iPhone GPS navigation head-to-head review

Tim Stevens
T. Stevens|04.09.10

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iPhone GPS navigation head-to-head review
Nobody likes getting lost, and nobody likes paying too much for a reheated lunch at a franchise restaurant when there's a mouthwatering family joint hiding just around the corner. Wouldn't you know it, there's an app that solves those problems -- quite a few of the things, as it turns out. Following up on our earlier look at non-iPhone GPS apps, we took a look at the top iPhone navigation choices in the App Store and narrowed it down to the five below, then threw in a no charge option for kicks, covering a range of prices from free to upwards of $120 per year. As it turns out there's a very tangible difference between the discount and the "premium" options here, but is that extra really worth it? Read on to find out.
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  • FreeSimple, intuitive UIMulti-point routes


  • Least comprehensive offeringDoesn't work offlineLimited voice

The contenders Return to Top
Cost Free $4.99 monthly
$39.99 annually
$10 monthly
$69.99 annually
$19.99 annually for traffic
$79.99 for North America
$24.99 for East, West, or Central
$24.99 one-time for traffic
$19.99 annually for traffic
Works Offline No No No Yes Yes Yes
Full Voice (w/ Street Names) No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Time to Launch (seconds) 3 7 10 5 12 10
Plays Music No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Multi-Point Routes Yes No No Yes Yes Yes
Displays Speed Limits No No Yes Yes Yes Yes

MapQuest 4 Mobile

We'll start with the cheapest -- and in this case, cheap is free with MapQuest 4 Mobile. (Quick disclaimer: MapQuest is owned by AOL, which owns our parent company.) There's a premium MapQuest app available, MapQuest Navigator, but since 4 Mobile was recently extended with voice navigation (and Navigator doesn't do anything too special compared to the rest of the crew here) we threw it into the mix and, while you never have a doubt that this is the cheapest option, it is a perfectly capable navigation solution.

The app loads by showing you where you are and from there you can cruise around the map, see nearby points of interest, and of course get directions. MapQuest 4 Mobile syncs with your online MapQuest account (what, you don't have one?) enabling you to share single addresses as well as multi-point routes between a browser and the app. You do have to exit the app to force it to sync, but it's great if you're planning a road trip at your desktop before hopping in the car.
The app loads very quickly and, while it doesn't have a dedicated "take me home" button, you can create a home address under your My Places online, and it's only two taps to launch that. The app is rather slow to calculate directions, and once calculated you're stuck with only the overhead view. Stray off-course and you'll need to tap the screen to get the app to re-route you, which is annoying. Finally, the voice is rather... matter of fact (to put it mildly) and is unable to read street names and the like, but hey, it's free even with traffic updates, and it never got us lost.

Gokivo Navigator

Navigator from Gokivo is the next most affordable option, clocking in at $.99 to download and $4.99 per month after that (after a free 30 day trial), or $39.99 annually. For that you get an interface that, at first blush, looks like a very slightly reskinned version of Google Maps. Tap on the search bar and up comes a panel offering POI searches, recent destinations, and Yahoo! Local searches. Sadly there's no home button and no way to designate a home, so you'll have to use up one of your favorites -- or try clicking your heels together.

Destinations are identified on that familiar 2D Google Maps interface and each one has a lovely "Go!" button on it that, with one tap, starts the navigation. That certainly minimizes interaction but Gokivo was one of the slowest to actually serve up a route. Along the way no POIs are displayed, and it is a fairly no-flare presentation, but the Yahoo! Local Search does help whatever you might be looking for, and this is the first navigation app amongst this crew that will let you play music while driving. (MapQuest is the only option that doesn't.)
Traffic updates are automatically performed and, should blockages get out of hand, the app will re-route you around them. You can also select to arbitrarily block any road along the route that you don't like (we never really did like boulevards) and, of the fully functional voices here, Gokivo's is the least aurally pleasing, but is still easy to understand.

AT&T Navigator

Next up is AT&T's home offering, AT&T Navigator, starting off as a free download but quickly getting expensive -- $10 per month, or $69.99 for a year. That's a little hard to swallow since basically the same TeleNav-backed service on Sprint is free, but for that you do at least get access to everything: traffic and the latest maps and POIs, without any additional charges. Load the app and you get a clean and simple interface; just two taps to get directions home.

AT&T Navigator is the only option in the test that allows entry of an address by voice, which on the surface sounds like a great feature but is unfortunately clumsy in reality. Hit "Speak it" within the app and it dials you off to centralized voice recognition system. Convey what you're looking for, hang up and... you get dropped back to the home screen. (No multitasking yet, folks.) From here you need to launch the app again and find the address you just spoke added to the Recent Places list. The process certainly works but it's not possible to do while driving and is far slower than just typing in whatever you want. In other words, it's more or less useless.
The map presentation is simple, a 3D view that you can drag to move around -- slowly. Interactions here are not exactly smooth compared to the other options. POIs are not shown as you drive but the app does offer a very handy "Search Along" feature identifying anything you like along your route, even a quick listing of gas stations sorted by price. You can pick a restaurant by type, and even identify which ones have WiFi. En route AT&T Navigator will display your speed and, if you're on a highway or other major throughway, can optionally display the speed limit and play a chime when you're going too fast. It's a service a few of these apps offer (MobileNavigator, CoPilot, and TomTom as well) and is both hugely annoying and massively helpful. We just wish it were available on every street, not just the big ones.

CoPilot Live

Slowly getting more expensive we move up to CoPilot Live, which is free for 30 days but is $29.99 after that, and an additional $19.99 per year for traffic and live updates. As we move up the price scale CoPilot is the first to truly feel "premium," with very attractive graphics and smooth performance. It's also quick to load, quick to route, and will not only display POIs of your choosing as you drive but can quickly re-route you to any of them with a tap.

Buttons are large and responsiveness is quick, it's just three taps to get directions to your designated home address, and the on-screen view of those directions (either 2D or 3D) is hugely customizable. You can tweak how often and how you want the voice to remind you which way to go and even tell it just how loose you are with speed limits, helping to boost the accuracy of arrival estimates.
The app supports multi-point routes, will automatically send you around traffic and, in general, gets you on your way quickly and without any fuss.

Navigon MobileNavigator

MobileNavigator is either more or less expensive than CoPilot Live, depending on how much of a big spender you are. The full app is $79.99, but Navigon recently ripped the nation into three chunks, offering up your choice or east, west, or central navigation for $24.99 each. Traffic updates will set you back another $24.99, but this is a one-time fee, which over the long-term could make this by far the most affordable choice. So, you could have lifetime navigation with traffic for as little as $51 -- or as much as $105.

MobileNavigator too starts out with a simple interface and a clean address entry wizard, presenting nearby towns for quick selection or, naturally, letting you type in whatever you like. From here it filters streets and, finally, street number, with the keyboard defaulting over to numbers, making typing it all in quick and easy. There is a dedicated "Take Me Home" button right there on the start, so it's just a single tap to get routed back to your sofa, and the DirectHelp service makes it easy to find the closest roadside assistance, hospital, police, or pharmacy.
This app is one of two to offer Google Local Search, which augments the internal POI database massively. Routing is relatively quick, multiple destinations are supported, the presentation is clean and smooth to refresh, and voice guidance is easy to understand.


Finally, the most expensive up-front cost is the TomTom offering, which starts at $59.99 for the entirety of North America and will set you back a further $19.99 each year for traffic. But, for that annual hit you do get the most advanced view of traffic in this group, a highly detailed glimpse of current conditions plus real-time popups of incident alerts. If traffic is a huge concern for you, greater than your concern for thrift, this is likely your best option.

The latest version of the TomTom app adds Google Local Search, matching MobileNavigator, and while it too has a home button, it's one menu deeper, meaning it's a whole three taps to find your way back. (Gosh.) Like Navigon's option there's a way to quickly find the nearest help in an emergency, and multi-destination routes are supported. It must be said that the default voice here is probably the bossiest, but there are dozens to choose from and this was the only navigation option that not only told us when a turn was coming but also told us when to stay in the left or right lane.
Of course, TomTom would love you to use its app with the Car Kit. We've already reviewed that particular accessory rather comprehensively, so we won't say much about it here, except that having the extra speaker on the back certainly made it easier to hear the voice of any and all of these navigation options -- but golly if it isn't pricey.

Testing highlights

We ran all of these apps through weeks of testing, commuting daily with each one to see which one got us where we were going most quickly and did the best at finding things along the way. The first thing you'll notice about any of these is performance, both in loading and in overall interactions, and MapQuest 4 Mobile loaded quickest, in just three seconds, with CoPilot Live coming in a close second at five. Copilot and TomTom were both quickest to route us to the local Amtrak station, getting us going in only three seconds, but MapQuest 4 Mobile struggled here, taking a whopping 15. The others were all done within seven seconds.

But anything can get you to a train station. How about something a little trickier? We punched in the name of a new restaurant that opened just two months earlier, a locally owned place that took over the disused husk of a former Applebee's. Alas, despite promised live updates on many of these options, none of the apps had the restaurant in their POI databases. Only MobileNavigator and TomTom could find the restaurant, courtesy of Google Local Search, as well as CoPilot Live courtesy of its Live Search (subscription required), and only those three were aware that the previous franchise inhabitant was no more. The other three would have resulted in a major downer if we were hoping to get our Ultimate Trio on.

All of these options offer traffic info, even MapQuest, and all provide varying ways to get at that information. TomTom's presentation is the clearest, with a bar running up the right side displaying incidents along the route, and a highlighted view of the map showing the exact location of accidents and their effects. All the apps provide a simpler or more complex way of getting at this, from an overhead view in MapQuest or only telling you about trouble spots on your route for Gokivo, but again we liked TomTom's the best, with MobileNavigator and CoPilot Live not far behind.


Beyond the highlights mentioned above there honestly isn't an awful lot between these options, but there is a definite feeling of improving quality in the higher-priced ones -- except for AT&T Navigator. We didn't find anything spectacular about it to warrant its $120 $69.99 annual price. If it were free like Sprint's TeleNav-based option it'd be the winner hands-down, but it's not worth the premium here. MapQuest 4 Mobile is free, however, and to be honest we could see ourselves relying on that for day-to-day directions -- but we could also see ourselves looking longingly at the other options while doing so.

At $5 per month Gokivo's Navigator is the most appealing if you only need occasional navigation on a month-to-month basis, but for making a longer-term commitment we'd go with one of the other three, all offering the distinct advantage of working both offline and online -- helpful when navigating out of those troublesome AT&T black holes. And, honestly, each of these three performed very well. If your top priority is traffic accuracy and warnings we feel that TomTom does the best job of telling you what's going on and how to get around it and, beyond that, offers a top-shelf navigation experience. Meanwhile, if your travels are generally restricted to one coast or the other (or the middle bit), the $25 Navigon MobileNavigator packages offer great value in again what is a very comprehensive navigation suite.

But, for our money, CoPilot Live provides the best blend of features, performance, and cost. It loads the quickest, throws together routes in seconds, re-routes nearly instantly, provides a solid and easy to parse interface, and happily diverts you around trouble-spots. And, the best part is you don't have to take our word for it. There's a 30 day free trial of many of these available, so make with the downloading and see which you dig the most. Just be warned: some of these suckers have a heck of a footprint, so we hope you sprung for a few extra gigabytes before you signed your life away for two years.

Update: AT&T wrote to let us know there's also a $69.99 annual option if you're so inclined!

Update 2: CoPilot doesn't offer Google Local Search, but there is a "Live Search" function that you get access to if you subscribe. Running a search through there did turn up that hip new local joint we were looking for. The article text above has been updated.
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