Car Advice

In-car sat-nav or smartphone – which is better?

Most cars offer native sat-nav and many offer smartphone connectivity, so do you really need a native sat-nav set-up anymore, or are you better off using your smartphone?

Smartphones are becoming smarter and we’re finding it harder to get along without them. They allow us to carry around in our pockets every single photo we’ve ever taken, the most powerful but not always fact-checked encyclopaedia, multiple calendars, phone books, maps, games and much more.

And this has led to many smartphone owners reaching for their phone rather than their vehicle when it comes to maps and directions. If you’ve ever taken an uber you’ll know all the drivers use Google Maps to navigate to your destination rather than rely on their vehicle’s in-built navigation.

And, if your car has Apple CarPlay or Android Auto then connecting your smartphone and having the map appear on the main infotainment unit is incredibly easy and convenient. Indeed, quite a few car makers have stopped including navigation, even in their top-spec models, but have fitted Apple and Android connectivity because they know car buyers are moving towards using their phones instead…indeed, this article was prompted by a comment on Practical Motoring’s Facebook page about the Mitsubishi Triton GLS Premium not having native sat-nav.

Comprehensive Car Insurance

The reader said, after reviewers slammed vehicles for not having Apple and Android connectivity when one does it gets slammed for not having native sat-nav. In that instance, the comment in the review was made in relation to the price of the vehicle and that, for the money at least, it should have had a better infotainment system.

The good and the bad… Most people who own a mobile phone now own a smartphone unless you’re my father who still owns what you’d now call a retro phone. And, so, if you’ve got a smartphone then you’ve got great mapping functionality literally at your fingertips.

Indeed, most smartphones come pre-loaded with a mapping app and, if you’re an Apple user you’ll have realised, like Apple, that Google Maps is a much better mapping app than Apple Maps. Even Apple now allows Google Maps to show when your phone is connected to your car via Apple CarPlay.

The great thing about using maps on your smartphone is that they’re generally more accurate than a standard car sat-nav and that’s because, in many cases, the sat-nav in a car is drawing from a preloaded map. And this means you’re not getting live traffic updates, just a turn-by-turn direction. Whereas your phone, if connected to the internet is not only using GPS signal for mapping but also cell towers for added accuracy.

However, many new cars also offer live traffic on their sat-nav and a subscription will generally be included in the vehicle’s purchase. This is not usually something you can opt in or out of, so, trying to save money by not having this functionality is a non-starter.

If you don’t have ‘live’ mapping in your vehicle; I don’t in my own vehicle. And you don’t have the latest map loaded (I don’t) then, especially if you’re in a major city, your sat-nav won’t, obviously, be aware of road changes. So, in this case using the mapping functionality on your smartphone is definitely the winner.

Sync 3

But what about if your vehicle does indeed have live traffic updates included with its navigation? Well, in that case, depending on how comfortable you are with it, then you might be better off using it. However, I’ve still found that some dedicated navigation systems aren’t as good at rerouting or even choosing the best route, and recently, in a side-by-side comparison between Google Maps and BMW’s navigation system I found the BMW system said the route would take 15min to drive whereas Google Maps had found an alternate route that was quicker and with less turns. The BMW system had been set to the fastest route. I also purposely took wrong turns to see how quickly they would reroute and each time Google Maps reacted more quickly.

Some people talk about running out of storage space on your phone when using offline maps for directions, but this is something that you can easily get around by deleting the irrelevant map once you’ve finished with it. And an app-based map will allow you to preset destinations from your desktop and then load them immediately when you get in the car; personally, I’ve found this handy when heading off-road.

The Verdict: In the end I think answering this one comes down to what your most comfortable with. Many in-built navigation systems with live traffic updates are great but they can’t all match the sophistication and the constant evolution of an app on your smartphone. And, for those who are more familiar with their smartphone then using a mapping app, especially when you can connect your phone to the car via Apple or Android connectivity, you’ll likely just default to the mapping app on your phone.

Obviously, there are portable sat-nav units with increased functionality, but we’ll leave them for another time, this article was merely intended to look at the pros and cons of a smartphone vs in-car sat-nav.


Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.