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TUAW Holiday Gift Guide: iPhone GPS apps

Mel Martin

Welcome to the TUAW Holiday Gift Guide! We've sorted the treasure from the junk and are serving up suggestions to make your holiday gift-giving a little easier.

Well, another holiday approaches, and it's time for me to survey the field of apps that will help get you from here to there in a minimum of time and hassle.

I surveyed these apps last year, and some things have changed for the better. Prices are lower, there are more regional options (so you can buy a map that fits where you might be driving), and the addition of multi-tasking in iOS 4 makes a big difference to how useful these apps can be.

I think one of the biggest changes from last year is that the apps are now so solid and full featured that I can't think of a compelling reason to buy any of the dedicated GPS devices. With so many people using smartphones, I suspect these all in one GPS navigators will suffer diminished sales and interest.

Gallery: 2010 Holiday GPS gift guide | 5 Photos

The main players from last year are still dominant. Let me tell you what I think is important in a GPS app, and you can figure out your own priorities.

  • The GUI should be clear and easy to use. Frequently used settings should not be buried several menus down. Maps should not be cluttered. You shouldn't be playing with the app when driving anyway, but if you need to glance at an intersection, you shouldn't have to hunt on screen to get oriented.
  • Sound needs to be clear. If the voice is computer generated, it should sound as human as possible.
  • Background operation is really essential. You don't want the app to quit when a phone call comes in, or you may want to listen to music while you travel. Most of the current apps support background operation so you can get voice directions even when you are using the phone or listening to content from the iPod app
  • Current maps and points of interest. No matter how new your maps, they are already out of date. Streets get changed. Businesses open and close. I appreciate the apps that give you a link to Google that is at least more up to date than info that is built into the app
  • On-board Maps. I don't like the idea of getting my maps over the air. You won't always be in a great place for 3G reception, but when navigating you always need maps. I prefer the maps to be on the iPhone, not in the cloud
  • Integration with my address book. Most have it. Don't buy ones that don't. You shouldn't have to re-type something into the nav app that is sitting on your iPhone
  • Traffic information. If your driving is urban, that can come in really handy. Some apps, like Navigon, offer traffic info as an extra cost subscription. Magellan is now offering it free, but there are paid ads that come up offering location based discounts
  • If you walk a lot, pedestrian directions are a real plus. The shortest distance between 2 points is not always a road
  • Other features. Speed limit warnings are really handy if you tend to drive too fast at times. Auto night mode is nice to have so the display does not distract you when the sun goes down

Here's a survey of what's out there for your consideration. I haven't tested every single app out there, but these are the major ones I think are the best. Missing from the list is Garmin, the company almost invented the category of handheld GPS devices. They made some wrong turns trying to develop their own cell phone, and that was a bust. Then they partnered with ASUS and that cratered too. They never did an iPhone app, probably because they were afraid to hurt the stand-alone GPS business, which is probably as dumb as it seems. Now the company says it's going to offer something for the iPhone, but it's all a bit late and underwhelming.

Navigon: My pick for the best of the GPS apps. It's got Google search, excellent text-to-speech, useful (but costly) traffic updates, and maps that show topographical features. It's nice to have out here in Arizona. Probably not worth much in Iowa or Nebraska. The Navigon North American version is the same price as last year, $59.99, but it sometimes goes on sale. What's new is the ability to buy regional versions, like the Eastern US for only $29,99. Traffic is a $19.99 lifetime subscription, and the 3D topographic option is $9.99. Traffic has dropped $5.00 from last year, and you can now buy a US only (no Canada) version for $49.99. You can find the USA version here. Navigon also offers versions for Europe.

Magellan Roadmate: I like this app a lot. It sells for the same price as the Navigon: $49.99 for the US version. Roadmate offers iOS 4 support, clear voices, lane assist, buildings in major cities are rendered in 3D, the ability to save your parked location, and very clear speech. As mentioned above, lifetime traffic is free. You just have to put up with pop up ads and coupons, which some may find helpful, but I find irritating. Magellan does not offer cut down regional editions, but I find the performance and feature set well worth the price. It's just a small step beneath the Navigon in my opinion, but the feature set and the free traffic may make it better for some buyers. Here's the app store link to the US version.

TomTom: The US/Canada version has dropped $10.00 to $59.99. There is a new US only version for $49.99. Since we last looked at this app the graphics have been updated for iOS 4. Traffic is a $19.99 in-app purchase. Navigation continues in the background while you listen to music or take a call, just like Magellan and Navigon. I like the 'help me' feature which will get you connected to emergency services quickly. The app also features Google searches so the POI data is reasonably up to date. One clever feature is the ability to Navigate to a photo if that data is embedded in an image. A friend can email you a photo of where you are, and you can drive right to that place. It's not something I would use everyday, but it is innovative and could be very useful for some users. the TomTom is a solid app. Learn more about the TomTom at the app store.

iGo: It's also $49.99. The company has been pretty slow to update. There is no traffic information, but it does support iOS 4. I found the maps a bit cluttered. It will warn you if you are over the speed limit, and it can get destinations from your address book. At the same price as the Magellan, Navigon and TomTom I don't think it is competitive. Check it out if you are interested.

Motion X GPS Drive: Well, it's only $0.99, but with a catch. Use it for 30 days, but after that you have to come up with another $2.99 a month or $19,99 a year. Maps come in over the air, which I just don't like. Some people swear by this app and really like it. I don't like the low price come-on and constant charges. You'll find it here at the app store.

AT&T Navigator: Listed as free at the app store, but that's misleading. It's a subscription based app, which is $9.99 a month or $69.99 a year. Maps are loaded dynamically over the air. They are clean and unclutterd, but a year's subscription to this one costs more than outright buying the top-rated app. Reviews are overwhelmingly negative at the app store, and I agree.

Waze actually is free. It's a crowd sourced app with user reporting traffic jams and accidents in real time. The maps are loaded over the air, and are basic but uncluttered. The quality of the traffic information will depend on how many people in your area are contributing. Waze does have voice-guided turn by turn directions, though, so if you want something basic I think it is worth a look, especially for free.

There are some more apps out there, but I think these are the ones to consider. Drive safely, and don't fiddle with that GPS too much when you are on the road. Save it for before you depart. Please let us know your own experiences, good and bad. Happy navigating and happy holidays!

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