Apps with maps: 11 iPhone GPS apps compared

One year later, the iOS GPS apps market is much improved

The world of iOS-based GPS navigation apps has matured since we last reviewed this category, and the situation has improved. These apps are designed to mimic standalone navigation hardware, those dash-mounted or in-dash devices that guide you to a destination, navigating with the aid of visual cues and maps and often complemented with spoken directions and street names. Both standalone devices and iOS apps can integrate live traffic information for alerts and active rerouting, too.

Among the biggest developments since I last reviewed these apps: Apple released the iPhone 4, with its faster processor and higher-resolution display; Apple released iOS 4, which offers background location updates for navigation programs; AT&T started metering cellular data usage for all new accounts; and Apple released the 3G iPad, which includes its own GPS receiver.

The app developers have been busy, too. Most apps have gone through substantial revisions and improvements, with notable fixes to iPod music control, performance, and address recognition. Still, some basic problems in user interface and finding addresses remain. A few apps haven’t been updated in several months or longer, lacking full iOS compatibility and support. Others retain clunky interfaces borrowed from standalone GPS hardware with vastly less capability than iOS devices.

In this round-up, we revisit 11 apps (dropping one that’s no longer available for sale). Testing was done in and around Seattle, Washington.

Editor's note: We didn't test Garmin StreetPilot, which was released in early January, but will add it to a follow-up review.

The iOS 4 factor

iOS 4 brought many changes, like folders for organizing apps and an app bar that can be popped up for switching. But the big changes for navigation software are background location updates and fast-app switching.

Background updates allow navigation apps to receive a stream of live GPS coordinates even though the software obviously can’t show such updates on a map. You can tell that background location updates are happening, even without voice or text prompts, if you see the location arrow in the upper right corner of the iPhone’s display.

Fast-app switching can be used by developers to resume an app from where you left off. In the case of navigation apps, fast-app switching nearly immediately displays your current location on a map when you resume.

With a route underway in an app, directions appear in one of two ways when you exit the navigation program. If you answer an incoming phone call or switch to place a call, iOS 4 savvy apps will use text notifications for directions. Because these notifications need to be dismissed, it could be a distraction on top of the phone call. If you switch to another app, the navigation program will continue to offer spoken directions. (Some apps let you modify those default behaviors, too.)

You can’t force iOS 4 to keep a program running after that app has been switched into the background. If you swap among enough apps, it’s possible your navigation app will be purged to free up memory, although in my testing it seemed to be the case that programs with active background operations are ranked higher in the priority list.

Using GPS navigation uses massive amounts of power, and that’s true even if your navigation app is running in the background. Because you could be listening to audio (also available in the background), running navigation, and using other programs, your battery can drain very quickly unless it’s plugged into a car charger. (You might consider focusing on driving.)

Because these apps can now run in the background, being able to cancel out of navigation mode when you’re done using them is essential—just pressing the home button won’t do the job. Several nav apps make it simple to cancel a route before exiting. Navigon MobileNavigator and AT&T Navigator, have a button on the navigation screen you tap to cancel or stop routing. Other apps nest such a button one level deep. However, a few apps haven’t yet been revised to make this simpler. TomTom requires tapping three levels down to clear a route, for instance.

Some programs lack any obvious way to purge a route. In those extreme cases, you must force-quit the app by switching to another app or going to the home screen, double-tapping on the home button, and holding your finger down on the nav app in question until an x in a circle appears in the app icon’s upper-right corner; tap that to kill it off, free up memory, and preserve your battery life.

You need iOS 4 installed on an iPhone 3GS or 4 to take advantage of background navigation. The iPhone 3G has a GPS chip, but lacks the specs to run background tasks. The iPad update to iOS 4.2 lets those devices work with location in the background, too, but only the 3G model has a GPS receiver; the Wi-Fi-only iPad isn’t capable.

Only GoKivo (last updated Nov. 2009) and G-Map (last updated Feb. 2010) lack fast-app switching and background navigation. We cannot recommend such programs because they require that you change the way you have likely gotten used to using your iPhone in iOS 4, when you don’t need to make that compromise. Most apps have a lot of room for improvement for an easy (but not accidental) way to cancel a route before switching out.

iPad navigation

The notion of using a 3G iPad for in-car navigation seems a tad bizarre, but it’s possible, especially if you have a larger car and can figure out a good way to mount it. At this writing, four developers have released iPad versions of their apps: Navigon has updated its MobileNavigator app to run as a universal app on the iPad, as has Sygic for its Mobile Maps app; MotionX GPS Drive HD ($3, requires subscription for voice cues and traffic updates), and CoPilot Live HD North America ($30) are available as separate apps. iPad navigation apps make good use of the expanded territory, providing larger navigation elements (like buttons and arrows), and breaking out instructions into separate panes.

GPS apps otherwise generally work on the 3G iPad in the iPhone/iPod touch compatibility mode in which apps are centered in the middle of the screen, but can be pixel doubled (blurring graphics) by tapping the 2x button.

Get accessorized

You could just download a GPS app from the App Store and hit the road. But 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, $25.)

Two kinds of apps

The 11 iPhone GPS apps I tested can be split into two categories: apps that come with bundled maps and cost from $5 to $50, and apps that download map data only when necessary, and generally charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. CoPilot offers both options as separate apps. (For a complete list of the apps I tested, see the table “iPhone Navigation apps,” above.)

Which kind of app is a better buy? 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 or yearly basis won’t bleed you dry.

We tested the United States versions of apps, where available; U.S./Canada combos or North American editions are typically $10 more. In the last year, several apps added U.S.-only versions. Most navigation app makers have separate packages customized by country and land mass with a different price for each.

Among subscription-based apps, only AT&T Navigator is attached to a single phone number; ALK Technologies’ CoPilot requires separate registration and serial number entry with the program; and MotionX keeps track of your voice-navigation subscription, allowing it to be used on one device at a time. All the other products I tested can be installed on any iPhone OS device that’s attached to your iTunes ID—meaning a family that syncs with one account and multiple iPhones and 3G iPads can buy the apps once and use them on all their devices.

Eight of the apps we reviewed charge one-time flat fees and include some promises about additional releases with upgraded maps. Last year, I had hoped the upgrade situation would be clearer in 2010. Guess what? It’s not. In the last year nearly every program has been updated every few weeks to months with bug fixes, new features, and updated maps. (Copilot offers multiple versions of its software for the U.S. and North America, including apps with internal maps and over-the-air live retrievals. We reviewed its flat-fee U.S. version.)

We suspect that navigation apps will eventually become yearly editions that continue to work in subsequent years without support or further updates. Developers might also switch to in-app fees for map updates downloaded directly into the program. (Standalone GPS devices can levy $40 to $100 per year fees for map updates, so this isn’t unprecedented.)

Flat-fee packages are huge downloads incorporating the full map database with the program file. The ones we tested range from 1.2 GB to 1.8 GB. This has the advantage that full maps are always with you, even away from cellular coverage areas, and you don’t use up cellular data downloading map data.

Every time there’s a new version of the app, however, you’ll need to download the entire file—with the exception of CoPilot, which has an internal update function, and TomTom, which recently added a way to integrate small updates. You should download full app updates via iTunes and sync them to your iPhone or iPad. Even though you can download such updates over Wi-Fi, I’ve found Wi-Fi updating unreliable for such large apps.

On-the-fly map programs download some data when they plot routes, and cache a subset of the information needed to create 2D and 3D maps. MotionX lets you simulate the route, which it can zoom through at up to eight times normal driving, and cache mapping data as it goes. But the company recommends using this at only 2x speed, which seems a bit ridiculous for a long route.

MotionX can cache up to 2 GB of data, the quantity of which is a user setting. It’s not clear how or if it ages out over time, but you can manually purge the cache. Other apps don’t expose how they cache and age out map and route data.

If you stray outside the planned area over-the-air apps need to access the network for new information or re-routing. You also need to be on a network when plotting a route, looking for detours, or having traffic information update with software that offers that option.

All these map, traffic, and route downloads create a problem if your network plan limits data and charges for overages, as do all AT&T plans for new customers starting in June 2010, or for existing customer who downgrade plans to save money. (Carriers outside the U.S. either limit usage and charge overage fees, or cap usage at a certain limit with a billing cycle, and then reduce network speeds to 64 Kbps for the remainder of the month.)

You might want to track your cellular data usage, too, as over-the-air GPS programs will download as much data as they need while you’re navigating your path. While this is a small amount of vector and descriptive data per screen, some apps include rudimentary 3D building models or outlines, and you’re downloading over the course of however long your drive is.

The recurring in-app or out-of-app subscription fee for over-the-air apps may turn some people off. On the flip side, you can pay for a month of service to test it out before committing to a non-refundable $15 to $50 fee. The one exception here is MapQuest 4 Mobile, which is entirely free to download and use. It ties in with MapQuest and Yahoo’s local advertising services, which explains the lack of a fee. The service works quite well, although it lacks some features frequent travelers will require.

AT&T’s app, a free download, has the highest subscription price of the five live-download apps, but in my 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 $10-per-month fee is fine for occasional use, given the high quality of the app and its traffic data. You can also subscribe to AT&T Navigator for a full year for $70, comparable to the cost of flat-fee apps when traffic fees and map updates are figured in. (AT&T doesn’t pro-rate the yearly price; cancellation is possible only within the first 30 days.)

MotionX ($1) and GoKivo (free) include an initial 30 days of navigation services after installation and activation. MotionX charges $3 for 30 days or $25 a year for automatic turn-by-turn directions. GoKivo is $5 for 30 days or $33 for a year for navigation.

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