January 14, 2011, 10:25 AM — 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.