At the beginning of 2015, I bought my first ever dedicated motorcycle sat nav.
A TomTom Rider 400.
Of course, there was the initial faff of plumbing it into my bike and learning how the interface worked.
But then started the constant issues. I was forever going back and forth, sending emails to the TomTom customer service department.
In the end, I was given my own TomTom customer services representative. He was called:
Wait for it…
I’m not even kidding.
Over the next 12 months or so, Tom and I became well acquainted. I actually started emails with “Dear best mate Tom”, and he would reply with “Dear best mate Paul”.
Such was the familiarity within our virtual friendship.
My Motorcycle Sat Nav Disaster
In the summer of 2016, I was riding down to Portsmouth from Manchester to catch the ferry to Santander.
The rain came down, and my waterproofs did their thing and kept me dry.
But halfway there, I noticed a weird blemish in the lower part of the screen.
My waterproof motorcycle sat nav turned out to be not so waterproof after all. And I spent the next 24 hours in my cabin trying to dry it out before docking in Spain.
Fortunately, the unit continued to work throughout my trip – which is a good job. Because without it, I would’ve had to negotiate my way through the Pyrenees without any real kind of navigational aid.
Back Onto Tom. At TomTom
When I got back, I immediately sent an email over to ‘best mate Tom’. I explained that my waterproof unit had leaked. It hadn’t even made it to the ferry port, let alone the Pyrenees.
I was livid.
It was at the point that my acquaintance with Tom came to an end. Because he said that the unit wasn’t covered under warranty because it was over 12 months old.
My £500 motorcycle sat nav had been nothing but a pain in the arse since I bought it. And then it let water in – just as the warranty expired.
I had no choice but to buy another unit. But there was no way I was giving another penny of my money to TomTom.
Making The Switch To Garmin Motorcycle Sat Nav
Discouraged by the way I was treated by TomTom, I went out and bought a Garmin Zumo 395LM – Garmin’s flagship motorcycle sat nav unit at the time.
I bought into the sales pitch on the website. I fell hook, line, and sinker into the promises.
Obviously, this all turned out to be guff, and the Garmin was just as ridiculous as the TomTom. Only for different reasons.
In an attempt to speed up this motorcycle sat nav bitch fest, I’ll spare you the full details.
But suffice it to say, I’m in current ownership of yet another navigational device that promised me the world, but delivers very little.
It is, without doubt, ladened with features (that I don’t need and don’t use.) But it’s also fiddly to use, has a dated interface, is clunky to work through, and requires NASA-like knowledge to plan and upload routes.
So what is the answer, then? What should I do?
Do I make the switch from a dedicated motorcycle sat nav unit to smartphones?
And round and round I’ve gone on this tedious merry-go-round of technological merriment.
Why Smartphones Are Better Than Motorcycle Sat Nav Units
The hands-down reason why smartphones are better than motorcycle sat nav units is the ease of use.
Because there’s no pissing about with smartphones.
We all use them (probably a little bit too much) which means we’re familiar with exactly how they work.
They’re fast and they update automatically.
Smartphones are almost telepathically intuitive. They give us everything we need at the touch of a button or a well-placed swipe.
And they hold all the information we need in one convenient place.
On top of this, there are a plethora of navigational apps (paid and free) that we can choose from. Just pick the one that works best for you and away you go.
And, you don’t need a laptop to set a route like you do with a dedicated motorcycle sat nav.
Plotting Routes, BaseCamp, And Avoidances
Have you tried to plot a route on a Garmin?
If you have, you’ll know that you need a route planning program, plus the archaic, shit-storm of a platform that is BaseCamp.
And as we all know, BaseCamp is the most infuriating program on the face on the planet.
As with everything that comes with a Garmin logo, the process of uploading routes is long-winded, convoluted, needlessly complicated, and ridiculously time-consuming.
With a smartphone, you tap on the road to place a waypoint, and the phone does the rest.
If you come up to a roadblock, just tap ‘roadblock’ on your phone and it will immediately come up with the next best route.
Ever tried doing that on a Garmin?
These days, if I come across a road closure and I’m using my Garmin, I park up and turn the bike off. And then I get out my sandwiches and my flask of coffee because I know I’m going to be there for the long haul.
Related: 10 Essential Touring Apps For Bikers
But Smartphones Aren’t Without Their Downfalls
The best thing about smartphones is that they do everything.
But they do everything to a reasonable standard. They’re the stereotypical Jack-of-all-trades but master of none.
And because of this, the question still lingers. Can a smartphone really make up for a dedicated motorcycle sat nav unit?
For example, my iPhone 12 comes with an excellent camera. But as a photographer, I haven’t replaced my camera with my phone.
My smartphone has a torch. Yet I carry a proper torch in my toolkit because I know that if I need to tend to a breakdown in the dark, the torch will be better than the phone.
And whilst I’ve customised my smartphone so I can run a business from it if need be, I’d still rather do that stuff at home on a laptop or desktop.
The point is, whilst smartphones do everything, they don’t necessarily do everything well.
Smartphones And Navigation
When was the last time you used a sat nav in your car?
My car has an in-built sat nav, but I don’t use it because Google Maps on my phone is quicker, easier, more accurate, and more intuitive.
And it’s exactly the same for bikes.
When I use my phone, I plot a route on the desktop version of MyRoute-App. Automatically, it syncs with my phone. And when I get on my bike, the route is ready to go.
Trending: A Step-By-Step Guide To Route Planners
Using A Smartphone On The Bike
The problem lies in the usability of the phone whilst on the bike.
For a start, it overheats. And navigation is a notorious battery drainer.
If you have your data and Bluetooth enabled to receive turn-by-voice prompts through your motorcycle headset, the battery will deplete even quicker.
That means more charging.
And that means more heat.
Eventually, your smartphone will turn itself off to prevent any lasting damage.
And whichever way you look at it, that isn’t ideal when you’re on a trail in the middle of nowhere.
Related: The Best Motorcycle Bluetooth Headsets
Smartphones And Safety
I don’t know about you, but I don’t carry around an emergency device to contact people if I get stuck on my bike.
My smartphone is my emergency contact device.
So what happens if I’m using my phone as my motorcycle sat nav and I have a crash?
Because chances are, the phone will get wrecked as soon as my bike hits the ground.
So how do I then call for help?
Using a smartphone as a motorcycle sat nav could potentially leave you with all your eggs in one very limited (and very precarious) little basket.
Other Smartphone Issues
Another major drawback in real-world terms is sun glare.
If you’ve ever tried using a smartphone as a motorcycle sat nav in the height of summer, you’ll know that you can’t see it.
As the sun beats down, your phone constantly adjusts its brightness to compensate. And the sun, together with the brightness adjustment, means you simply can’t see it.
On top of this, smartphones are difficult to use if you’re wearing gloves.
Contrary to popular belief, smartphone buttons are not triggered by applying pressure.
They use capacitive screens. And capacitive screens use conduction from your finger to trigger a response. They aren’t triggered by pressure at all.
The buttons on dedicated motorcycle sat nav units however are pressure-sensitive. That’s why they’re easier to use with gloves when compared to smartphones.
Why I Went From Motorcycle Sat Nav Units To Smartphones (And Back Again)
For the last 20 years, I’ve had a contract phone – which meant the phone was ‘free’ when I upgraded.
But with phone contracts becoming increasingly expensive, I decided this year to buy my phone outright.
And this particular phone cost over £800.
So if my smartphone is twice the price of the motorcycle sat nav, do I really want to be using it as my primary source of navigation?
Not only will it kill the battery (and lead to needing an earlier replacement phone), but I also risk breaking it in a crash.
Or having it stolen the next time I forget to take it off the bike when I park it up in town.
So if motorcycle sat nav units are expensive, and smartphones are even more expensive, what do we do?
Buy A Cheap-Ass Sat Nav
Here at Motorcycle Tourer HQ, we have two dedicated motorcycle sat nav units. We have the Garmin Zumo 395LM, and (yet another) TomTom Rider 400.
We also have numerous navigational apps both on Apple and Android smartphones.
So we went out and bought a used Garmin nüvi 57LM.
Developed for cars, it cost around £100 (new) in 2015.
We purchased it for £9.95 (plus £5 postage) on eBay. And then we applied Garmin lifetime maps to it and attached it to a mount on one of our bikes.
The result is a cheap-as-chips motorcycle sat nav that won’t overheat and is visible in harsh sunlight.
The sat nav will stay fixed on the bike. Am I bothered if it gets stolen? Well yes, of course. But it’s not the end of the world if it does.
And who wants to steal a 5-year-old, bottom-of-the-range Garmin anyway?
If it gets smashed, it will be the least of my worries – I’ll still have my nice, new, expensive iPhone tucked away safely in my top box to use in emergencies.