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?

Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test GPS devices.

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Car GPS reviews

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

If you're willing to spend $20 to $90, 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. 

Most people know about Google Maps, which provides basic information on where you are and how to get from A to B.

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 puts you at the mercy of mobile networks which are prone to dropouts depending on your carrier and location. Drive away from an urban centre and things can become spotty. Head into a tunnel and the mobile network may die altogether.

Some let you download an entire map over WiFi, so you can get around without worrying about your 3/4G connection. The downside is that a country or state map will take up a large chunk of storage on your phone. Plus, while almost all GPS apps support 3/4G, far fewer give you the option to download maps for use in offline mode. 

Plus, 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.

Dedicated GPS units don't face these issues, as they don't require internet connectivity to access maps and satellites.

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.
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, the GPS unit should be smart enough to suggest addresses with a selection of suburbs.

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).

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:

  • ACT: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket. Drivers and riders can legally touch the phone when it's securely mounted.
  • New South Wales: Smartphone must be securely mounted in a bracket without obscuring your field of view. Drivers can legally touch the phone when it's securely mounted. 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 is securely mounted (under an exemption from ARR 300).
  • Queensland: Though there are laws regulating smartphone usage, GPS apps aren't specifically mentioned. In this instance, it's best to err on the safe side and avoid using your smartphone as a GPS in Queensland. Dedicated GPS units are legal.
  • 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 that allow smartphone GPS apps permit interaction using voice commands. 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.

How much should I pay?

  • GPS navigation devices range from $89 to $449
  • GPS smartphone apps range from $0 to $70

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.

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)
  • advanced lane guidance tells you when to move to the exit lane and displays complex multi-lane manoeuvres clearly
  • SD memory card slot
  • 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.
  • advanced lane guidance tells you when to move to the exit lane and displays complex multi-lane manoeuvres clearly.

Optional features

If you're multilingual and prone to wandering around 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.

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 the category selections available on 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. This is a great feature for a mobile phone and arguably more important to have than on a dedicated device that is less likely to be in your pocket. 
  • 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 usually available as an in-app purchase, with live traffic information delivered to you as you drive.
  • Liveview is a fairly new feature with photographic representation of the street to help you more effectively determine where you are.

CHOICE verdict

So do you really need a dedicated GPS device or will an app do? 

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).

Learner, P1 and P2 drivers and riders must not use any function of a mobile phone while driving or riding – not even hands-free or on speaker. So if you're not fully-licenced driver, your only option is a dedicated car GPS, end of story. 

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.

Many also give you live traffic information using their own antenna, but some may require you to connect the car GPS to your mobile phone for the data updates.