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Hitting the road with iPhone GPS apps: A holiday buyers' guide

We're about to hit the big holiday travel peak, and it's a great time to survey what we've seen this year for iPhone GPS apps. GPS navigation by satellite has been around a long time, but it's never been this inexpensive or desirable. There's an explosion of choices, with competitive features and falling prices. For many of our readers, facing long trips to see family and friends, getting the right GPS app is a priority.

A few words about this guide: I haven't seen or tested everything on the market, and the choices are constantly changing and updating. I've done my best to keep up and get some time on the road with each of the apps listed here. If I haven't talked about your favorite app, it's not because I don't like it, but because I can't vouch for it.

Like all of you, I have some criteria by which I judge a GPS app. My list contains the things I think are really, really, important. Your list could be different. Such is life.

Read on for my (long) list of must-haves, and for the rundown of the GPS apps themselves.Here's my criteria:
  • Good graphics and a clear GUI. I want to be able to figure out how things work without a lot of effort. I don't expect to spend a lot of time looking at the screen, but when I do I don't want it to be littered with useless information.
  • Good sound. I don't want to have to struggle to hear what is being said, and I don't want to guess what directions I just got.
  • GPS accuracy. Of course. I want the GPS to know where I am. On a highway, I don't want to be depicted on a side road. Most of the GPS accuracy comes down to the electronics on the iPhone, but smart software can enhance the accuracy of my position.
  • Updated Maps. In my testing, I found several units that didn't have streets I was driving on, or could not find addresses in neighborhoods that were a decade old. There isn't any good way to find out how new the map data is, but there are plenty of reviews on the iTunes store that will help you gauge this. Steer clear of any app that has a lot of people complaining about out-of-date data.
  • Updated Points of Interest. Same as above. How current are the locations and phone numbers of restaurants, hospitals, shops? Is the POI list static or is there a web component that keeps it up to date? I prefer a frequently updated POI list. If it's on the phone only, and something you downloaded as part of the app, it is both smaller and less up-to-date than the online options.
  • Where are the maps? Maps may be stored on your phone, or delivered on-demand via the 3G network. I prefer them to be on the phone, because cellular reception may not be perfect. In the U.S., that means AT&T. For the rest of the world there are providers with great coverage, and some with poor coverage. If you opt for a GPS app that depends on the network for maps, you'd better have good cellular service or you'll be looking at a blank map.
  • Text-to-speech. I really don't want to spend time looking at the display. I want the GPS to tell me to turn left on Elm Street, not 'turn left ahead'. That could be very confusing.
  • Traffic information. It's no good following a route that is backed up three hours because of an accident. I want my GPS to alert me, and re-route me if at all possible.
  • Choices about route calculation. I want options for fastest, shortest, and less congested routes. I want to be able to avoid toll roads, freeways or ferries. I want to be driving with this app, not having the app drive me.
  • Useful on-screen information. I want to know how long till I get there, based on my speed, not a guess. I want to know what time I will arrive, and I'd like to know the distance to my destination and to my next turn.
  • Address Book integration. I really don't want to type in destinations if they are already sitting on my phone.
  • iPod integration. Not a big deal for me, but it is for many. Can you access your iTunes library without leaving the app?
  • More than just a driving mode. The iPhone is small and portable. Pedestrian directions are really nice to have.
  • Less important but nice: auto night display, meaning the display dims or changes colors so it is easier to see at night and less distracting. Speed limit information; can the app warn you if your are speeding? To know that, its database has to know the posted speed for major roads. I also like landscape mode, which is, I think, a nicer way to view the maps.
OK. Now let's look at the contenders... all prices quoted are those from the US App Store.

One of the first out of the gate was the AT&T Navigator app [iTunes link]. It's a monthly subscription at $9.99, with discounts for multi-month agreements. The maps are clear, the POI database is up to date. This app is cloud based, and that means if you lose AT&T signal, you're hosed. The app has recently had an update with improved iTunes integration. The app does text to speech, has an attractive GUI, and has a nice feature to help you find cheap gas. It includes real-time traffic, and warns you of congestion ahead. The downsides are the already mentioned dependence on a cellular signal. It also is way too chatty for my taste, and over warns you of upcoming turns. I did not find the voice pleasant, as it seemed distorted on the iPhone speaker. I'd blame that on the iPhone, except several other products don't have the problem. As this is subscription based, it just keeps costing. At $70 a year, you could buy the Navigon, Magellan or TomTom app and be ahead of the game. Purchasers who rated this app at the iTunes store generally are not happy.

Ndrive United States. This is a low cost $32.99 app [iTunes link] with built in maps, and a pretty fair POI database. The developers promised text to speech, but as of this writing, it's a no-show. In my review i said that voice instructions came a bit late. I liked the 3D rendering of downtown buildings. As prices of the more popular GPS apps drop, Ndrive is not as compelling as it was, but I think it is worth a look.

Another low cost option is CoPilot Live North America. At $20 (on sale now) [iTunes Link] It includes text to speech, and works well. In my review I noted that the maps were not particularly attractive, and were often out of date. You can add live traffic for another $20, which starts getting app up there in price. I'd consider this an entry level purchase for someone who isn't sure they want to spend a lot of GPS navigation. At $20 without traffic, it's a pretty low risk proposition.

TomTom. This app is offered in the U.S. and several other countries. It was an eagerly awaited app because of the reputation of the company. For US drivers there is a US/Canada version at $69.99 [iTunes link] and a $49.99 version [iTunes link] that deletes Canada (no offense, Canadians). It's on sale at this price until December 28. Out of the gate, this app was missing some desired features, like text to speech, but a recent update added that function. The graphics are clear and easy to understand. The GUI is responsive. All the data is on-board. There have been complaints the maps are not as up to date as some of its competitors. All in all, the TomTom app is full featured, and very competitive, especially at the $50 sale price.

Magellan Roadmate. Full featured, very nice GUI and easy to read screens. Has text to speech, 3D landmarks, lane assist, pedestrian mode, and a one-touch menu for getting to favorites. In my review I found the app easy to use and responsive. At $79.99 (on sale) [iTunes link] it's a bit pricey and I expect they will have to get a bit more aggressive because of the competition. I like everything about this app except the price and lack of real time traffic.

G-Map U.S. and Canada. At a sale price of $49.99 [iTunes link] it is in the middle of the pack in terms of cost, but in my experience it was buggy and a bit slow to react to turns. In my review I noted that the app had in fact been pulled from the app store for bugs. Several users, including me, have had trouble installing it. The developers have been quick to try and fix the issues that pop up, and they have added text to speech. If you don't need Canadian maps, the TomTom sale price is a better deal.

iGo Navigation. At $64.99 on sale, this is a bit high for an app with no text to speech. It does have lane assist, 3D landmarks, and details at intersections. In my review I noted that app froze up, which is a no-no. Without text to speech, it's a high price and not very competitive with the big names.

Navigon Mobile Navigator North America. In my view, this is the current top drawer app that I have used and extensively tested. It's on sale to January 11 for $59.99 [iTunes link], and it includes Canada, text to speech, and now Google live search to compliment the built-in POI data base. That's the best of both worlds in my view: the maps on board, plus the ability to find, call, and easily navigate to a destination. If you are out of cell tower range, the built in POI data is reasonably complete.

You can get up to date traffic data for larger cities for an additional one-time purchase of $24.99. I think the on screen graphics are best in class, and Navigon was the first to add text to speech. They have been very prompt at getting frequent updates released and have added valuable features. If you look at the iTunes ratings, it seems to have satisfied the most people. If I had to choose one GPS app for the iPhone, it would be the Navigon, no question. The company released the Google integration yesterday, and it had some server issues, but they got right on it and fixed it very quickly.

Against my list of desired features, the Navigon app hits them all. Google may or may not offer a free nav app for the iPhone at some point, but if you're planning a long holiday trip, you probably can't wait. The Navigon is not the most expensive, nor the cheapest of the apps that are out there. But I do think it is the best, with the Magellan and TomTom in a tie for second place.

So there you have it. I know there are some other apps I haven't tried, so they are absent here. Many of these apps run fine on an iPod touch, although you won't be able to use them for live navigation without a hardware assist (like the auxiliary GPS provided by the TomTom cradle). Check the iTunes links I've provided to get specifics on each model. I've tried to cover a variety of options and prices, and hopefully you'll find something that fits your needs and your budget. Happy Holidays and safe driving!


We're about to hit the big holiday travel peak, and it's a great time to survey what we've seen this year for iPhone GPS apps. GPS...