional fix faster, but it is important to note that all the free apps we have tested require internet access, either through Wi-Fi or a mobile network signal, to find a new destination.

The paid apps continue to find destinations even when the smartphone doesn't have a SIM card – the free apps don't.

Google Maps (Android or iOS)

Google Maps for the iOS and Android platform continues to perform well in our regional and city performance tests and also delivers live traffic reporting.

While the points of interest (POI) score for Google Maps was among the worst, based on our test method for POI performance (many of the POIs were delivered as search results rather than selecting POIs in various categories), some users may in fact prefer the 'Google' way of searching. We found this POI feature to be fairly accurate when searching for surrounding POIs such as restaurants and hospitals based on the speak-and-search feature.

Apple Maps (iOS only)

Apple Maps has improved with updates following its troubled initial release, however its poor performance when we tested it in the Hunter (NSW) and Victorian regions suggests the app has some way to go before it's seen as a good alternative to Google Maps.

For more information see our smartphone GPS app reviews.

Cost

  • GPS navigation devices range from $89 to $399
  • GPS smartphone apps range from $0 to $70