Nine iPhone GPS Navigation Apps Compared
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.
On-the-fly map programs download data when they plot routes, and cache info to create 2D and 3D maps. However, they all need to access the network for map browsing, even on routes on which you're already engaged. You need to be on a network, preferably 3G or Wi-Fi, when plotting a route, looking for detours, or pulling up traffic information with software that offers that option.
MotionX allows extensive caching of data, however, letting you store up to 2 GB of downloaded map and related information. The program doesn't age this data out, though, and you need to purge the cache manually to ensure you have the latest road data.
The three over-the-air packages, AT&T Navigator, MotionX GPS Drive, and GoKivo GPS Navigator, provide whatever the latest mapping information is available, but the recurring fee may turn some people off. On the flip side, you can taste the service for a month before committing to a non-refundable $35 to $100.
AT&T's app, a free download, has the highest subscription price of the three live-downloads apps, but in testing it was worth the money. Using AT&T's free MyWireless app, you can turn service on or off for a month at a time. The roughly $120 per year price for continuous use, including traffic data, may ultimately compare favorably to flat-fee apps when traffic fees and map updates are figured in.
MotionX and GoKivo include 30 days of navigation services in their respective purchase prices ($2.99 and $4.99). In-app purchases allow extensions of 30 days for the same price or a year ($24.99 for MotionX, $39.99 for GoKivo). Without an active subscription, GoKivo disables voice and automatic turn-by-turn navigation; GoKivo disables all navigation, leaving maps and POI browsing.
Overall, AT&T Navigator was the best app among those with low prices, recurring monthly fees, and small app sizes; among the large apps with pre-loaded maps, Navigon MobileNavigator scored the highest. Combining decent quality with a low price, MotionX was the best bargain among all the apps I reviewed.
The App Rundown
AT&T Navigator, Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice . $10 per month, AT&T Services.
Pros: Simple but powerful selection interface; best integration of traffic data; best Contacts address parsing; voice recognition for destination.
Cons: High recurring monthly fee for ongoing usage; no POI display; requires live network for destination selection and traffic data.
CoPilot Live North America, Macworld rated 3 out of 5 mice . $35, ALK Technologies.
Pros: Excellent display and selection of POIs, easy drag method to browse active navigation map, multi-point itinerary manager, inexpensive.
Cons: Some navigation failures, confusing non-standard interface.
GoKivo GPS Navigator, Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice . $5 for 30 days, $40 per year; Networks in Motion.
Pros: Integrated traffic alerts, rerouting; easy to select points along route for quick view; brings up option to call or get more information for selected POIs; allows podcast selection along with great iPod control; inexpensive.
Cons: Clunky process to select destination; GPS fix poor; lag for updating current position often too long; lacks common useful features.
iGo My way North America, Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice . $80, NNG Global Services.
Pros: Smooth, seamless animation; superb onscreen cues for upcoming choices; superior interface design choices; specific promise of map updates til Dec. 2010.
Cons: No text to speech; needs improvement on recognizing Contacts addresses.
Magellan RoadMate 2010 North America, Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice . $100, MiTac Digital.
Pros: Clean interface allows rapid selection; uses popup signs and streets to aid; text-to-speech voice quality excellent.
Cons: Contacts-selection interface is of middling quality; can't pick destination from map.
MobileNavigator North America, Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice . $90, Navigon.
Pros: Excellent text-to-speech voice; GPS refresh and navigation animation smoothness notably above average; flat-fee traffic add-on.
Cons: Poor Contacts address recognition; coarse 3D display over-busy with POIs.
MotionX GPS Drive, Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice . $3 for 30 days, $25 per year; Fullpower Technologies.
Pros: Inexpensive; many options to select destination; caching options for offline use; terrific options for finding nearby POIs.
Cons: Map labels too small; can't show POIs on map; lack of traffic data in subscription app; can't pick point on a map.
Sygic Mobile Maps U.S., Macworld rated 2 out of 5 mice . $40, Sygic.
Pros: Detailed POI information; good night colors.
Cons: Difficult interface; fails to recognize Contacts addresses; TTS voice quality poor; no integral iPod control.
TomTom U.S. & Canada, Macworld rated 3.5 out of 5 mice . $100, TomTom. (As we were preparing this story, TomTom announced a cheaper, U.S.-only edition as well.)
Pros: Excellent voice quality for TTS; with car kit allows GPS navigation on original iPhone, any iPod touch
Cons: Worse continuous GPS fix than most other apps; spinning display continuously in some circumstances; too close a copy to standalone units
Mobile Navigation Devices vs. the iPhone
GPS navigation devices have dropped considerably in price in the last couple of years, and it's possible to find hardware for $120 to $200 that has most or all the features present in iPhone GPS applications that cost from $30 to $100 or $3 to $10 per month.
This doesn't seem like much more than some of the apps or subscription prices, and you may be tempted to opt for a dedicated device. However, there are tradeoffs. First off, standalone devices include only the map they shipped with; some manufacturers offer a free update if new maps are released within 60 days of purchase. But if you want to keep the device up to date with the latest maps, you can spend $40 to $100 per year (more with factory-installed car GPS units) for map updates. iPhone GPS apps with a fixed price will likely also charge for updates, too, although it's unclear just how and when that might happen.
Second, the user interface and interaction on the more affordable navigators is quite poor compared to the best of the iPhone GPS apps. Data entry is tedious, touchscreen behavior slow, and displays seem coarse and blocky. iPhone apps use Apple's or a company's rendering modules or libraries for typically smooth animation, along with quick and simple shifts among 2D and 3D views.
On the flip side, in testing with an inexpensive and recently released Garmin GPS, the rate of refresh--the frequency at which the map was updated to reflect the current position--was better than all the iPhone software tested. That's a function of a device optimized for GPS antenna position and accuracy.
Most of the iPhone software we tested didn't lag much, although at times could be several to a few dozen feet behind in the worse cases; the TomTom car kit with the TomTom app created a refresh rate seemingly as perfect as the Garmin device.
Standalone GPS units are also larger: the screen resolution may be poorer than an iPhone (the absolute number of pixels), but the larger size can make the display easier to read.
The Competition: Google Navigation for Android
What if you could get a full package of GPS-based navigation at no cost: no upfront rate, no monthly cost, live over the network? Google wants to oblige with Google Navigation.
I tested this service, available initially on the Verizon Droid phone that uses the Google-backed Android 2.0 operating system. Google also released a version compatible with phones running or upgradable to Android 1.6.
In areas where most navigation systems--standalone and iPhone-based--shine, such as entering a destination address or changing settings, Google Navigation was horrible. You must enter a destination or select from contacts using the Maps directions feature, which works nearly the same as in iPhone Maps.
After plotting a direction, Navigate appears as an option at the top of a list of turn-by-turn directions. This launches what appears to be a separate application. Changing the destination requires tapping the back arrow button, which jumps you back into Maps.
Once you're in the Navigation app, however, the display and operation is as good or better than all the iPhone apps I tested--possibly because Google has top-to-bottom access to all the functions of the phone and operating system. Animation is smoother than any iPhone app, and the view continuously changes as is needed for context. Sometimes, it's presented as a flat 2D overview for a confusing set of turns; other times, it's a receding 3D view that resizes based on speed and direction. The design and presentation is lovely.
When you near a destination, the program switches to Google Street View (if available) showing you what you'll see from the same perspective.
Google could release Navigation for the iPhone, as there's no particular aspect of the service that would appear to violate Apple's terms. Like Google Voice, Navigation would compete with an AT&T subscription offering, but that seems even less likely to matter in this case.
Two iPhone GPS Power Tips
While all the software tested can work in portrait or landscape mode, I found myself continually reverted back to portrait mode. It's the orientation I'm most used to reading in. Polarized sunglasses interfere with a rotated iPhone 3GS screen, rendering the display nearly invisible, too.
If you use the iPod function on your iPhone constantly while driving, pay close attention to our discussion of iPod integration within the GPS applications. While you can exit a GPS app, change iPod settings, and launch the app again without any of the applications we tested losing your destination, that's a lot of fuss. Some apps also handle voice-over speaking poorly when the iPod is playing. Some applications don't allow you to select podcasts, although they will continue to play and control them if selected in the iPod app.
The Road Ahead
If you think there are a lot of GPS navigation apps now, just wait: more appear to be announced for sale every day. The most important part of a GPS app is that it's just a tool that should easily get you safely and reliably between any two points you specify.
In my testing, no program failed to deliver on that promise, but the combination of ease of use and the specific features each firm put into their software should help steer you--pun intended--to the right app for your needs.
[Glenn Fleishman doesn't know where the heck he is right now, but he apparently lives in Seattle, and writes regularly for Macworld about networking. Glenn's most recent book is Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network, updated for Snow Leopard.]