Rhodri Marsden: Is there any point in buying a dedicated satnav device?


Most people with a vague interest in technology remember the first satnav device they saw operating. Mine was about five years ago in a minicab in Finchley; I was transfixed in awe as we drove up the A1000 while the screen showed us ploughing through McDonald's head office and across several suburban back gardens. "It usually works better than this," said the driver. I had to get my own – but the chunky TomTom One I eventually bought, whose suction pad still has an irritating tendency to come unstuck from the windscreen whenever I drive over speed humps, is starting to look like an outdated piece of kit.

Navigation apps for smartphones are improving substantially and, what's more, they come in at a fraction of the cost of a stand-alone device: TomTom's own UK app for the iPhone costs £60, while ALK's CoPilot Live – available for both iPhone and Android – comes in at a mere £25. And yes, obviously you're paying out substantially for the phone it's running on, but you may well have one of those already. And in the same way we were once quizzed why on earth we'd bother taking two bottles into the shower, why would you take two navigation devices on a journey to King's Lynn?

Doubters might say, well, because the phone simply isn't as reliable or responsive as the satnav. To a certain extent that's true, but it certainly works. I went for a spin with CoPilot Live installed on Motorola's rather cute new DEXT (whose GPS feels particularly responsive) which in turn was stuck to the dashboard with some Velcro tape (£8 from an art supplies shop, and a darn sight more reliable than TomTom's suction cup thing.) Performance wasn't perfect, and I probably prefer the reassuring tones of TomTom's Jane to CoPilot's slightly shrill Emily, but hey, she got me from A to B via C, so who's complaining? Not me, not for 25 quid.

So, what's the fate of the standalone satnav? TomTom has just launched its budget device, Start; it's available online from £90, has zero bells and whistles and won't inform you where the nearest ice skating rink is. At the other extreme we'll be seeing more navigation systems built into dashboards, or replacing car radios. But navigation software companies like ALK can't sit on their laurels, either; Google Maps Navigation – free of charge, naturally – is now available on Motorola's Droid phone in America, and will inevitably launch in the UK at some point. One thing's clear, though: we're unlikely to get lost.

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