iPhone GPS apps review and compare

We test nine turn-by-turn voice navigation apps for the iPhone.
 
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05.What we found

With the exception of Mocal, all the GPS apps tested store the maps on your iPhone. The iPhone’s GPS chip works independently of the phone network. This means you can use the GPS app almost anywhere. Mocal works a little differently – it plots a route through a central server, and downloads just the map data for your route on the fly. This can be a potential problem if you’re out of range of a mobile phone network, and is similar to Google Maps which also downloads map information on-the-fly.

Given the unique features the iPhone brings to an on-board GPS, and the explosion of GPS apps available on the app store, we created a much more stringent ease of use criteria this time around for our test. This includes ease of menu navigation, entering data through the on-screen keyboard, and assessing the range and flexibility of settings, as well as being able to take advantage of features such as navigating via Contacts, using Google search to find locations, and iPod control. Some apps share these features, and these factor into the scores, while others add unique ones all their own – such as Mocal’s ability to download map data over the internet, or Co-Pilot’s ability to track the phone via a website.
 
 

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As a result, the Ease of Use scores are not comparable to our previous test, but now better reflect the full capabilities of the apps as GPS units distinct from traditional car GPS products.
Regardless of how good the user interface is, the success of a GPS unit still rests largely on the quality of the routes and the map data it uses. Whereas last time the apps on test used map data from either Whereis or Navteq, this time round we found they used maps from various sources, including Sensis, Tele Atlas/Whereis and Navteq.

Cost considerations

If you already have an iPhone, turning it into a GPS can be cost-effective. Though two of the better known apps are still priced at $100, this time we found apps ranged in price all the way down to just $30 for Ndrive, while Mocal allows a 30-day free trial then charges $10 for a 30-day pass, $50 for a year or $60 for three years.
Of course, you still have to factor in the cost of a dedicated in-car mount and car charger at around $30-$40 for a basic set. But then, there’s also the convenience of having everything in one compact device that you can take with you anywhere. Note however, that the apps will periodically update their mapping data and while so far all updates have been free, there doesn’t mean updates won’t be charged in future, as they are with stand-alone GPS units.


What about the iPad?

The much bigger screen of the new Apple iPad makes it an ideal candidate for Google Maps and other geo-location apps, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better as an in-car device. It’s early days yet, but don’t assume the iPad will easily replace the iPhone in cars anytime soon.
While great for handheld applications the iPad’s extra size can work against it in a car, making it unwieldy and difficult to mount (dedicated mounts would need to be available to be legal anyway).
Not that it hasn’t been thought of – Co-Pilot was the first to come out with a version of its turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPad, but for the US only at this stage. Another problem is that the Wi-Fi version misses out on the GPS capabilities of its more expensive 3G brother, which is a must.

Keep it hands-freehands_free image

A hands free car mount is a must for in-car use of an iPhone with GPS app. This is a legal requirement and a major safety consideration. Just as with all mobile phones, you cannot legally use the iPhone as an in-car GPS unless it is mounted in a dedicated hands-free mount. There are many such mounts available, but in some cases you’ll also need a car charger. Using the GPS function drains power quickly. Both TomTom (pictured right) and Navigon have dedicated in-car kits for the iPhone.
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