Portable or in-dash GPS?

So you've decided to get satellite navigation for your beloved automobile, but you're caught between what type of system to get. CNET Australia investigates whether an integrated in-dash unit or portable device is suitable for you.

Derek Fung
Derek loves nothing more than punching a remote location into a GPS, queuing up some music and heading out on a long drive, so it's a good thing he's in charge of CNET Australia's Car Tech channel.
Derek Fung
7 min read

So you've decided to get satellite navigation for your beloved automobile, but you're caught betwixt and between what type of system to get. Fear not, for CNET Australia investigates whether an integrated in-dash unit or portable device is suitable for you.

Factory in-dash units

  • Good: Integrated with hands-free and music • Large screens, usually • Maybe even DVD or TV • In-tunnel instructions • Some control systems are great...
  • Bad: ...others less so • Expensive • Many miss out on 3D view, text-to-speech • Avoid CD-based units
  • Bottom line: Some are great, others infuriating, but they're all on the pricey side. Try before you buy.

BMW's iDrive system mixes a large in-dash display with a control wheel in the centre console.
(Credit: BMW)

If you're in the market for a new car, you may well be offered an integrated in-dash unit as a pricey option or upsold to a model that has it as standard. As an option they're generally around the AU$3000 mark, but are they worth it? Well, yes and no.

On the plus side they usually come replete with a large screen that makes navigating through MP3 CDs or, if you're lucky, attached iPods much easier. Some of these screens are also able to play DVDs, or even TV, helping to kill the vital minutes until your kids' soccer match is over. Being an integral part of the car's entertainment system, most play their instructions loud and clear through your car's speakers, with some even courteous enough to pipe the instructions to the driver's side only.

And if the car has Bluetooth hands-free, your conversations won't be ruined by turn instructions. As these in-car units often come with their own gyroscope and are hooked up to the rest of the car's sensors, they will continue providing guidance in areas where satellite signals are absent, and where most other GPS devices fail, such as in tunnels.

Systems available on luxury cars are, more often than not, more tightly integrated and have more fulsome feature lists. As such, their makers have experimented with various methods of control — touchscreen, scroll wheels, Remote Touch, voice recognition and so forth — some of which are more daunting to use than others. Unlike even the most basic of portable nav devices, many factory fit units still lack 3D view and text-to-speech. Those stepping across from their beloved TomToms, Garmins, et al, may also note slower destination entry times, as many in-car units store their maps on DVD rather than flash memory or hard disk. Second-hand buyers should be wary of older sat navs that run off CDs, as they can require disc swapping.

Regardless of whether you're speccing up a Mazda 3 or BMW, it's advisable to give the proffered GPS system a going over during your test drive. It may not be a deal breaker, like a dud engine or ugly body, but these things aren't inexpensive and you'll be interacting with the system every time you go for a drive. Oh, and if you've never used a portable nav device before, borrow one from a mate to see how it compares.

After-market in-dash navigators

  • Good: Integrated with hands-free and music • May improve audio quality • Large screens, usually • More nav features than most factory models
  • Bad: More expensive than portable units • Maybe new speakers and more dosh will be required
  • Bottom line: A more cohesive experience than a portable device, with many of its features, but also more expensive.

After-market in-dash units almost look like they were there at the car's birth.
(Credit: Pioneer)

Prices are falling for after-market in-dash units, with Pioneer's recently released AVIC-F310BT retailing for AU$1200. As prices inch closer to the grand mark, they're a serious option for those seeking to improve their current ride.

Many of the benefits mirror those we've listed for car makers' in-dash units: integrated sound, Bluetooth hands-free, iPod connectivity and (generally) larger screens. Installing a new head unit should, in most cases, improve audio quality too — highlighting how weak most standard fit speakers are may lighten your wallet yet more. Unlike many factory fit units, though, after-market units also offer features familiar to users of portable nav devices, like 3D view, lane guidance, text-to-speech and traffic messaging.

Unless you're comfortable disassembling and tinkering with your car, or have breezed through our install it yourself car stereo guide, you'll have to factor labour into the purchase price. Once installed, you won't have to worry about the wires, 12V power adapters and packing up that are the bane of many a portable nav user though. Keep in mind that installing a you-beaut AU$3k nav unit into a Datsun 180Y may be the quickest way to route to wail of anguish and an insurance claim.

Portable units

  • Good: Look at those prices! • Out-features many factory models • Non-invasive • Portable
  • Bad: Turn instructions drowned out by music
  • Bottom line: The easiest and cheapest way into satellite navigation.

With prices starting from AU$250 portable nav devices are approaching ubiquity.
(Credit: TomTom)

Thanks to their affordability, the majority of us who dream of ditching the Gregory's or Melway go for a specialised portable navigation device from the likes of TomTom, Garmin, Mio or Navman. Brand name units now carry RRPs from AU$250 upwards, with retail prices often undercutting makers' recommendations by up to AU$50 or more. Entry-level models come with 3.5-inch screens, while all other models have screens measuring 4.3 inches diagonally across — 4.7 inches on the latest Navmans.

Most of today's models come standard with 3D view, lane guidance, junction view and text-to-speech; features that are unavailable on many factory fit units costing many times more. All feature touchscreens and are usually easy to use. Edge closer to the AU$500 mark and Bluetooth hands-free and traffic messaging become more prevalent, as does music playback, although that's usually wisely avoided unless there's an FM transmitter or a headphone jack to feed into the car sound system's auxiliary port.

Being portable, these devices are handy for multiple car households or frequent flyers. Set up time is minimal: unpack, attach device to windshield mount, affix suction cup to windscreen, plug into cigarette lighter and away you go. While some may be tempted to leave their navigators hanging there as they grab a quick latte and some chow, it's best to clear some space in the glove box lest the neighbourhood thieves come a calling.

Mobile phones

  • Good: Subscription-only services good for occasional users • One less device to carry
  • Bad: Vital car accessories not included • Phone screen not always suited to in-car navigation
  • Bottom line: Don't jump in yet, wait until TomTom's iPhone app and kit are available; it might be a game changer.

The iPhone looks almost like it was designed only with navigation in mind.
(Credit: TomTom)

Now that Apple has lifted its draconian restrictions on turn-by-turn navigation on its popular phone, the big talking point in GPS circles this year is satellite navigation on the iPhone. A few nav apps have already been released — Sygic Mobile Maps and Navigon for iPhone — but we're all hanging on TomTom's attempt, which will be offered with an optional windscreen cradle. Unlike navigation on earlier candybar mobiles, where small graphics and even smaller text were an issue, GPS on large touchscreen phones is almost equivalent to dedicated portable nav devices. If you're regularly using your phone as a GPS, we'd highly recommend buying a windshield mount and an in-car charger; it's rather dangerous without the former and battery killing minus the latter.

Those without Apple's fruit phone needn't despair, there are plenty of options available. Nokia offers a range of phones with built-in GPS, like the 6210 Navigator. The company is a bit stingy with its Nokia Maps software though. The nav app itself is gratis, but you have to pay a subscription fee to enable turn-by-turn routing — namely the ability to automatically re-route should you veer off the designated course.

Numerous Windows Mobile, Symbian and BlackBerry smartphones also have GPS receivers, some like the HTC Touch Cruise come with navigation software, but many others do not. A number of sat nav apps are available for these platforms, such as Co-Pilot Live (AU$169), that include full Australian maps and turn-by-turn navigation. If their asking prices are a bit rich and you plan on only being an occasional user, Telstra and Vodafone offer Whereis Navigator and Compass respectively. These apps offer basic navigation for a daily, weekly or monthly rate.


Naturally, the answer varies depending on your budget and your situation. If you're looking at getting GPS for your current vehicle and money is the key factor grab a portable unit; sat nav on mobile phones isn't quite there yet, but TomTom's kit for the iPhone may change all that. Should you have some cash to splash, an after-market in-dash solution is well worth investigation as it brings improved sound quality, sat nav, iPod compatibility and Bluetooth into one integrated package.

Those shopping for a new car should consider how their potential sat nav system functions, how easy it is to use and how well integrated it is before spending the big bucks. Some, like BMW's latest iDrive system are brilliant, while others are deeply flawed.