The end of November and the approaching holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah not only mean stuffing our faces with lots of great food, but it also means the holiday traveling season is nearly upon us. You know twelve horns a honk, 11 drivers screaming, 10 kids a fighting…yada yada yada. So if you’d like to avoid these traffic jams and wrong turns then you’ll be in the market for a GPS. Why settle for one of those expensive stand-alone uni-taskers when you have some great options that will run right on your iPhone.
Today I am going to take a closer look at two of the more expensive (NAVIGON MobileNavigator and TomTom) and two of the more budget-priced (CoPilot Live and MotionX GPS Drive) GPS options for the iPhone. Sure when it comes down to it, any of these apps will get you from point A to point B, give you 3D views or 2D views, portrait and landscape modes, let you search for points of interest and all the usual features that you’d come to expect from any GPS, whether stand-alone or an app. So intead, this article will focus on the things that make each of these apps stand out from one another and where they might fall a little short. I’ll also give you a 2-year cost of ownership breakdown for each option as well (for comparison). Why two years? If you read the fine print of NAVIGON’s “lifetime traffic” option, that’s all they guarantee. The other apps I’ll be looking at charge you per-year for these services. For the best comparison, I will be pricing out each app for the US-only and all of North America, and will include traffic services as well as text-to speech (as I feel this is a must-have feature.)
First let’s start with the “premium” apps, NAVIGON MobileNavigator and TomTom. While these are premium priced, they don’t necessarily offer much more feature-wise than their less-expensive and perhaps more budget-friendly competitors.
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NAVIGON MobileNavigator is a strong performer, with accurate navigation and the best looking map graphics of the four apps that I looked at. It has a few nice unique features and the optional traffic package properly re-routed me in advance of possible problem areas. Unfortunately the apps menus in both form and function leave a bit to be desired.
NAVIGON’s Maps and visuals are stunning to look at. Crisp clean graphics that pop off the screen and look really great both during the day and at night. For an additional $9.99 you can buy an addon which adds a topological layer to the already beautiful graphics. With or without the $9.99 Panoramic View 3D DLC, NAVIGON MobileNagator easily has the best looking 3D view of all four of the reviewed apps. The replicas’ of highway signs that pop up to assist you with exit lanes look like the real deal and the app just screams quality. That is except for the blah menus, but I’ll get to those in a bit.
One particularly nice small touch is NAVIGON’s inclusion of the speed limit sign feature. For many roads, NAVIGON displays a small speed limit sign on the screen which keeps you abreast of the speed limit on the current road. How many times have you been driving on a road and you see a cop and (after reflexively tapping the brakes) you wonder what IS the speed limit on this road. With NAVIGON MobileNavigator, it just takes a simple glance at the screen. In my testing I found this to be 100% accurate and almost always updated within seconds of passing a speed limit sign. It’s one of those cool little features you wish all GPSes would implement.
Another unique feature to NAVIGON is it’s parking assistance and weather features which upon reaching your destination, automatically presents you with possible parking locations near your destination and informs you of the current weather conditions.
NAVIGON’s totalitarian all-black menus leave a lot to be desired. After all the work that went into crafting suche beautiful maps, you would have thought a bit more time and effort could have been put into the UI for the menus in both style and actual formatting. While everything you need is there, they are a bit of an eyesore to look at and sometimes a pain to navigate. Something needs to be done with icons or something to make menu items stand out more.
I know my road names by their route numbers not necessarily by the obscure name that doesn’t always appear on the road/route sign, so my major gripe against NAVIGON MobileNavigator is that it often uses these uncommon names of roads to tell you where to turn. This forces you to double-check the iPhone’s screen for confirmation before turning, just to be sure you are taking the correct road. I have no idea why they do this, but I found it to be more than a bit annoying. Since it would require a drastic overhaul to the core way they do things, I don’t see this quirk going away any time soon.
TomTom has been a long-time staple of the GPS Navigation industry and is easily one of the most popular apps. Generally a solid performer, it does have some accuracy issues (ie. sometimes inaccurately representing toll roads as “free” roads) and an expensive traffic option. While stand-alone and other platform releases offer easy ways to add premium celebrity voices, the on the iPhone it must be done in a round about way with a little bit of hackery. Outside of TomTom’s often price drop wars with NAVIGON, TomTom is also the most expensive app that I looked at.
Going into this comparison, TomTom had the interface I was most familiar with having previously used TomTom on my Treo 650 as well as a stand-alone unit before getting my iPhone. It could be partially due to my familiarity, but compared to the other apps, I felt that TomTom’s icon/text-based menu system was the easiest to navigate and the operational flow was very good.
TomTom offers some particularly nice unique features like a new NAVIGATE-TO-PHOTO option which allows you to select a photo from your iPhone’s album and it uses the GPS coordinate meta data in a stored photo as the destination. Finally TomTom is now supports the Retina display, making the graphics and text very crisp and easy to read on my iPhone 4.
TomTom’s traffic option is EXPENSIVE!. At twice the cost of most of the other GPS apps I looked at TomTom’s traffic service is a rather expensive addon. Unfortunately I did not have an opportunity to test this service out for myself first-hand, but did get conflicting feedback from multiple people who have been using (or at least trying to use) the service. I was told by one individual it was “Super accurate” and its conatntlyu updating to give you real time info while driving, while another said that it was not working and had to go as far as to request a refund directly from Apple! Unfortunately it appears your milage may vary on this one (no pun intended). Either way, I do like the manner in which TomTom has chosen to display this information and as you will see, CoPilot Live takes a very similar approach.
By far, TomTom had the most difficult keeping a GPS signal. In areas where the other apps hand no performance problems, TomTom seemed to be a bit shy and lose the signal. Testing was performed at the same time of day, on the same stretches of road under similar weather conditions. This was actually a bit of a surprise as I don’t recall my stand-alone TomTom unit having any such issues and I would have expected all of the apps to perform in pretty much the same manor as they were all running on the same hardware.
TomTom also allows you to purchase celebrity voices, so you can get your directions from the likes of Darth Vader, Yoda or even Homer Simpson. Unfortunately none of these celebrity voices are Text-To-Speech capable so they had limited appeal to me. And as I mentioned earlier, currently these require either Jailbreaking or a bit of hacking to get them installed onto your iPhone.
Finally, TomTom’s customer service was for the most part non-responsive. All emails and tweets which I sent to the TomTom team with requests for information, clarification, or even troubleshooting were never responded to. AppAddict’s own, Jaden had an issue where the traffic DLC wasn’t working and while TomTom’s customer service admitted they knew there was an issue, they would not give him an ETA on a fix and wouldn’t issue a refund, so he had to get his traffic DLC refunded from Apple.
CoPilot Live (from ALK Technologies) is quite an impressive GPS app, who’s low price point may unfortunately scare away potential buyers. GIVE THIS ONE A CHANCE and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. Loaded with most of the features of its “premium” competitors, CoPilot Live packs a punch and even has a few nice little touches all it’s own. Don’t dismiss this one on price-alone as is a very attractive package.
Of the four apps that I tested, CoPilot Live had the best implementation of traffic. They call it ActiveTraffic and it is constantly monitoring traffic and adjusting a vertical status bar on the right-hand side of the screen which shows you a traffic profile of your current route with problem areas in red, slow areas in yellow and clear areas in green. It’s similar to TomTom’s implementation, except perhaps not as pretty, but it works quite well! In my experience, this was about 95%+ accurate (occasionally I’d hit the slow down before the yellow marker on the status bar). Ignoring the CoPilot’s rerouting suggestions always proved to be a mistake. The initial app purchase comes with a free 14-day trial of CoPilot Live’s Active Traffic feature, so you can try it for yourself before committing to a full year.
Another rather nice feature that was exclusive to CoPilot Live was the way it would prompt you to see if you wanted to disable the app if it detected an extended period of backgrounding where the app was no longer being used. This is a fantastic way to protect your battery from unnecessary drain and a feature that should really be standard on all GPS apps.
CoPilot Live users also have the ability to submit map updates which are guaranteed to be added within 45 days. When I first loaded up CoPilot Live I was disappointed to see that my street was missing, so I immediately entered a request to have my road added and low and behold, it was there within the promised 45-day window! Given the fact that CoPilot doesn’t charge any sort of monthly fees, I was impressed with this level of service coming from such an inexpensive one-time charge for the app.
CoPilot Live has a bit of trouble with rotaries, at least in Massachusetts. In my experiences CoPilot Live always wants to tell me to get off of rotaries one exit before I should. It DOES tell me the correct road, it just doesn’t tell me the correct exit off the rotary. This happened on multiple rotaries. I’ve reported the issue and the CoPilot team is looking into it.
CoPilot Live’s included library of POIs is quite lacking, but there is a workaround. Right now if you are unable to find the POI you are looking for, you have to exit the “Destination” menu and go to the Live Sevices menu and select Live Local Search to find the POI using a Google-like search. I’ve already mentioned this to the developers and they are working on something to improve this flow and make all POI search methods available from a central location. You also have the option of submitting POI updates to InfoUSA directly, but unlike map updates, these are not guaranteed.
The over-all flow of the GUI still needs a bit more work to help improve efficiency. For instance, on the POI search, when you pick to search for a POI you are asked to select a category, but instead of being able to select “any category” from the first screen, you must first hit “more categories” then you will see “any category” as an option. If you already have music playing when you launch the app, or you paused the music while in the app, there is no visible quick button to access your music player from the main navigation screen, you must access the menus to get to this. These extra steps can get a little annoying, but hopefully some of these issues will be flushed out as the program matures.
MotionX GPS Drive has a unique look and feel, and offers some nice little extras. Its got a clean and easy to use interface and quite possibly the best iPod controls of the bunch. It has the potential to be a lower-cost solution for individuals who rarely use their GPS, but the monthly/yearly pricing model can add up quickly.
MotionX GPS Drive’s screen layout during Navigation is fresh and different and stands out a bit compared to the others. By this I mean the layout of the information on the screen (excluding the street names ‘on’ the roads as these are rather difficult to read). The app just has a more modern feel and doesn’t have the same tired old look of just about every other GPS app out there. It’s nice to see a bit of originality and I hope other developers will take a queue from the folks at MotionX™and think a little outside the box.
As I already mentioned, this app offers quite possibly the best iPod control panel of the four apps I looked at. You can easily pop the controls on and off at any time without really even having to take your eyes off the road and they can stay visible if you want them to.
MotionX GPS Drive offers lots of little unique touches like a plethora of quick searches for coffee places, parking, Facebook Places check-in integration and more. There is also a compass option as well as a quick way to save the coordinates of your parking place to find it later. The user also has the option to select whether navigation will be by car or on foot.
My biggest complaint regarding MotionX GPS Drive is its cost structure. You pay either a monthly or yearly fee, otherwise the app works just like Google Maps and you must manually progress through each step of the directions. The base app comes with a free month, otherwise you can pay $2.99 per month or $19.99 for a full year. So what may have initially appeared to be a bargain app, quickly approaches the cost of the more expensive apps.
There is no pro-active real-time traffic option. The way the traffic works in MotionX GPS Drive has up-to-the minute information from TrafficCast, which is ONLY used whenever you calculate a route with Live Voice Guidance. That means it is only taken into consideration during initial route calculation or if the driver does something to force MotionX to re-calculate the route. For the expensive monthly/yearly fees that MotionX charges, I would have expected a more pro-active Traffic solution.
Limited maps are stored on the device. If you’ve ever loaded a GPS app onto a mobile device, then you know the most annoying part is the initial download and installation of all the maps. The good news is that once you go through the hassel, then this annoyance is over unless there is an app update. Unfortunately this is not the case with MotionX GPS Drive. Only at route calculation time are maps downloaded (unless you pre-load your route). This means you can’t quickly put in a destination and go. The program needs to download all those related maps at that time. Now this isn’t entirely true because the app does cache maps once they have been downloaded during route calculation, up to 2GB worth. Although, once you hit that limit, older maps are overwritten by new ones. You can clear the cache or configure the size limit for caching. If you are concerned about data plan usage, you can adjust settings to make sure that only wifi is used to download these maps, but of course that means you’ll have to plan all your trips and wait for downloads at your wifi hotspot before hopping in the car…a major inconvenience if you ask me! The developers did assure me that for short trips the data usage is quite small, stating that “taking a 43 mile trip from Santa Cruz to Monterey, CA used only 7.1 MB of data”. In my experience I definitely did notice that MotionX GPS Drive had longest delay from starting the app to having a calculated route ready to go.
If I had written this article up a few weeks ago NAVIGON MobileNavigator’s stunning visuals and solid overall performance would have easily been my top pick, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t help but find myself coming back to CoPilot Live for it’s wonderful traffic implementation. Though by no means perfect, CoPilot Live’s low price and expansive feature set is a tough act to beat. For anyone looking for a GPS app for their iPhone, I’d suggest buying the US version for $4.99 (or $2.99 if you buy before Monday Nov. 29th) and trying out the free 14-day trial of the Active Traffic feature to see if CoPilot Live suits your needs. If not, then you can look into one of the more expensive options. With a bit more tinkering in the workflow, and a bulk up in the included POIs, CoPilot Live would be in the perfect position to steal the iPhone GPS market from its perhaps more-well known and pricier competitors.