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.]

11 iPhone GPS apps reviewed

Software Rating Developer Version tested Price iOS 4 support iPad version? Traffic
AT&T Navigator AT&T 1.7.5i $10/mo. or $70/yr Yes No Yes
CoPilot Live ALK Technologies 8.2.0.381 $5†† Yes Yes ($30) Yes ($10-$20/year
G-Map Xroad 2.1 $50 No No Yes, $8/year
GoKivo Networks in Motion 4.4.3 Free* No No Yes
iGo My way NNG Global Services 1.3.1 $50 Yes No No
Magellan RoadMate MiTAC Digital 1.3.2 $50 Yes No Yes (free)
MapQuest 4 Mobile MapQuest 2.3.1 Free Yes No Yes (free)
Mobile Maps Sygic 8.2 $30 Yes Universal No
MobileNavigator Navigon 1.7.0 $50 Yes Universal $20
MotionX GPS Drive Fullpower Technologies 8.0 $1** Yes Yes ($3)** Yes ($20/year)
TomTom TomTom International 1.6 $50 Yes No $20/year

Price listed is for lowest-cost version that offers maps of entire U.S.

*GoKivo includes 30 days of voice-guided
turn-by-turn navigation at no cost. In-app purchases of 30 days ($5) or 1
year($33) are available. Without an active in-app purchase, the
application provides maps and POI data only, not navigation (with or
without a voice). **MotionX (regular and HD) includes 30 days of voice
and automatic turn-by-turn navigation in the $1 purchase price. In-app
purchases of 30 days ($3) or 1 year ($25) are available. Without an
active in-app purchase, the application provides manual turn-by-turn
navigation like the Maps app, and other map features. †amAze GPS is free
to download, but requires $34 per year purchase for activation.
††CoPilot’s $5 price tag includes unlimited navigation use, but TTS is
an extra, one-time in-app purchase ($3). A free over the air version
includes 30 days of free voice navigation.

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


MotionX HD offers jumbo navigation for iPad 3G users.

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.)


AT&T Navigator (left) and Navigon MobileNavigator (right).

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.

Entering addresses


Sygic’s app failed to find addresses reliably.

Navigation
software for the iPhone should take advantage of the device’s unique
characteristics. Some developers have taken that to heart and created
well-organized, powerful programs that allow rapid selection of
destinations and easy access to settings. Others have 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.

One of the keenest places to find whether an app understands iOS and
its users’ expectations is in entering a destination address. Last
year, it was more reasonable that some apps didn’t offer perfect address
handling, whether using the built-in Contacts list or in entering
locations by hand. Some European companies clearly didn’t understand
U.S. address formats, too.

However, a year later, it’s pretty much unforgivable if a standard
North American address is rejected or can’t be recognized. And,
unfortunately, I found that many poor performers last year in dealing
with addresses remained poor this year. Honestly, how hard is it to
strip “#102”, “Apt. 53A”, or “Suite 207” from an address? Several apps
can, making it even more glaring in those that can’t.

Sygic is the worst offender, especially after the low rating awarded
by Macworld last year, and correspondence I had with the company
providing addresses to test. Sygic did not recognize this was a flaw in
the program. Dozens of addresses from my Contacts list failed last year;
this year, only Apple’s succeeded—and then because the program ignored
the “1” in “1 Infinite Loop.” The app also loads addresses slowly into a
list; all other apps tested that use Contacts pop them up instantly. (I
retested after the company released version 8.2 in December, which
promised better address recognition. The same problems persisted.)

With other apps, I tested a dozen or more routine addresses from my
Contacts list, as well as some particularly difficult ones, such as a
fire road in a small town in Maine. AT&T remains at the top of the
list, plotting every addresses attempted, and resolving locations even
better than the Maps app. MapQuest was just a step or two behind,
recognizing almost all addresses, and providing a popup suggestion for
those it couldn’t that were all correct or extremely close to the
destination. MotionX is also quite good.

TomTom had the greatest improvement. Last year, the program could
match more than half the addresses I tested; this year, it found all.
The two it could not, it offered step-by-step searches to resolve its
confusion, leading to the correct location. CoPilot also improved, and
offered a similar guided process for addresses it cannot recognize, but
half the addresses tested needed more help or couldn’t be matched.
GoKivo also made great strides, missing only a couple of obscure
addresses, although it placed my Seattle office in North Dakota.

iGO My way perversely performed worse, sometimes with the same
addresses, matching less than a third of those tested. It showed an
unhelpful “No usable address found” error with no guidance. G-Map,
RoadMate, MobileNavigator, and CoPilot continue to miss about half of
dozens of addresses tried, and need improvement.

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.

TomTom’s new “navigate to a photo” option had me thinking at first
the company was cross-referencing with Google’s Street View using image
recognition, but it’s nothing that computationally crazy. You pick a
photo taken on your iPhone that has embedded location
information—available unless you’ve disabled that option—and it pulls up
the coordinates.

AT&T Navigator added the option of voice recognition by calling a
California phone number, which connects you to an automatic system. In
testing, my dad’s address in a small Washington town 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.

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.

Traffic Eight of the eleven apps 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, GoKivo, and MotionX include traffic
as part of the subscription price for their live services, while
MapQuest and Magellan offer it at no cost. CoPilot, G-Map, and TomTom
charge yearly subscription fees. Navigon MobileNavigator offers it as a
one-time in-app purchase.

Lanes and indicators Each package approaches what it
shows on screen in different ways. While all (except MapQuest) 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. The weakest apps in this area have improved, and
there’s no specific advantage—only differences—among the reviewed apps.

Spoken streets All reviewed apps now include
text-to-speech (TTS), in which street names and other landscape,
direction, or road features are spoken in addition to distances until a
turn or change. TTS has generally improved since 2009, when a few voices
were unacceptably rough.

However, well-known place names should also be called out and
corrected over time. In Southern Calfornia a few months ago, I heard
TomTom’s software flabbergastingly say, “Turn right to enter Loss
An-guh-less.” iGo myWay can’t say the word takes a hybrid approach,
offering a selection between a more natural-sounding voice and a TTS
voice. The natural voice only provides spoken names about 40 percent of
the time when it thinks it can synthesize them well using rules it’s
defined; the TTS voice is perfectly fine, but speaks all names. (The TTS
voice is a 55MB download within the app.)

Macworld’s buying advice

Many GPS apps have improved noticeably over the past year, leading
me to promote them to four-mouse ratings. AT&T boosted itself even
more strongly with subtle and obvious improvements, and its continued
superb recognition of addresses in Contacts. While the fee may seem
high, it’s hard to beat for accuracy, traffic integration, and good
directions. MapQuest, at no cost, is an extremely solid second choice
for over-the-air apps.

If you want to store maps on your device and not rely on cellular
access for navigation, TomTom and MobileNavigator now tie for first
place. Both need modest improvements, but you’ll be happy with either.
Their price, at this writing, is identical for U.S. editions.

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 reviewed 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 Five-Star Apps book (Peachpit Press) documents the best and most essential iOS apps.
]

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.]

11 iPhone GPS apps reviewed

Software Rating Developer Version tested Price iOS 4 support iPad version? Traffic
AT&T Navigator AT&T 1.7.5i $10/mo. or $70/yr Yes No Yes
CoPilot Live ALK Technologies 8.2.0.381 $5†† Yes Yes ($30) Yes ($10-$20/year
G-Map Xroad 2.1 $50 No No Yes, $8/year
GoKivo Networks in Motion 4.4.3 Free* No No Yes
iGo My way NNG Global Services 1.3.1 $50 Yes No No
Magellan RoadMate MiTAC Digital 1.3.2 $50 Yes No Yes (free)
MapQuest 4 Mobile MapQuest 2.3.1 Free Yes No Yes (free)
Mobile Maps Sygic 8.2 $30 Yes Universal No
MobileNavigator Navigon 1.7.0 $50 Yes Universal $20
MotionX GPS Drive Fullpower Technologies 8.0 $1** Yes Yes ($3)** Yes ($20/year)
TomTom TomTom International 1.6 $50 Yes No $20/year

Price listed is for lowest-cost version that offers maps of entire U.S.

*GoKivo includes 30 days of voice-guided
turn-by-turn navigation at no cost. In-app purchases of 30 days ($5) or 1
year($33) are available. Without an active in-app purchase, the
application provides maps and POI data only, not navigation (with or
without a voice). **MotionX (regular and HD) includes 30 days of voice
and automatic turn-by-turn navigation in the $1 purchase price. In-app
purchases of 30 days ($3) or 1 year ($25) are available. Without an
active in-app purchase, the application provides manual turn-by-turn
navigation like the Maps app, and other map features. †amAze GPS is free
to download, but requires $34 per year purchase for activation.
††CoPilot’s $5 price tag includes unlimited navigation use, but TTS is
an extra, one-time in-app purchase ($3). A free over the air version
includes 30 days of free voice navigation.

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


MotionX HD offers jumbo navigation for iPad 3G users.

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.)


AT&T Navigator (left) and Navigon MobileNavigator (right).

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.

Entering addresses


Sygic’s app failed to find addresses reliably.

Navigation
software for the iPhone should take advantage of the device’s unique
characteristics. Some developers have taken that to heart and created
well-organized, powerful programs that allow rapid selection of
destinations and easy access to settings. Others have 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.

One of the keenest places to find whether an app understands iOS and
its users’ expectations is in entering a destination address. Last
year, it was more reasonable that some apps didn’t offer perfect address
handling, whether using the built-in Contacts list or in entering
locations by hand. Some European companies clearly didn’t understand
U.S. address formats, too.

However, a year later, it’s pretty much unforgivable if a standard
North American address is rejected or can’t be recognized. And,
unfortunately, I found that many poor performers last year in dealing
with addresses remained poor this year. Honestly, how hard is it to
strip “#102”, “Apt. 53A”, or “Suite 207” from an address? Several apps
can, making it even more glaring in those that can’t.

Sygic is the worst offender, especially after the low rating awarded
by Macworld last year, and correspondence I had with the company
providing addresses to test. Sygic did not recognize this was a flaw in
the program. Dozens of addresses from my Contacts list failed last year;
this year, only Apple’s succeeded—and then because the program ignored
the “1” in “1 Infinite Loop.” The app also loads addresses slowly into a
list; all other apps tested that use Contacts pop them up instantly. (I
retested after the company released version 8.2 in December, which
promised better address recognition. The same problems persisted.)

With other apps, I tested a dozen or more routine addresses from my
Contacts list, as well as some particularly difficult ones, such as a
fire road in a small town in Maine. AT&T remains at the top of the
list, plotting every addresses attempted, and resolving locations even
better than the Maps app. MapQuest was just a step or two behind,
recognizing almost all addresses, and providing a popup suggestion for
those it couldn’t that were all correct or extremely close to the
destination. MotionX is also quite good.

TomTom had the greatest improvement. Last year, the program could
match more than half the addresses I tested; this year, it found all.
The two it could not, it offered step-by-step searches to resolve its
confusion, leading to the correct location. CoPilot also improved, and
offered a similar guided process for addresses it cannot recognize, but
half the addresses tested needed more help or couldn’t be matched.
GoKivo also made great strides, missing only a couple of obscure
addresses, although it placed my Seattle office in North Dakota.

iGO My way perversely performed worse, sometimes with the same
addresses, matching less than a third of those tested. It showed an
unhelpful “No usable address found” error with no guidance. G-Map,
RoadMate, MobileNavigator, and CoPilot continue to miss about half of
dozens of addresses tried, and need improvement.

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.

TomTom’s new “navigate to a photo” option had me thinking at first
the company was cross-referencing with Google’s Street View using image
recognition, but it’s nothing that computationally crazy. You pick a
photo taken on your iPhone that has embedded location
information—available unless you’ve disabled that option—and it pulls up
the coordinates.

AT&T Navigator added the option of voice recognition by calling a
California phone number, which connects you to an automatic system. In
testing, my dad’s address in a small Washington town 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.

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.

Traffic Eight of the eleven apps 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, GoKivo, and MotionX include traffic
as part of the subscription price for their live services, while
MapQuest and Magellan offer it at no cost. CoPilot, G-Map, and TomTom
charge yearly subscription fees. Navigon MobileNavigator offers it as a
one-time in-app purchase.

Lanes and indicators Each package approaches what it
shows on screen in different ways. While all (except MapQuest) 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. The weakest apps in this area have improved, and
there’s no specific advantage—only differences—among the reviewed apps.

Spoken streets All reviewed apps now include
text-to-speech (TTS), in which street names and other landscape,
direction, or road features are spoken in addition to distances until a
turn or change. TTS has generally improved since 2009, when a few voices
were unacceptably rough.

However, well-known place names should also be called out and
corrected over time. In Southern Calfornia a few months ago, I heard
TomTom’s software flabbergastingly say, “Turn right to enter Loss
An-guh-less.” iGo myWay can’t say the word takes a hybrid approach,
offering a selection between a more natural-sounding voice and a TTS
voice. The natural voice only provides spoken names about 40 percent of
the time when it thinks it can synthesize them well using rules it’s
defined; the TTS voice is perfectly fine, but speaks all names. (The TTS
voice is a 55MB download within the app.)

Macworld’s buying advice

Many GPS apps have improved noticeably over the past year, leading
me to promote them to four-mouse ratings. AT&T boosted itself even
more strongly with subtle and obvious improvements, and its continued
superb recognition of addresses in Contacts. While the fee may seem
high, it’s hard to beat for accuracy, traffic integration, and good
directions. MapQuest, at no cost, is an extremely solid second choice
for over-the-air apps.

If you want to store maps on your device and not rely on cellular
access for navigation, TomTom and MobileNavigator now tie for first
place. Both need modest improvements, but you’ll be happy with either.
Their price, at this writing, is identical for U.S. editions.

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 reviewed 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 Five-Star Apps book (Peachpit Press) documents the best and most essential iOS apps.
]


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