Dodge the traffic and avoid those one-track country lanes with the top satnavs from TomTom and Garmin
Does anybody still need a satnav? Now that many cars are sold with built-in navigation and any decent smartphone can do the job, you might think the answer would be no. However, there’s still a lot to be said for the best satnavs. For a start, not all new cars include navigation in their entry-level models, while older, secondhand models might have an outdated satnav – if they have one at all. And can you remove your car’s built-in satnav and take it on your holiday in a rental car?
Meanwhile, smartphones aren’t always reliable when it comes to getting a GPS signal or even, in some cases, making sure that their internal compass is pointing in the right direction. The best satnavs work, and if you’re already used to Garmin or TomTom’s interface and systems, you might not want to switch to something new.
What’s more, today’s satnavs have learned some lessons from their smartphone rivals, and they’re packing in bigger, better screens, additional features and useful live services. We’ve picked out the best satnavs you can currently buy to help you make the right choice.
Best satnav: At a glance
|Best budget satnav||Garmin Drive 52 | £100||Check price at Halfords|
|Best mid-range satnav||TomTom Sat Nav Go Essential | £150||Check price at Halfords|
|Best value satnav||Garmin DriveSmart 66 | £190||Check price at John Lewis|
|Best big-screen satnav||Garmin Drivesmart 86 | £319||Check price at Halfords|
How to choose the best satnav for you
The key thing is, how easy are they to operate? The best satnavs make it as straightforward as possible to find your destination, pick a route and locate nearby amenities.
Of course, having a screen in the car can be a distraction, so the interfaces are designed to minimise driver interaction. In fact, many now include voice controls that can help you avoid using the touchscreen quite so often, and with better integration with smartphones and voice assistants, these are becoming more dependable. When you do reach for the screen, you will appreciate having one with the same capacitive technology used by smartphones. Cheaper and older models tend to have resistive touchscreens, which need more pressure when you hit a key and don’t provide such a clear or vibrant image.
How will satnavs make my journey smoother?
All satnavs receive signals from GPS satellites, from which they can calculate where you are and in which direction you’re moving. They use this data within its maps to plan a route to your destination and track your progress along it, providing directions for when and where you need to turn, change lanes or take a roundabout exit.
Even basic satnavs now come with lifetime map updates, so you shouldn’t be confused by different road layouts or the appearance or disappearance of roads and roundabouts along your route. What’s more, the two leading manufacturers – Garmin and TomTom – have now had years to hone their map displays and voice guidance, with clear, timely directions that take you through what you need to do and when.
READ NEXT: Best car shampoo to make your car sparkle
Where there are differences, they come down to things such as 3D junction displays that show your path through a series of turns or complicated junctions, which can make all the difference when you’re on an unfamiliar road or surrounded by fast-moving traffic. Some Garmin satnavs also offer street views as you approach your destination so you don’t miss the building or a final turning. They might also use visual cues to help you, like suggesting that you turn after a landmark such as a church.
The biggest time-saving feature is live traffic updates, which you will even find on some affordable satnavs these days. The big manufacturers monitor traffic on major roads and proactively send warnings so you can avoid any major hold-ups while you plan or even as you drive. Speed camera alerts are another useful bonus, although you may have to pay a subscription to keep them up to date.
Is there anything else worth looking out for?
Satnav manufacturers aren’t blind to the ubiquity of smartphones, and now pitch their satnavs as devices that work with your smartphone, to give you not just navigation but a range of smart features designed for in-car use. Some double as in-car Bluetooth systems, enabling you to make and take calls via the built-in microphone and speaker. They might even relay notifications or incoming texts to save you taking sneaky peeks down at your phone screen. Some use your mobile connection for live traffic updates, fuel prices, and advice on parking spots, and we’re even seeing some incorporate Amazon Alexa, so that you can go beyond basic navigation commands to request streaming music or use Alexa skills.
We’re also seeing satnavs that hook into other services, using the likes of Tripadvisor and Foursquare to take you to restaurants, takeaways, cinemas and other points of interest in the nearby area. Again, this isn’t anything you can’t do on your phone, but it’s nice to see it integrated into your satnav, particularly if it can help you find a bite to eat or a rest stop when you’re driving longer distances or going on your hols.
How we test satnavs
We evaluate satnavs through a mix of both standardised tests and real-world driving. Once we’ve set them up, and installed any map updates, we ask them to plan routes to a number of destinations. We then check the efficiency of their proposed routes and whether the satnavs have avoided basic errors around one-way systems, complex roundabouts, and narrow country lanes. During this process, we look at how user-friendly the interface is and how responsive the touchscreen is to presses, prods and swipes.
We then use them on a series of journeys, covering both rural and urban areas, to see how well they handle difficult roads and complex junctions, and how clear any spoken or visual instructions are. We check how quickly and effectively they cope with sudden changes to the route and we test out any live traffic features. We also test their ability to direct you to nearby points of interest, including petrol stations, car parks, and pubs or restaurants. Finally, we put any voice-operated search and control features through their paces.
READ NEXT: Best Garmin satnav
The best satnavs you can buy in 2023
1. Garmin DriveSmart 66: Best satnav for value
Price when reviewed: £190 | Check price at John Lewis While the name suggests a replacement for the mid-range DriveSmart 65, the DriveSmart 66 actually replaces the entry-level DriveSmart 55 model, albeit with a slightly larger 6in screen. The good news is that it still has the feel of a premium satnav, with a slimline, smartphone-style form factor, a bright, responsive 1280 x 720 resolution capacitive display and a bundled suction-cup windscreen mount. What’s more, Garmin’s software is as strong as ever, with clear voice instructions, good references to buildings and street names, and useful 3D visuals to make tricky junctions easier to manage.
Voice control isn’t the DriveSmart’s biggest strength – recognising town names and addresses was hit and miss and you have to look at the screen to make a selection. However, planning routes is easy, and the integration with Tripadvisor and Foursquare helps when you’re trying to find a coffee or snack en-route. And while you will need to find an extra £20 for a version with Amazon’s Alexa, even the basic model includes Bluetooth calling and smartphone notification support. Pay more to get a bigger screen (you can pick up the 8in version via the Amazon box below) and extras, but this is a rock-solid satnav at a nice, affordable price.
Read our full Garmin DriveSmart 66 review
Key specs – Screen: 5.7in 1,280 x 720 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live traffic data, live parking and weather, lifetime map updates, POI from Tripadvisor and Foursquare, junction assists, driver alerts; Smart features: Bluetooth calling, notifications, voice commands
2. Garmin Drive 52: Best budget satnav
Price when reviewed: £100 | Check price at HalfordsIt’s a bit no-frills, but the Garmin Drive 52 has all the satnav basics, with sensible routes, clear directions and a 3D view to help at junctions. Garmin’s Real Directions, which reference street names and landmarks, come included, and instructions are delivered in a clear and timely fashion. Like the more expensive DriveSmart models, it features points of interest from Tripadvisor and Foursquare, as well as live traffic alerts, speed camera warnings and weather forecasts. For the live alerts, you will need to connect it via Bluetooth to a smartphone running Garmin’s Drive app.
There are some compromises on usability, however. The screen is noticeably dimmer than the display on Garmin’s DriveSmart models and has a lower (480 x 272) resolution. It’s resistive rather than capacitive – although it’s surprisingly responsive by those standards – and you will also need to hook it up to a PC over USB to download updates. Spending more will get you a stronger all-round satnav, but for around £100 it’s hard to grumble.
Key specs – Screen: 5in 480 x 272 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live traffic data, lifetime map updates, POI from Tripadvisor and Foursquare
3. TomTom Go Classic 6in: Best cheap TomTom satnav
Price when reviewed: £140 | Check price at Halfords TomTom’s entry level satnav is a little more expensive than Garmin’s, but in some respects, a better buy. True, the screen on the 6in model is still resistive, and slightly slow to react with it, but at least it’s big, clear and easy to read. Meanwhile, this model is surprisingly rich in features, with smartphone connectivity, text message notifications and integration with TomTom’s MyDrive app.
The real key here, though, is that you’re still getting TomTom’s excellent maps and guidance, in a device that feels relatively nippy and doesn’t leave you too frustrated every time you search for a destination. It also updates over Wi-Fi and comes with a decent windscreen mount. Move up to the Essential for a better all-round experience, with voice control and a better touchscreen, but this wallet-friendly option won’t let you down.
Key specs – Screen: 6in 800 x 480 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live TomTom traffic, lane guidance, destination prediction; Smart features: Text message readout, integration with MyDrive app
4. TomTom Go Essential 5in: Best mid-range TomTom
Price when reviewed: £150 | Check price at HalfordsStep up from the basic TomTom and you get a satnav that’s easier to use. True, you’re looking at a 5in screen with a low 480 x 272 resolution on this model, but it’s capacitive and a whole lot more responsive, making it easier to scroll around or enter text when you’re searching for a point of interest or address. It takes voice commands as well, but in practice these are more reliable with places you’ve already visited than new addresses.
The Essential also packs in a wider range of smartphone features. You can make hands-free calls and get your satnav to read out messages, but it can also trigger Siri or the Google Assistant on your phone if you need some extra help. TomTom’s maps, live traffic info and guidance are as dependable and clear as ever, and the Essential also comes with the excellent snap-in, snap-out magnetic mount. Garmin’s DriveSmart 66 has the edge with its crisper, high-resolution screen, but if you prefer TomTom’s software, the Essential is a fine alternative.
Key specs – Screen: 5in 480 x 272 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live TomTom traffic, live parking and weather, lane guidance, destination prediction, voice control; Smart features: Hands-free calling, text message readout, integration with Siri, Google Assistant and MyDrive app
5. Garmin DriveSmart 76: Best all-rounder
Price when reviewed: £230 | Check price at Halfords While it has the same 6.95in screen and physical design as the old DriveSmart 66, the DriveSmart 76 is no longer the largest or most high-end option in Garmin’s in-car line-up, with that honour going to the DriveSmart 86 with Amazon Alexa. But, if a tablet-sized satnav seems too big or the Alexa features unnecessary, this might well be a better option. The screen is vibrant, clear, and large enough to make the most of Garmin’s slick UI, and whether you’re setting up a new route or looking for fuel or a snack stop mid-journey, it’s not hard to find what you’re searching for, helped by a solid, up-to-date database with content from TripAdvisor and Foursquare.
Voice commands suffer from the same issues as with the DriveSmart 66, and it’s particularly frustrating that you can’t choose from a range of search options without glancing at the screen. However, the spoken and visual guidance is excellent, making good use of street names and landmarks. On rural journeys there are still some odd omissions, not to mention situations where a bear right becomes a right turn or vice versa. It’s here, rather than in the towns and on the major roads, where TomTom has a slight edge. That’s emblematic of the stiff competition the DriveSmart 66 is getting from the similar TomTom Go Discover, but the Garmin is slightly cheaper and, as an all-rounder, hard to beat.
Read our full Garmin DriveSmart 76 review
Key specs – Screen: 6.95in 1,024 x 600 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live traffic data, live parking and weather, lifetime map updates, POI from Tripadvisor and Foursquare, junction assists, driver alerts; Smart features: Bluetooth calling, notifications, voice commands
6. TomTom Go Discover: Best TomTom satnav
Price when reviewed: £280 | Check price at Halfords While it doesn’t have the IFTTT programming functions of the older Sat Nav Go Premium, the TomTom Go Discover betters it in just about every other way. It feels nippier and has a larger, crisper 6in or 7in HD screen, with a 1,280 x 720 resolution for the former and a 1,280 x 800 resolution for the latter. It’s easy to search for destinations and the voice instructions are top-notch, with super visual feedback to help you navigate junctions or make your way through busy towns. The bundled windscreen/dashboard mount is exceptionally good, holding even the hefty 7in model securely in position.
You also get live traffic data through your smartphone and lifetime map updates for the UK and Europe, while live speed camera alerts, live fuel prices and off-road parking are thrown in for the first year (you will need to pay a subscription after that). TomTom’s voice controls remain a bit restrictive, not to mention hit and miss on the recognition front, but this is the best of its satnavs for navigating your way around, and a great – if more expensive – rival to the Garmin DriveSmart 65.
Read our full TomTom Go Discover review
Key specs – Screen: 6in or 7in capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live traffic data and lifetime map updates, live speed camera alerts, fuel prices and off-road parking (1yr), voice control
7. Garmin DriveSmart 86 with Amazon Alexa: Best big-screen satnav
Price when reviewed: £319 | Check price at Halfords How big do you want to go with your satnav? Well, depending on where you have it mounted, the 8in DriveSmart 86 can obscure a sizable portion of your windscreen, and you might wonder whether there’s really any benefit to all that screen. However, it makes it easier to see the display if you need a quick glance at a turning or a complex junction, or if you need to select an option from the screen if using Garmin’s voice commands. The extra size is also a real bonus when using Garmin’s split-screen features.
Another key selling point with this model is its built-in Amazon Alexa features, although these are available as an extra on the smaller DriveSmart 76. It’s useful for quick questions, controlling audio playback and searching for nearby petrol stations, food outlets and other points of interest. It’s just a shame that, while Alexa’s smart enough to read through the results so that you don’t have to take your eyes off the road, you still need to tap the screen to select the right one. It really helps if you have a front seat passenger.
All in all, though, this is a cracking satnav, and one of the nippiest and most responsive we’ve ever used. If you’re happy with the price and a big display, this is the one to buy.
Read our full Garmin DriveSmart 86 review
Key specs – Screen: 8in 1,280 x 800 capacitive touchscreen; Navigation features: Live traffic data, live parking and weather, lifetime map updates, POI from Tripadvisor and Foursquare, junction assists, driver alerts; Smart features: Bluetooth calling, notifications, Amazon Alexa