Ireland by GPS and SatNav

Satellite Navigation on Irish Roads

Printed map or GPS-supported navigation systems? The choice is yours, but I still prefer "old school" for both detail and the big picture
© Bernd Biege 2016

Satellite navigation (satnav) has really taken off in Ireland over the last few years. The combination of a global positioning system (GPS) and a digital map is the must-have gadget for many drivers (and one of the major causes of car break-ins).

But is it a must-have for travelers touring Ireland? Many car rental companies offer them for hire ... and if you have a smartphone, it'll more than likely be included anyway.

Basics - How Satellite Navigation Works

The late, great Arthur C. Clarke once remarked that any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic - satnav qualifies in my eyes. A tiny box knows where you are and will give you unerring directions to your next destination. Even if you miss an exit or confuse left with right. Pure magic.

Actually, satnavs are a low-budget, single-purpose combination of two systems - a computer storing a road map and a GPS receiver. The GPS pinpoints your current location in real time. The computer then calculates the "best" route to your destination and guides you along it, again using the ever-changing GPS information to verify your position and direction of travel.

The output of the satnav is visual on a smallish screen, most will also provide voice instructions. Which might be too much for many users - the voices are devoid of personality and inflection, simply getting on your nerves after a while (then again, you may fall in love with the newer versions).

Satnav on the smartphone might be different, the maps for instance wouldn't be stored on the device, but be pulled down from the internet. This might make a difference if you do not have network coverage (or enough credit to use it).

Ireland - Still a SatNav Backwater?

No - while a few years ago electronic maps of Ireland tended to be very basic and even non-existent in some areas, this situation has improved dramatically. Ongoing projects do, however, necessitate frequent updates of the maps stored in a satnav. Try to be equipped with the newest version possible.

There have been a few complaints regarding the frequency of updates. Ireland is not a big market - some manufacturers seem content to update only occasionally.

The Pros of Using Satnav in Ireland

There are definite pros that make a satnav system desirable when touring Ireland:

  • Accurate information and directions in real time - except for rally drivers with experienced navigators or special forces teams nobody will have better directions. No questions about which way up the map should be, no "hang on, I think that was the wrong left".
  • Minimizes distraction - admit it, even if you trust your navigator, you'll still be glancing at the map. Dangerous. And driving while looking at a map could prove fatal.
  • Near impossibility of getting lost - even if you power the satnav down and follow backroads for two hours, it will know your position seconds after switching on. And get you out of there.
  • Updates can be incorporated fast - reprints of maps take years.

The Cons of Using Satnav in Ireland

To be perfectly honest, satnav systems have disadvantages too:

  • Directions depend on map accuracy - cheap satnavs with older maps may still get you from A to B, but not necessarily the quickest way.
  • No "to be opened" information - conventional maps often have new, planned routes penciled in. This is impossible on a satnav. So if you happen upon a newly opened stretch of road your satnav might think you are in the middle of a field.
  • Provides no "roadside information" - one of the attractions when travelling is looking at maps and discovering that by a ten-minute-detour you might visit a castle or scenic viewing point. Satnav will ignore these attractions unless they are part of the package.
  • Break-in risk - most people are happy to leave a satnav in plain view when parking the car. "Smash and grab" break-ins have since increased in Dublin and other urban areas.
  • User error - Unfortunately, reliance on technology has become so widespread that drivers wanting to go from Dublin to Kells in County Meath do not notice that the satnav guides them to Kells in County Kilkenny instead.

Navigating Ireland by Satellite - The Choice is Yours

If you feel that there is a major benefit in having a satnav with you, by all means take one. But do not rely on it exclusively - while the satnav takes the pain (or pleasure) out of planning a route from A to B, you will have to decide on which B you want to go to and what points between you would like to visit. No technical tool can do this for you. 

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