When Apple said the iPhone 3G would include a GPS receiver, everyone immediately assumed we'd get turn-by-turn direction software, too. Not quite. It took a while for the iPhone OS to mature enough--but with iPhone OS 3, we've been inundated with turn-by-turn GPS apps. Here's a review of nine GPS navigation applications that are worth a look. Nav development is quite active, and nearly all of the nine apps I reviewed were updated with modest to significant improvements between October and December 2009.
Fundamentally, each application serves the same purpose: you choose a destination, and the application provides graphical navigation of the path, accompanying that navigation with visual and spoken cues for making turns or identifying upcoming road changes. Some programs integrate live or statistical traffic information to provide better routing. I looked at the software for how well it got us from point to A to B (and sometimes point C) without putting virtual roadblocks in our way.
Like snowflakes, no two programs are identical, even though many share the same mapping or other data sources.
iPhone Navigation Apps
AT&T Navigator: $10/mo, 2MB, v1.3i
CoPilot Live North America: $35, 1.3GB, v126.96.36.1999
GoKivo GPS Navigator: $5*, 2.7MB, v4.4.3
iGo My way 2009 (N.A.): $80, 1GB, v1.1
Magellan RoadMate 2010 N.A: $100, 1.4GB, v1.0
MobileNavigator N.A: $90, 1.5GB, v1.3.0
MotionX GPS Drive: $3**, 10MB, v2.5
Sygic Mobile Maps U.S: $40, 1.7GB, v7.71.5
TomTom U.S. & Canada: $100, 1.2GB, v1.2
You can't just download a GPS app from the App Store and hit the road. In order to take full advantage of using the iPhone as a navigational aid, you'll need two key accessories.
Charging cable: Using the GPS sucks power like nobody's business, draining a full battery in a couple of hours. You will want a car-power adapter, likely one that also provides audio output; or if your car stereo lacks iPod integration with USB charging, you may want to upgrade to a model that supports that. If you use an integrated iPod stereo, consider which apps talk over music and which pause playback.
Windshield mount: Oh, yes, you will want some kind of mount. It's critical that the iPhone has a line of sight as good as possible to the sky, and resting your iPhone somewhere or hoping it works in the passenger seat isn't a real option for regular navigation use. I recommend the Kensington windshield mount, which has a long positionable arm, making it possible to move the phone to a better viewing angle that was more reachable when stopped at traffic lights or pulled over. The arm can vibrate while driving. (Kensington Windshield Mount for iPod and iPhone, $30.)
Navigation software for the iPhone should take advantage of the device's unique characteristics. Some developers took that to heart and created well-organized, powerful programs that allow rapid selection of destinations and easy access to settings. Others ported interfaces from other mobile operating systems or standalone GPS devices, taking little or no care to create programs that are consistent with how other iPhone applications work.
Navigation apps should be able to select an address via the system-wide address book that Apple provides, and control iPod playback. Most programs do a terrible job at dealing with Contacts entries and other destination-selected choices, and a decent-to-great job with iPod control.
I tested many addresses from my Contacts list that I use routinely in the iPhone's native Maps app without trouble. MobileNavigator, CoPilot Live, Magellan RoadMate, and iGo My way had trouble with at least half the addresses tried, while TomTom, GPS Drive, and GoKivo were able to decipher most.
AT&T Navigator was the gold standard, correctly plotting every address attempted, performing even better than Maps at locating a rural fire road in Maine. Sygic was the worst, with the software unable to find any of the addresses attempted, and displaying street numbers after street names or Zip codes.
All apps provide you with multiple ways to select a destination, typically including from a map, by entering a street address or intersection, or searching on a business name or person's name. In some cases, entering addresses is tedious, though, requiring the selection of a country, then state, then city, then street name, then house or building number. CoPilot Live failed to allow entry of a common street in Seattle.
AT&T Navigator adds the option of voice recognition by calling a California number. In testing, my dad's address in Port Townsend couldn't be recognized by voice (AT&T insisted that N. Victory Ave was N. Geary Ave), although it was available on a map; other addresses worked just fine.
iPod control is also an oddly important part of GPS navigation for anyone who routinely listens to music or podcasts while driving. You don't want to switch out of a program to use the iPod features, and I have found the double-Home-button press to bring up floating iPod controls doesn't work reliably, sometimes exiting the currently running app unless you press it just right. (All the programs I reviewed, when relaunched with a destination selected, either automatically reusme the route in progress, or prompt you to resume the route.)
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iPod control also varies whether you're using an auxiliary input jack on a car stereo or "head-end" integration via a dock connector. Sygic is the only app to lack an integral iPod control. The rest vary from forward, back, and play/pause controls to full selection via an iPod sheet as if you were in the iPod app. All of the apps with iPod control will play podcasts that were selected and are already playing; only GoKivo and MotionX allow podcast selection in the app.
Five of the programs speak right over iPod playback, and did so regardless of how the iPhone was connected to the car stereo. The other four programs, which pause iPod playback before speaking, automatically restarted the audio when connected via the headphone jack, but audio had to be restarted manually when I connected them via the dock connector to an integrated stereo system. TomTom paused the stereo, and in some driving sessions would auto-resume, but in others would not.
AT&T Navigator was particularly irritating, because the program is talky: it tells you quite a bit about what's going on, with no controls to make it less prolix. I was forced to constantly press the resume button on the stereo to keep iPod playback going.
On The Road
Once you tap Go or Navigate or Drive to start the navigation process, you may find different features en route to have different levels of utility to you. Sometimes, this may vary by the trip you take.
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Traffic: AT&T Navigator, CoPilot, GoKivo, and MobileNavigator offer the option to show traffic alerts and use traffic information for route planning and rerouting. Drivers who travel extensively in urban areas will find traffic data a necessity. AT&T and GoKivo include traffic as part of the subscription price for their live services; MobileNavigator and CoPilot offer it as a $20 in-app upgrade. In testing, all but CoPilot provided an outstanding amount of information in the form of warnings, details of turn-by-turn problems ahead, and re-routing.
Lanes, signs, and indicators: Each package approaches what it shows on screen in different ways. While all show or offer a 3D view, you can typically set what kinds of additional information is shown: current speed, maximum speed (where known), estimated time and distance to arrival, and so forth. The best of the navigation software shows a popup lane position, identifying which of multiple lanes you need to be in to either make an exit or avoid being forced off on an exit. Some software also pops up simulated street signs, much like highway signs, to offer more cues for which exit or direction to take. iGo My way is, by far, the best at offering lane and sign indicators.
Spoken streets: While all the software provides voice cues for right, left, ahead, and so forth, MotionX GPS Drive and iGo My way lack the ability to use text to speech (TTS) to attempt to pronounce street names. In some cases, you have to select a special TTS voice that is rougher than standard voice. TomTom and Navigon's TTS voices are the best among those tested; GoKivo's is quite mechanical; Sygic's is even more artificial sounding.
Multi-point routing: Getting from A to B to C seems logical, but most of the software we reviewed lacks any or a straightforward way to achieve that. AT&T Navigator, GoKivo, Sygic, MotionX can only go from A to B. TomTom, MobileNavigator, and iGo My way let you set points A and C first, and then insert an intermediate B. Magellan RoadMate lets you tack destinations on to the end of your route. Only CoPilot Live has an itinerary management tool: you can create multiple points, re-order them, and delete them. This seems an obvious area for improvement in the other apps.
Avoidance: If you'd prefer not to pay tolls, drive on highways, or use ferries, among other transportation options, each software package has a different set of preferences, except GoKivo, which has none.
Points of interest (POIs): The term POI is so common that many firms have forgotten to spell it out or explain it within the software. They're not talking about a Hawaiian side dish, but rather about businesses and resources along a route. The apps vary enormously when it comes to which POIs they display, whether POIs appear when you're driving or just when you're standing still (and whether that can be turned on or off), and the ability to set which kinds of POIs show up (just gas stations, for example).
Other means of transport: Most of the apps I reviewed offer routes other than for cars. Most that have alternatives let you choose among driving, walking, or biking; some add truck and motorcycle options to let you avoid roads that would be problematic for either kind of vehicle.
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All at Once, or a Little at a Time
What's the difference between $3 per month, $10 per month, $40 forever and $100 forever (although not really forever)? It's a quite complex calculation. The cheapest apps didn't score the worst in my testing, and the programs that charge on a monthly basis won't bleed you dry. (Prices are for U.S., U.S. and Canada, or North American software only, by the way; most navigation app makers have separate packages customized by country and land mass for varying amounts.)
The subscription-based apps may also lock you in to a single device. For example, AT&T Navigator is attached to a single phone number. In contrast, the flat-fee products can be installed on any iPhone OS device that's attached to your iTunes ID--meaning a family with two iPhones can buy them once and use them on both devices.
Six of the packages we reviewed charge flat fees, and include some level of promise about additional releases with upgraded maps. Prices range from $35 to $100 with CoPilot and Sygic on the low end, and the rest between $80 and $100. Sales, however, are frequent--and as we post this, several apps are available for $10 or more off the regular price.
Flat-fee packages are huge downloads--from 1 GB to 1.7 GB--incorporating the full map database into the program itself, meaning that even if you leave a cellular coverage area, you'll have access to the entire map database. Every time there's a new version of the app, you'll need to download the entire file--with the exception of CoPilot, which has an internal update function. You should download these packages via iTunes and sync them to your iPhone--it's a much more reliable experience.
All the makers of the flat-fee apps expect to release some number of free map updates. iGo My way explicitly says map updates will be included for purchasers through December 2010 on a quarterly basis. The other five companies won't be pinned down on specifics.
This isn't unusual for navigation products. Standalone GPS hardware requires paid updates after purchase for yearly updates or quarterly updates sold on a yearly basis. These can run from $40 to $100 for typical devices for each update.