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 can download maps in the background via a settings option. 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.
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.]
[Updated 1/18 to clarify and correct several features of MotionX.]