12 iPhone GPS apps for navigation reviewed

In the summer of 2008, Apple shipped the iPhone 3G, which featured a built-in GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver. It took a year for Apple to add support for using the iPhone as a turn-by-turn navigation unit for your car, and a bit more time for software developers to rush into the App Store, but now iPhone users have a dozen different turn-by-turn GPS apps to choose from.

Fundamentally, each application serves the same purpose: you choose a destination, and the application provides graphical navigation of the path, accompanying that navigation with visual and spoken cues for making turns or identifying upcoming road changes. Some programs integrate live or statistical traffic information to provide better routing. Like snowflakes, no two programs are identical, even though many share the same mapping or other data sources.

To help you narrow your choices, Macworld assigned me to test all 12 apps in and around my home in Seattle, Washington. I looked at the software for how well it got me from point to A to B (and sometimes point C) without putting virtual roadblocks in our way. After days spent in my car with only my iPhone for company, I’ve determined the strengths and weaknesses of the dozen contenders.

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iPhone navigation apps

Software rating Developer Version tested Price Size
AT&T Navigator AT&T Services 1.3i $10/mo 2MB
CoPilot Live N.A. ALK Technologies 8.0.0.469 $35 1.3GB
G-Map U.S. & Canada Xroad 1.0.2 $50 2GB
GoKivo GPS Navigator Networks in Motion 4.4.3 $5* 2.7MB
iGo My way 2009 (N.A.) NNG Global Services 1.1 $80 1GB
Magellan RoadMate 2010 N.A. Ed. Mitac Digital 1.0 $100 1.4GB
MapQuest Navigator MapQuest 1.0.5 $1**** 3MB
MobileNavigator N.A. Navigon 1.3.0 $90 1.5GB
MotionX GPS Drive Fullpower Technologies 2.5 $3** 10MB
NDrive U.S.A. NDrive Navigation 9.2.31 $33 1.5GB
Sygic Mobile Maps U.S. Sygic 7.71.5 $40 1.7GB
TomTom U.S. & Canada TomTom International 1.2 $100 1.2GB

*GoKivo includes 30 days of voice-guided turn-by-turn navigation in the $5 purchase price. In-app purchases of 30 days ($5) and 1 year ($40) are available. Without an active in-app purchase, the application provides maps and POI data only, not navigation (with or without a voice). **MotionX includes 30 days of voice and automatic turn-by-turn navigation in the $3 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. **** 30 days free, $4 for 30 days or $10 for 90 days or $30 for a year thereafter.

Two kinds of apps

Magellan's app has a high price tag, but pre-loaded maps.
The 12 iPhone GPS apps I tested can be split into two categories: apps that come with bundled maps, and cost between $50 and $90, and apps that download map data only when necessary, and generally charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. (For a complete list of the apps I tested, see the table “iPhone Navigation apps.”)

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 basis won’t bleed you dry. (Prices are for the most restrictive version of the app available at the time of testing that covered the United States. Some apps include Canada or all of North America. Most navigation app makers have separate packages customized by country and land mass for varying amounts.)

Among subscription-based apps, only AT&T Navigator is attached to a single phone number; for flat-fee programs, ALK Technologies’ CoPilot requires separate registration and serial number entry with the program. All the other products I tested can be installed on any iPhone OS device that's attached to your iTunes ID—meaning a family with two iPhones can buy them once and use them on both devices.

Eight of the apps we reviewed charge flat fees, and include some level of promise about additional releases with upgraded maps. Flat-fee packages are huge downloads—from 1 GB to 2 GB—incorporating the full map database into the program itself, meaning that even if you leave a cellular coverage area, you’ll have access to the entire map database. Every time there’s a new version of the app, you’ll need to download the entire file—with the exception of CoPilot, which has an internal update function. You should download these packages via iTunes and sync them to your iPhone—it’s a much more reliable experience.

CoPilot is another pre-loaded map app.
All the makers of the flat-fee apps expect to release some number of free map updates. iGo My way explicitly says map updates will be included for purchasers through December 2010 on a quarterly basis. The other companies don't provide specifics. One could imagine in-app map update purchases being required after the first year. (This isn’t unusual for navigation products. Standalone GPS hardware requires paid updates after purchase for yearly updates or quarterly updates sold on a yearly basis. These can run from $40 to $100 for typical devices for each update.)

On-the-fly map programs download data when they plot routes, and cache information needed to create 2D and 3D maps. However, they all need to access the network for map browsing, even on routes on which you’re already engaged. You need to be on a network, preferably 3G or Wi-Fi, when plotting a route, looking for detours, or pulling up traffic information with software that offers that option.

Fullpower Technologies’ MotionX GPS Drive allows extensive caching of data, however, letting you store up to 2 GB of downloaded map and related information. The program doesn’t age this data out, though, and you need to purge the cache manually to ensure you have the latest road data.

The four over-the-air packages I tested—AT&T Navigator, MapQuest Navigator, MotionX GPS Drive, and Networks in Motion’s GoKivo GPS Navigator, provide whatever the latest mapping information is available, but the recurring fee may turn some people off. On the flip side, you can taste the service for a month before committing to a non-refundable $35 to $90 fee.

AT&T’s app, a free download, has the highest subscription price of the four 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.)

MapQuest, MotionX, and GoKivo include 30 days of navigation services in the $1 purchase price. In-app purchases allow extensions of 30 days for $3 to $5 or a year for $25 to $40.

Entering addresses

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

Navigation apps should be able to select an address via the system-wide address book that Apple provides, and control iPod playback. Most programs do a terrible job at dealing with Contacts entries and other destination-selected choices, and a decent-to-great job with iPod control.

AT&T Navigator was an excellent performer, despite the fact that it encouraged me to make an illegal turn.
I tested many addresses from my Contacts list that I use routinely in the iPhone’s native Maps app without trouble. MobileNavigator, CoPilot Live, Mitac Digital’s Magellan RoadMate, and NNG Global Services’ iGo My way had trouble with at least half the addresses tried, while TomTom, MotionX GPS Drive, and GoKivo were able to decipher most. Ndrive Navigation Systems’ NDrive doesn’t allow Contacts selection at all.

AT&T Navigator was the gold standard, correctly plotting every address I attempted, performing even better than Maps at locating a rural fire road in Maine. MapQuest Navigator was nearly as superb, figuring out every Contacts location except that Maine address. Sygic Mobile Maps was the worst, with the software unable to find any of the addresses attempted, and displaying street numbers after street names or Zip codes. G-Map was nearly as bad, identifying only two addresses out of dozens tested.

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.

AT&T Navigator adds the option of voice recognition by calling a California number. 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.

Controlling music

iPod control is also an oddly important part of GPS navigation for anyone who routinely listens to music or podcasts while driving. You don’t want to switch out of a program to use the iPod features, and I have found the double-Home-button press to bring up floating iPod controls doesn’t work reliably, often exiting the currently running app unless you press it just right. (All the programs I reviewed, when relaunched with a destination selected, either automatically reusme the route in progress, or prompt you to resume the route.)

GPS Apps: iPod control

Software iPod
control
Music
selection
Podcast
selection*
Voice over/
pause
AT&T Navigator Weak Playlist, artists, songs No Pauses for navigation
CoPilot Live Good, but must navigate via Menu to start playing music Full library selection No Voice talks over music
G-Map None None N/A Pauses (jack), talks over (head-end)
GoKivo GPS Navigator Superb controls Full library selection Yes Pauses for navigation
iGo My way 2009 Good Full library selection No Voice talks over music
Magellan RoadMate 2010 Good Full library selection No Voice talks over music
MapQuest Navigator None None N/A Halts playback (aux), pauses (head-end)
MobileNavigator Good Full library selection No Voice talks over music
MotionX GPS Drive Excellent, although hidden in list view Full library selection Yes Voice talks over music; optional paused playbck
NDrive USA None None N/A Pauses (jack), talks over (head-end)
Sygic Mobile Maps None - - Voice talks over music
TomTom Poor: can't start or select music No No Pauses for navigation; sometimes auto-resumes

*Most navigation software can't select a podcast for some reason, but all programs with iPod control can continue playing a podcast selected before the app was launched, including pausing and resuming it.

iPod control also varies whether you’re using an auxiliary input jack on a car stereo or “head-end” integration via a dock connector. G-Map, MapQuest, NDrive, and Sygic all lack integral iPod controls. The rest vary from forward, back, and play/pause controls to full selection via an iPod sheet as if you were in the iPod app. All of the apps with iPod control will play podcasts that were selected and are already playing; only GoKivo and MotionX allow podcast selection in the app.

GoKivo offered the best iPod control.
Some programs will speak over iPod playback, no matter how the iPhone is connected to the car stereo, while others pause during navigation instructions. (To make it more confusing, NDrive and G-Map speak over when plugged in via USB, while they pause when using the headphone jack.) The programs that pause to speak will auto-resume when the audio connection is via the jack, but all the rest left playback paused and required a manual button push on the car stereo to resume. TomTom paused the stereo, and in some driving sessions would auto-resume, but in others would not.

AT&T Navigator was particularly irritating, because the program is talky: it tells you quite a bit about what’s going on, with no controls to make it less prolix. I was forced to constantly press the resume button on the stereo to keep iPod playback going.

MapQuest Navigator also had its quirk: even though it doesn’t feature iPod controls, it halts playback when launched if sound is coming out the audio jack. This is unacceptable behavior.

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.

GPS Apps: More features

Software Speaks street names, etc. Uses Contacts list POIs on map
AT&T Navigator Yes Excellent No (can search along route, but kills current route when selected)
CoPilot Live Yes (marked with asterisks) Poor By default, when stopped; can disable selective categories
G-Map Yes Extremely poor Yes
GoKivo GPS Navigator Yes Good No
iGo My way 2009 No (future version) Poor Gas stations only; no options
Magellan RoadMate 2010 Yes (marked as TTS) Good Yes
G-Map No Very good Yes
MobileNavigator Yes (off by default) Poor Yes
MotionX GPS Drive No Good No
NDrive No No Yes
Sygic Mobile Maps Yes (Marked as TTS voices) Unacceptable Yes, highly controllable
TomTom Yes (computer voices) Good Yes

Traffic Seven of the twelve 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, MapQuest, and MotionX include traffic as part of the subscription price for their live services; MobileNavigator and CoPilot offer it as a $20 in-app upgrade, while G-Map is currently included a free year of traffic alerts. In testing, AT&T and GoKivo provided the greatest amount of information in the form of warnings, details of turn-by-turn problems ahead, and re-routing.

MobileNavigator will alert you about what lanes you should be in.
Lanes and indicators Each package approaches what it shows on screen in different ways. While all 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. iGo My way is, by far, the best at offering lane and sign indicators.

Spoken streets While all the software provides voice cues for right, left, ahead, and so forth, four lack the ability to use text to speech (TTS) to attempt to pronounce street names and other descriptive text. In some cases, you have to select a special TTS voice that is rougher than standard voice. TomTom and Navigon’s TTS voices are the best among those I tested; GoKivo’s is quite mechanical; Sygic’s and G-map’s are even more artificial sounding.

Multi-point routing Getting from A to B to C seems logical, but most of the software I reviewed lacks a straightforward way to achieve that. Many let you only set start and end points; a few will let you insert an intermediate destination, or tack on an additional point. However, CoPilot Live, G-Map, and Sygic have itinerary management tools: you can create multiple points, re-order them, and delete them; the tools in CoPilot and G-Map are easy to use, while Sygic’s is just as frustrating as the rest of its interface. This seems an obvious area for improvement in the other apps.

Avoidance If you’d prefer not to pay tolls, drive on highways, or use ferries, among other transportation options, each software package has a different set of preferences, except GoKivo and MapQuest, which have none.

MotionX lets you browse for nearby points of interest.
Points of interest (POIs) The term POI is so common that many GPS app developers have forgotten to spell it out or explain it within their software. They’re not talking about a Hawaiian side dish, but rather about businesses and resources along a route. The apps vary enormously when it comes to which POIs they display, whether POIs appear when you’re driving or just when you’re standing still (and whether that can be turned on or off), and the ability to set which kinds of POIs show up (just gas stations, for example).

Other means of transport Most of the apps I reviewed offer routes other than for cars. Most that have alternatives let you choose among driving, walking, or biking; some add truck and motorcycle options to let you avoid roads that would be problematic for either kind of vehicle. A unique “adventurer” mode in NDrive is useful for off-roading and flying where constant course corrections reminders would be distracting and useless.

GPS Apps: Even more features

Software Avoidance Traffic Modes Lanes and signs
AT&T Navigator Freeways Yes (spoken), rerouting and alerts Walk, car No, but shows turns graphically
CoPilot Live Yes (deep in settings) $20 in-app add-on Car, walk, bike, motorcycle, RV No
G-Map Yes (several kinds) Yes (one year included) Car, truck 3-D lanes in major cities
GoKivo GPS Navigator No Yes (rerouting, alerts) Car, bicycle, truck No
iGo My way 2009 Highways, tools, ferries, unpaved roads, HOV, demand pricing No (future version) Yes (car, walk, bicycle, emergency, bus, taxi) Yes on both
Magellan RoadMate 2010 Yes No Yes (walk) Yes on both
MapQuest Navigator No Yes (list on map) Car No
MobileNavigator Yes $20 in-app add-on; rerouting, alerts Car, motorcycle, truck, bicycle, walk Yes on both
MotionX GPS Drive Freeways Yes Walk, car No
NDrive Tolls No Car, walk No
Sygic Mobile Maps Tolls No Walk, bike, car (option hidden in route setting) Yes to both
TomTom Tolls, ferries, HOV, unpaved roads No No Yes lanes; no signs

Macworld’s Buying Advice

Overall, AT&T Navigator was the best app among those with low prices, recurring monthly fees, and small app sizes; among the large apps with pre-loaded maps, Navigon MobileNavigator scored the highest. Combining decent quality with a low price, MotionX was the best bargain among all the apps I reviewed.

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 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 most recent book is Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network, updated for Snow Leopard (takecontrolbooks.com).]

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