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Free satnav: a real-world road test

Posted on 20 Jul 2010 at 16:59

Can Google and Nokia's free satnav beat a top-of-the-range TomTom? We find out

The days of paying hundreds of pounds for satnav devices are over. At least that’s what Google and Nokia would have you believe, with both deciding to give away free satnav software for their smartphones.

But is relying on free satnav the equivalent of filling your petrol tank with chip fat? Will the cheaper alternative leave you stranded on a motorway while those who paid for four-star blast down the open road?

There was only one way to find out: a real-world road test. The PC Pro team slipped on their driving gloves, filled the glove box with Werther’s Originals and set about testing a variety of satnav systems in a day-long driving test.

Our five drivers were each given a different satnav system for the day. In the free corner, reviews editor Jon Bray loaded Google Maps Navigation on to his Acer Liquid smartphone, while production editor Priti Patel took to the road with Nokia Ovi Maps and an N97. At the other end of the scale, senior designer Sarah Ratcliffe was given a top-of-the-range TomTom Go 950 Live, while features editor Barry Collins headed for the middle ground with the £27 CoPilot 8 software loaded onto his iPhone. And by way of a control sample, editor Tim Danton was given nothing more hi-tech than paper roadmaps to plot a route across country.

The rules of the road test were simple: the drivers would perform each of the four challenges simultaneously, exposing them to the same road and traffic conditions. All the available traffic alert systems were switched on, and the drivers were told to follow the satnav’s instructions to the letter – unless it involved compromising their safety or the law. All of the drivers were instructed to obey the speed limit, to minimise the effect of variations in car performance.

Read the challenges and verdict below for the surprising – and often amusing – results of our day on Britain’s highways, as well as reviews of each of the different satnav systems, plus our practical tips for satnav owners.

The challenges

Challenge 1: the country drive

Challenge 2: the middle of nowhere

Challenge 3: town-to-town

Challenge 4: traffic jam

The final verdict

Satnav reviews

Nokia Ovi Maps

Google Maps Navigation

TomTom Go 950 Live

CoPilot 8 for iPhone


Tips for satnav drivers

Author: Barry Collins

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User comments

Great review - but what when using abroad

wouldn't lack of the roaming costs definitely favour the TomTom and "standard" SatNavs?

By Rnohf on 21 Jul 2010


Yes,roaming costs would definitely count against Google/Nokia when used abroad, unless you could find favourable data rates or a local SIM.

Thanks for the feedback.

Barry Collins

By Barry_Collins on 21 Jul 2010

installing satnav on phone

It would have been interesting to install tomtom or such like on a smartphone and see how that compares. it is just I am using an Ipaq with tomtom 6 and am looking for an upgrade. so this is a very interesting debate. I agree with the roaming charges as I travel within europe and use in france spain and the UK. So the question here which is the preferred option?

By milocome on 22 Jul 2010

Nokia is OK abroad

The Nokia maps can be loaded into the phone for use abroad without using GSM. I've used mine without getting any extra network charges.

By milliganp on 22 Jul 2010

Why did you sabotage Nokia test?

I have purchased the cheapest Nokia phone that can run their free OVI navigation Nokia 5230. I couldn't justify purchase of expensive dedicated GPS. I thought it would be "good enough for the money" but it turned out to be fantastic navigation.

I have used my nokia phone to navigate 1800km across 3 states when I went for holiday. It worked flawlessly. Of course, you *have* to purchase a Micro SD memory card for maps and download the maps through a PC application before the first use, especially if you plan trip abroad.

There are maps for the entire world available for Nokia Ovi Maps, and you can update the maps any time, unlimited number of times free of charge. There are some newly constructed complicated overpases in my town and my Nokia phone can navigate those perfectly.
During my trip abroad I went through the new highway that was just finished around Budapest and the navigation worked just perfect.

How many times can I update my maps for my TomTom, Garmin or Mio? Do they come with maps for practically entire world?

By IDoNotWantToTell on 22 Jul 2010


"All of the drivers were instructed to obey the speed limit, to minimise the effect of variations in car performance"

Also, hopefully, because it's the speed limit...

By YourLocalGP on 23 Jul 2010

Another iPhone freebie

I missed this article which is a shame but I badly needed a satnav solution for last Friday and somehow stumbled across Skobbler. There are plenty of reviews for it over the web and in the App Store (Lifehacker review is not very good though, reviewer thinks putting a postcode in first is backwards - eh?! And he didn't read instruction screen properly it seemes), but since it is free I thought I had nothing to lose.

The intersting thing about Skobbler though is that it uses the OpenStreetMap project, a kind of wikipedia for maps. I don't know if the maps are preloaded or downloaded as you go though.

I travelled from Derby to Lincoln and have to say I was impressed at how easy it was to follow instructions and how to use it. Yes, it did crash on me, because I took a wrong turn because I wasn't paying attention (the roadworks put me off). It appears to be a little unstable on iOS4 at the moment but the forums say they are working on it. But overall I was very impressed, it's easy to use and can access the iPhone music (actually, I was listening to the PCPro podcast on the way!)

By mviracca on 26 Jul 2010

Why not download OVI maps?

I bought a Nokia 5800 for the maps before there was free satnav on it. All of Europe takes up 1.7 GB on the 8GB SD card. It took a while to download of course but that was overnight at home. The navigation is terrific, I used this year on holiday in Sicily and it got me back out of little villages miles off the road with no trouble.
Using it without downloading the maps is nonsense and not a fair comparison.

By modonel on 27 Jul 2010

Loss of data connection

Another problem with Google Maps, at least for Android, seems to be that if you get diverted in an area with no network coverage you can get lost as the device has no knowledge of the road that you are on! You get a helpful spoken message 'Data connection lost'

By HytheBoatman on 31 Aug 2010

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