Car GPS navigation buying guide
Don't like getting lost? We look at the latest in GPS technology options, including dedicated GPS devices and apps.
Car GPS device vs smartphone GPS app
Do you need a dedicated GPS screen on your car dashboard, or is a smartphone app 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 unit, 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 do car navigation devices work?
- GPS apps for smartphones
- How do you use GPS units and apps?
- Smartphone GPS apps and the law
- What should I look for in a car navigation system?
- How much should I pay?
- CHOICE verdict
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test GPS devices.
How car navigation devices work
A GPS navigation device consists of:
- global positioning system (or GPS) receiver that picks up satellite signals to determine your exact position
- screen displaying maps and route instructions
- loudspeaker for verbal instructions
- computer processor to calculate routes, distances and times
- 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).
GPS apps for smartphones
When it comes to core navigation functionality, GPS apps often perform just as well as a traditional unit. They typically support, safety camera warning, trip planning and advanced lane guidance, for example.
Paid apps range from less than $10, up to as much as $90. However, there are a number of freebies available as well, including default map apps included with your Android or iOS device. Android and iPhone users have access to the free Google Maps app, which shows your current position and offers voice direction. Apple has also released their own version for iOS devices that's simply called Maps.
Maps are delivered in one of two ways. Apps either:
- Gradually download portions of the map as you enter new areas. This requires an active 3/4G connection.
- Download an entire state/country map in one hit over WiFi.
Most apps that use 3/4G connectivity, gradually download portions of the map as you require them, to save space on your smartphone storage. Though handy, this can put you at the mercy of mobile networks which are prone to dropouts depending on your carrier and location. That said, your phone doesn't rely on 3/4G for navigation.
- Most smartphones use a backup system known as A-GPS, where the “A” stands for assisted.
- This activates 3/4G navigation if the GPS signal drops out.
- The rest of the time, the app and smartphone are using the same GPS signal as a traditional unit.
Bear in mind that apps can chew through your monthly download limit if you download as you drive. Also, a country or state map obtained via Wi-Fi will take up a large chunk of storage on your phone, though it has less of an impact on data. While almost all GPS apps support 3/4G, far fewer give you the option to download maps for use in offline mode.
Downloading and data saving
Most people connect their smartphone to Wi-Fi at work or home which, by default, allows GPS apps to automatically update as they’re released. This is a very convenient feature compared to traditional GPS units, which require you to:
- Take your GPS out of the car.
- remove the memory card or plug it into a computer
- download updates from the company website and
- transfer them to the unit.
How you use GPS systems and apps
It doesn't take long to get your head around GPS units and their app equivalents. 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. All you need to do is:
- 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.
- 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.
Traffic and travel
Many traditional GPS units and apps offer live traffic updates. These highlight congestion and either:
- Automatically change the route to avoid traffic.
- Suggest different routes that you can follow or ignore.
- Simply highlight traffic, putting the onus on you to find a new route.
We found this feature to be consistently decent across all brands and models that offered it. However, apps have one advantage over GPS units:
- GPS units can deliver traffic and information on long-term roadworks (e.g. new highways, tunnels etc)/
- Apps can provide this too, as well as short term data such as temporary construction, police presence, closed roads and even crashes.
Apps tend to be a bit better at rapidly updating temporary changes in traffic conditions beyond congestion. Waze is particularly useful in this respect, as drivers can submit updates using the app, to inform other users in the area.
Smartphone GPS laws
Since smartphone's capabilities extend beyond navigation, they fall under different laws to GPS units. However, these rules differ across states and territories. Note this information only applies to fully licensed drivers in standard vehicles (this does not include motorbikes, trucks, heavy vehicles etc) unless otherwise specified:
- ACT: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Drivers can legally touch the phone when it's securely mounted, if it's being used as a driving assistant (which includes GPS).
- New South Wales: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket without obscuring your field of view. Law does not specify whether you can or cannot interact with your smartphone. Though this suggests that it's legal, you may find interpretation is up to the discretion of a police officer. Learner, P1 and P2 licence holders are not permitted to use a mobile phone at all while driving or riding, which includes GPS functions.
- Northern Territory: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Drivers can legally touch the phone when it's securely mounted, if it's being used as a driving assistant (which includes GPS), under an exemption from rule 300 which bans mobile phone usage while operating a vehicle.
- Queensland: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket without obscuring your field of view. This also applies to P2 drivers. Law does not specify whether you can or cannot interact with your smartphone. Though this suggests that it's legal, you may find interpretation is up to the discretion of a police officer. Learner and P1 licence holders are not permitted to use a mobile phone at all while driving or riding, which includes GPS functions.
- South Australia: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Driver's can't touch the smartphone while operating the vehicle. Learner and P1 licence holders are not permitted to use a mobile phone at all while driving, which includes GPS functions.
- Tasmania: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Driver cannot touch the smartphone while operating the vehicle.
- Western Australia: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Driver cannot touch the smartphone while operating the vehicle.
Most states and territories that allow smartphone GPS apps permit interaction using voice commands. However, you cannot hold a phone in your hand while operating a vehicle, on any public road in 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.
Though this general information covers most usage scenarios, it's worth checking your state or territory legislation for small differences that may apply if you own a special vehicle or have certain restrictions/exemptions on your license. This includes Leaner, P1 and P2 drivers, as some states/territories are fairly vague in this respect.
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 attach, but also how easy it is to remove and carry or stow away.
- Battery: Allows you to use the GPS away from a power supply for a short amount of time (typically two hours max).
- 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.
- Point of interest (POI) navigation: This is 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 the category selections available on other apps.
- Landmark navigation: Similar to point of interest, but can take you to local landmarks.
- Map display selection: So you can view top down, behind, 2D and 3D, as well as preview the route before leaving.
- Driving information: Displays speed, distance to destination and estimated time of arrival.
- Itinerary planning: Allows you to set multiple stopping points along your route.
- International maps: Handy if you wish to drive overseas. Note, almost all Australian GPS brands include New Zealand maps for free.
- Lifetime map updates: Free map updates forever, to cover new roads, routs and points of access, as well as permanent road closures.
- Alerts: Notifies you when you're approaching fixed speed cameras and school zones so you can slow down.
- 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).
- Voice recognition: Lets you control the GPS unit/app without touching it. Useful in states and territories where physical interaction with the device is illegal while driving.
- Walking option: The system can plot a route for pedestrians – for example, ignoring one-way streets, or using walkways through parks.
- 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.
- 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).
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. Smartphones mount in the same way.
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 (such as in a tunnel).
How much should I pay?
- GPS navigation devices range from $89 to $449
- GPS smartphone apps range from free to $70
So do you really need a dedicated GPS device or will an app do? Honestly, you could go either way and still get from A to B.
- Apps and GPS units both connect to the same satellite system.
- So really, it comes down to the quality of the software, and ease of use.
- You could argue that a GPS unit can maintain a stronger signal, as it's built for one job in a larger case as opposed to a jack-of-all trades device like a smartphone, but this is a hypothetical position.
If you travel in an area with good mobile reception and have a full drivers licence then a Car GPS app on your smartphone such as Google Maps, Apple Maps for iPhone and Maps for Android is a great option. The data download will not be an issue as long as you're on a reasonable data plan (anything over 1GB per month will be fine).
If you travel a lot in marginal reception areas or if you don’t own a smartphone (there are a lot of people who don’t own or want a smartphone) then a dedicated car GPS is a very good option – they've never been more affordable or feature packed.
However, if you are a Learner, P1 or P2 driver, or you own a non-standard vehicle such as a heavy truck or motorbike, laws are likely to dictate your purchase options.