Navigation systems first debuted as pricey in-dash options available only on luxury cars, but soon became an expensive option across model lineups. This high cost fueled the portable navigation craze, stoked by low prices and the ability to carry them from car to car. In-dash nav and portables are now being threatened by a new trend: phone-based navigation.
Even though navigation applications (nav apps) were available long before the iPhone appeared, the device's popularity and the public's appetite for its attendant apps have helped kick-start phone-based navigation. We gathered seven of the latest iPhone nav apps and hit the highway to test them.
iPhone nav apps are typically half the sticker price of the lowest-priced portables, and many drivers prefer not having to carry two devices into the car. Like the latest portables, some nav apps offer Internet-connected search for Points of Interest (POI) and automatic map updates. But the screen of the iPhone and controls for the nav apps are even smaller than those of most portables, and only one app has a dedicated mount, which costs more than the application itself.
Most apps also require a large chunk of memory, and we found that they drain battery power at an alarming rate. Plus, with some, if you lose a cell signal, you can lose guidance. Keep in mind that while the iPhone has Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions, POI search and even real-time traffic, it doesn't offer text-to-speech spoken directions so that a driver doesn't have to look at the screen.
Below are the seven iPhone nav apps we tested, along with the pros and cons, our impressions of each one and a rating from 1 to 5 (5 being the best). All apps work with the iPhone 3G and 3GS and include mapping for the U.S. and Canada.
Price: Free app; $9.99 a month subscription
Pros: Pay-as-you-go pricing, fuel-price and real-time traffic info, takes up less memory than other apps, constantly updated maps.
Cons: Can cost more than other apps in the long run, no lane guidance, low volume for voice prompts.
Edmunds Rating: 3
AT&T Navigator is one of two apps we tested that are free but have a monthly subscription instead of a one-time fee. While this is ideal for people who only need the app for a short time or just want to try it, if you kept the AT&T app for a year, it would be the most expensive one in the test.
AT&T Navigator has an adequate user interface, was quick to route or reroute and features a fuel-finder and real-time traffic. Although the app doesn't offer Internet-connected POI search, it has more than 10 million listings, which are automatically and constantly updated along with the mapping software. And since mapping data is stored off-board and downloaded to the phone, the app takes up much less of the phone's memory.
On the downside, the voice prompts of AT&T Navigator were difficult to hear unless the iPhone was plugged into an aux-in jack or a USB port in a car with iPod integration. As with some of the apps we tested, this precludes listening to music at the same time. And unlike the best portables and OEM nav systems, AT&T Navigator doesn't have lane guidance.
Pros: Least expensive app, good user interface and graphics, speed-based map zooming, "live" local search.
Cons: Premium services such as real-time traffic and fuel prices cost extra, no lane guidance, voice used for street name announcements is hard to understand.
Edmunds Rating: 4
The CoPilot is not only the lowest-priced non-subscription app, but we also found that it successfully replicates the functions of most in-car and portable systems — and even surpasses them in some ways. It has real-time traffic and fuel-price information like the best factory and portable systems, and allows checking traffic on a route, near the route or in any city in the U.S.
As with the latest portables, it also features "live" Internet-connected search. And unlike many traditional car systems, CoPilot can switch between car, bicycle and walking modes to compute commute time and has an astounding 29 languages from which to choose.
The pitfalls of CoPilot include no pinch-zoom feature (instead zooming is done via two small plus and minus icons), a limited zoom-out scale and no lane guidance. And of the three guidance voices available, only one announces street names — and it's the most difficult to comprehend. Plus, traffic and fuel-price info are part of an extra-cost "premium" option.
Gokivo GPS Navigator
Price: $4.99 a month
Pros: Yahoo Local search, pay-as-you-go pricing, satellite and hybrid map options, automatic map updates, traffic info.
Cons: Complicated data entry method, more expensive over the long run, no lane guidance, if you lose a cell signal you could lose routing.
Edmunds Rating: 3
Like the AT&T app, the Gokivo GPS Navigator is available via a monthly subscription, so not only is it a pay-as-you-go app but mapping is constantly updated and it doesn't suck up memory space. And unlike AT&T Navigator, it uses Yahoo! Local Search to find businesses and services instead of accessing a static — and potentially stale — POI database. The Gokivo app also has innovative features such as satellite and hybrid views in addition to 2-D and 3-D mapping, and it uses real-time as well as historical traffic data to choose the best route.
But it doesn't have lane guidance and also uses the iPhone's tiny keypad to input info instead of larger icons, like some of the other apps. And there's no way to zoom out while on a route, which we found especially frustrating when searching for POIs along a route or just to get an overall perspective.
iGo My Way
Pros: Easy user interface, lane guidance with highway signs, "Where Am I" emergency screen, pinch zoom.
Cons: Slow boot-up time, prone to freezing, static POI database.
Edmunds Rating: 3
The iGo My Way app has several unique features. A 3-D view with building landmarks and physical features such as hills and valleys to help drivers better get their bearings, while a "smart history" mode learns a driver's habits to suggest previous routes based on location, time of day and day of the week.
And while many nav systems have a "Where Am I" function, iGo My Way adds a "Help Nearby" button to the screen to find the nearest police station, garage or other emergency service. iGo My Way also takes advantage of the iPhone's multi-touchscreen so that the user can "pinch" the map to zoom in and out. The app also has excellent lane guidance, which includes renderings of highway signs.
But we also found that the iGo My Way app has a very slow boot-up time and is prone to freezing from time to time. And it uses a built-in POI database instead of a dynamic search function, although with free monthly updates the app's POI list should stay current.
Pros: Clear voice prompts, lane guidance with realistic mimicking of highway signs, navigates from iPhone contacts, speed warnings.
Cons: Slow boot-up time, prone to freezing, long wait time between windows.
Edmunds Rating: 4
Navigon exited the portable navigation market late last year to concentrate exclusively on providing nav apps, and its MobileNavigator app shows that the strategy has paid off. Voice prompts are clear and well timed. Lane guidance is excellent and on-screen graphics mimic freeway signs on a route. Selecting destinations from the iPhone's address book was easy and seamless. The app also alerts a driver when the posted speed limit is exceeded and warns when entering a school zone.
But the app frequently crashed when starting up and inputting addresses, and it also takes its sweet time to boot up. There's a lot of waiting between windows and functions (although this could be because we tested it on an iPhone 3G instead of the faster 3GS). Although MobileNavigator has a comprehensive POI database, there's no live search function, and trying to find a POI via the menus is complicated, with too many categories and subcategories to sort through before even entering a destination.
Sygic Mobile Maps
Pros: Quick load time, iPod playback fades for voice prompts, lane guidance.
Cons: No quick-scroll function, tiny cursor arrows used to move up and down lists, no pinch-zoom function.
Edmunds Rating: 2
The Sygic app's main selling point is its low price. It also loads quickly and has a route-preview feature and lane guidance. And it includes a convenient user-configurable menu, can fade music from an iPod for voice prompts and will notify you about gas stations and restaurants along a route.
But we found the controls somewhat difficult. Although main menu buttons are large, there's no quick-scroll function and instead you have to use small arrows to move up and down menu lists. There's also no pinch-zoom function, forcing the user to instead tap tiny plus and minus buttons on the screen.
The app has the ability to navigate from an iPhone's contacts, but most of our contacts didn't work with it, resulting in an "address not found or empty" message. And the entire process for selecting a contact is poorly executed.
Pros: TomTom's IQ Routes Technology, tap-and-go routing, routing from iPhone contacts, speed warnings.
Cons: High price, no real-time traffic, doesn't announce street names, picky POI application, can't browse map in navigation mode, companion car mount kit is an additional cost.
Edmunds Rating: 2
The TomTom app allows for pinch zooming so you can expand or shrink the map with your fingers, and "tap and go" routing so that you can just touch two points on a map and hit "Go" and it plans a route. The app also has speed warnings and uses TomTom's proprietary IQ Routes technology, which analyzes historical traffic data of roadways to plan the quickest route and give a more accurate sense of how long a journey will take.
But we were perplexed that the TomTom app didn't offer simple navigation functions such as announcing street names along a route and lane guidance. You also can't browse a map once you're on-route, meaning you also can't pinch zoom; if you touch the map screen during routing, it reverts to the main menu and zooming in and out is done with miniscule plus and minus icons on the screen. And while IQ Routes is helpful, the TomTom app doesn't have real-time traffic.
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