Now, the Google Maps app on the iPhone is well worth a doff of the cap to. I use it several times a day, plotting the fastest route to and from work depending on how grumpy the M3’s never-ending roadworks are feeling, or when navigating around an urban area on foot.
Google Maps usually works a treat, as it probably does for countless others, given it is a free app and half the world’s population seemingly has a smartphone or three. It has saved many, many hours of my life from sitting in traffic jams I could otherwise have been stuck in, and got me to where I need to go without a hitch.
All this makes you wonder what the point of the humble aftermarket sat-nav is nowadays. You know, those things you buy in Halfords for that one trip a year you think you’ll need it for, plug into the cigarette lighter and then try to stick to your windscreen every five minutes when that infuriating sucky thing doesn’t work.
What’s more, they don’t fit in your pocket to use them on foot, and you only really hear about them these days from those local newspaper stories when a bloke got stuck in the middle of the farmer’s field on his way to the local garden centre as "he followed the sat-nav".
You may be able to tell that sat-navs and I never got on that well before; I always found they were slow and lacked intelligence (not unlike the user, ahem).
My real irritation with them comes from the one time I really blooming needed one. I was in the middle of Ukraine looking for a hotel in a town called Cherkasy and the sat-nav couldn’t find any satellites. And the sucky thing wouldn’t stick to the windscreen. About two hours later, after a military-style street-by-street search for the hotel, we found it, and the sat-nav was relegated to the glovebox for ever more.
But maybe things have changed in the sat-nav world since the summer of 2012 when I last picked one up. Step forward the TomTom Go 5100 and Garmin DriveSmart to see.
Nowadays, it seems, sat-navs are no longer just sat-navs. They’re more akin to smartphones without a call function with all sorts of ‘live’ functions and services, apps and, as with smartphones, a load of other stuff you’ll probably look at once and never use again.
The screens have also improved a great deal, the graphics clearer and faster-running, and when you touch something on the screen it actually responds - instead of the couple of seconds of delay you got on old sat-navs, which made you feel like you were making a phonecall to Australia.
Most important, the maps are incredibly clear and detailed, the search functions work a treat and, in the case of the TomTom (which I used more than the Garmin as I found it easier to use), you have the ability to look up places in an online TomTom portal you can log in to and then send the route direct to your sat-nav. Very neat and handy when planning a day trip. They’ll apparently save you from traffic jams, too.
A slice of humble pie was served to me by the TomTom on a recent holiday to Iceland. I was still relying on Google Maps, but it had never heard of the rural place I was staying in, nor the street it was on. That was not good. The TomTom knew exactly where to go, though; crisis averted, and points to the sat-nav. This goes to show just how thorough the mapping is on a sat-nav - hardly surprising, given that that's its primary purpose.
So my completely scientific sat-nav experiment and research has revealed that there can be a place for sat-navs in my travel world - albeit a small one. They’re at their best when you’re really off the beaten track and somewhere new, like on holiday, but that’s not frequent enough to warrant a purchase for me. Maybe just tick that option box on your next hire car to borrow one.
As for a long-term future… sat-navs are becoming more and more common in less expensive cars and lower down the trim levels, a trend that will continue, although manufacturers using maps from the likes of TomTom shows where perhaps the bightest future could lie for the sat-nav makers.
Smartphone maps will also only get better and benefit from the more portable nature of phones, meaning the role of the stand-alone aftermarket sat-nav will surely diminish further.
Whatever happens, though, they have regained my respect.