Portable satellite navigation systems are becoming increasingly popular and
more affordable. Here we take a look at the different kinds of systems
available, how they work and what you need to bear in mind when you’re buying.
We’ll highlight the advantages and drawbacks of the different types, give you an
idea of how much to pay for them and pick out some of the choice devices
There are three main categories. First, there are the dedicated devices,
often called transferable systems. Their primary function is navigation,
although they are increasingly coming with extra features like hard drives for
storing your music.
Then there are the systems that use a PDA (personal digital assistant) to
show you around the world. They can be a more cost-effective option than a
transferable device, and retain all the other functionality of a PDA.
Finally, you can turn a Smartphone into the smallest in-car navigation
system. Again, they can be cost effective and are by far the most portable of
With any of these systems, it’s important to bear in mind that many cars
nowadays come with a heated windscreen, with fine elements that thaw ice in the
winter, or heat-reflective glass to keep the cabin cool in summer. These can
hamper the satellite signals from reaching your device. If this is the case
you’ll have to fit an external antenna.
Many include Traffic Message Channel (TMC). In most of Europe this
information on traffic levels, accidents and roadworks is broadcast free to be
picked up by compatible devices, which can then reroute you around delays. In
the UK, this is licensed to a private company.
Producers of many systems have licensing agreements which means you won’t
ever have to pay, but with others there could be subscription charges, perhaps
after an initial free period.
The same is true for systems that contain locations of speed cameras and give
you warnings as you approach. When you get your system it could come loaded with
thousands of camera locations, but you might only get downloadable updates for
free for a limited period.
Incidentally, while GPS-based speed camera detecting equipment is to remain
legal in the UK, laser or radar-based systems will be banned by the road safety
bill when it comes into law later this year.
Every device we highlight here will come with street detail maps of the UK,
which means it can direct you from door-to-door. Some have main road mapping for
Europe, which can bring you to a town, but can’t direct you around it, while the
more expensive have the most detailed street-level mapping across Europe, Canada
and the US. You can buy additional maps on a memory card, but these can cost up
to £100, so it may make sense to invest in a more expensive system to start
Remember that you really don’t need to pay the full recommended retail prices
for any of the systems here. A quick search on the internet at sites as familiar
as Amazon.co.uk show there are easy savings to be had.
Transferable systems have a built-in receiver for satellite signals and don’t
rely on any other devices to work, which means they can often be the easiest to
take from car to car.
Generally speaking, they’re also the simplest systems to get going, too. Pull
it out of the box, switch it on, follow the set-up guide and you should be up
and running within a few minutes.
Screens are often larger than other PDA or mobile set ups, while built-in
loudspeakers mean you’ll be able to hear the directions it’s giving above the
noise of your car and other traffic.
Prices start at less than £200, but costs quickly rise as added functionality
Another drawback for these systems is their size. While they are light and
portable enough for you to continue using as you walk along, they can be bulky
and take up space in your briefcase.
Some of the more expensive systems come with hard-drives for storing data on,
like music files and photographs, while others double as cameras.
Many can also connect with compatible Bluetooth mobile phones for safer,
hands-free calls when you’re on the go.
Unless you’ve got a recent PDA that has a satellite receiver built in, you’ll
need to hook your organiser up to the stars. It’s relatively easy to turn your
PDA into a satellite navigation system, too, with a host of bundles that provide
you with everything you need.
An external antenna, often called a trailing lead or GPS mouse, plugs in and
does the trick. There are also plenty of car mounting kits for PDAs that have an
antenna built in, and these can help to reduce the number of wires trailing
around the cabin.
This solution does tie the sat nav capability to your car a little, unless
you fancy reinstalling mounting equipment, but you can, of course, still take
your PDA with you.
The antenna mounts can also have an added loudspeaker, so if your PDA is on
the quiet side they’re worth considering too.
If your PDA is Bluetooth-enabled you can connect to similarly enabled antenna
wirelessly. While this frees you of a cable in your car, your sat nav capability
is still tied to your car.
Be aware that not every GPS-enabled PDA comes with mapping and navigation
software included in the price – the Mio P350, for example – but there are
several packages available.
For the ultimate in compactness, you can transform your Smartphone into a
back-seat driver with a map.
As with PDAs, you’ll either need one of the handful of phones that have a GPS
antenna built in, or you could purchase an external one, or buy a mounting kit
that’s equipped with one.
Then you just put on the software, load up the maps and you are ready to go.
Smartphones obviously have the smallest screens and other controls, so they
can be fiddly to operate on the go. Be particularly careful when using one of
these at the wheel of a car, and take a look at the sections on safety.
For a non-GPS Smartphone or PDA try receivers like TomTom’s Bluetooth GPS for
£85, or i-mate’s PPC/PDA2 at £125, which combines receiver, car mount and
charger in one. You can find maps and software from Route 66, TomTom’s Navigator
5, Destinator and CoPilot Live 6.
Portable satellite navigation systems work in the same way as any that are
hard-wired into a car.
The satellites that are used to locate your exact location are all run by the
US military. A few years ago the US dialled-down scrambling levels on satellite
signals, which it still uses to send your sat nav haywire as you approach one of
its military bases.
It made domestic systems that used the signals more accurate, but also
highlights how the US could, if it wanted, completely scramble signals and
render every non-military, or non-US-approved, device completely useless.
That could be the reason why the European Union is getting busy with a
programme of satellite launches that will provide a rival commercial operation.
The £3bn Galileo project is running a little over budget at the moment – by
nearly £300m so far – but the schedule is to have the satellites in operation by
Sales of portable sat nav systems have rocketed, but thefts of the devices
have, unfortunately, followed suit. The key lesson here is to take your sat nav
system with you once you have arrived at your destination – it’s portable, after
all. At an absolute minimum you should store it out of sight, but even then it
only takes a matter of seconds to get into most cars, so don’t think it’s
While you’re in your car, deter opportunist thieves by locking your doors as
you travel – many systems are being stolen in traffic or at traffic lights.
Aside from choosing a car that comes with laminated glass, there’s little you
can do to thwart determined criminals that are willing to smash their way in as
you sit at the lights.
If the worst should come to the worst, try to keep calm and hand over
anything they want. Insurance companies hand out cheques, not medals.
It’s important that you familiarise yourself with the controls of your new
system before you set off. Being distracted by a new toy when you should be
concentrating on driving is not ideal. Even when you do know your system like
the back of your hand, fiddle with it as little as possible while you’re
It’s also worth considering where you put your new system, so that it doesn’t
obscure your view out of the car. The safest bet is to position it on the dash
out of the ‘swept’ area of the windscreen where the wipers clean.
All is not lost if that’s not possible, however. Edict 30 of the Construction
and Use Regulations of 1986 says that: “All glass or other transparent material
shall be maintained in such condition that it does not obscure the vision of the
Rather predictably, the regulation doesn’t exactly detail what obscure the
vision means. Tax disc holders and sun visors can take up more windscreen space
than a compact portable satellite navigation unit, and we don’t hear of any
complaints about them.
So, stick the system out of the way and you’ll probably be all right, sucker
it in front of your face and you’re likely to be on thin ice.
Mio A701 £380
A nifty all-in-one design with a 2.7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth and the
HP iPAQ hw6515 Mobile Messenger: £360
Navman PiN 570 £210
A PDA that can navigate you on foot as well as in your car. As with any
system like this, battery power can be quickly drained, but it comes with a
mounting kit for your car where it can be recarged. Street-level UK mapping is
Mio P350: £180
Fujitsu Siemens LOOX N520250: £245
Garmin iQue 3200: £380
TomTom Go 910 £450
A 20Gb hard drive means this TomTom can do some fairly eye-catching back flips.
You can download your music collection to it and listen through the built-in MP3
player, just don’t necessarily expect the same music quality as your car stereo.
You can expect door-to-door navigation, not only across the UK and Europe, but
in the US and Canada, too.
Garmin Nuvi 360: £425
Navman iCN 750 Europe: £450
Navman iCN 720 £340
One for the gadget fans, this Navman has a built-in camera, so you can
take pictures of destinations. Their location is then automatically stored so
you can touch a photograph and be provided with directions to it. There’s also
free updates to a speed camera database.
TomTom GO 510: £320
Garmin Nuvi 310: £314
Garmin Nuvi 350: £350
Mio 710: £336
TomTom GO 710: £399
Mio C510E £250
As well as the 3.5-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth connectivity you’d expect in
this price band, the Mio has a relatively slim-line design and a few tricks up
its sleeve. You get main road mapping across Europe, although still not
street-level detail, and a year’s subscription to a speed camera database. Like
most other systems in this price bracket, you can also connect another external
antenna to pick up TMC information.
TomTom One: £280
Garmin Nuvi 300: £250
Garmin StreetPilot C310: £220
Peter Lawson is deputy editor of What Car? web and digital
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