The Best iPhone Navigation App: TeleNav vs. Navigon vs. TomTom

I'm happy to report that the leading car navigation apps for the iPhone work surprisingly well. Not only that, but for the next week, there's a clear choice for best app.

Until August 31st, Navigon MobileNavigator will cost $70. In my testing, it competed neck and neck with the $100 TomTom, so for the next eight days, it's the best value among the top contenders. But when they're both selling for $100, that TomTom is going to look a lot more tempting. The third app I tested is TeleNav's AT&T Navigator. It's certainly worthy, and has some connected capability that the other two apps here don't, but in the end, the economics are wrong: At $10 per month, it could become frightfully expensive, with no significant added value.

These three navigators are the most reputable in the app store (hence their heightened cost). They're all based on software I've used in the past too, either in other phones or in portable navigators. Because of the familiarity, I knew I could spot anything amiss in the iPhone edition, but I was surprised to discover that, if anything, these iPhone apps are better designed than anything their companies made before—and run great on my iPhone 3GS. It's a relief to know that GPS navigation with an iPhone is, finally, a really real reality.

Navigon and TomTom are completely contained apps that hog upwards of 1.2 GB a piece; TeleNav is a small app that relies on the phone's net connection. Nevertheless, they all work more or less the same. They give turn-by-turn directions on an animated map, just like portable navigators. While they're doing it, you can play music from the iPhone's iPod, and if a call comes in, you see it pop up on the screen. GPS performance on the 3GS was better than I had hoped for—hiccupy at times but never completely gone, even when messing around indoors.

Every app also has direct access to Contacts—this isn't just good for people for whom you've added addresses, it's brilliant for quickly navigating to stuff you've found in Google Maps—you just whatever it is to Contacts with a single tap, open your navi app and it's there.

No matter which app you're using, the GPS runs constantly and the screen generally stays on, which means utter battery drainage: You will need to keep your iPhone plugged into the car's lighter jack. You will also need a dashboard mount, which range from $10 to $30.

Here's how the apps did against each other, followed by some deeper impressions:

The Best iPhone Navigation App: TeleNav vs. Navigon vs. TomTom

AT&T Navigator by TeleNav
Product page; iTunes link

View gallery »

Unlike the other two, TeleNav is very much a connected app. It downloads a fresh map of your surroundings wherever you are, and it checks for traffic and POIs in much the same way. TeleNav's servers are always being updated, so you're never out of date. The trouble is that a) this costs $10 per month forever and ever, b) with the exception of searching for gas by price and the occasional useful traffic alert, the connectedness is hard to appreciate, and c) downloading maps and routes means that if you have poor phone reception, you might not have navigation.

TeleNav distributes its app "free" in the app store, but to get turn-by-turn navigation (the only reason you'd want the app), you have to sign up and commit to paying $10 a month on your AT&T bill. It's a deal for the first 10 months or so, especially since you can cancel it at any time, so maybe you'll only need it on trips. But if you intend to keep it and use it for more than that, you'll kick yourself for not having paid up front for Navigon or TomTom—when you add up all those Hamiltons, the $100 apps are ultimately cheaper.

I had some trouble with the software, too. Version 1.1 of the "free" client app crashed a lot, and it didn't automatically update to the more stable version 1.2i. I had to remove the app from my iPhone, and then add it again. The good news is, it worked and I haven't experienced a crash since.

Though I was pretty pleased with TeleNav's overall usability, but the connectedness did get annoying sometimes. The best example is the map section: TeleNav has very pretty maps, but they take a 21st century eternity to download (we're talking 5-10 seconds here), and the whole screen has to reload when you pan or zoom. Also, when you're in the map, you can't tap on a destination and route there, a fact that seemed to render the maps useless.

The B- I give the program is a combination of the shortcomings, albeit minor, and the problematic economics for anyone intending to use this regularly for a year or more.

Navigon MobileNavigator
Product page; iTunes link

View gallery »

Navigon portable navigators had just started to get good when the company closed shop in the US. I can't say I miss them, really, but what's nice is that most or all of the great features of the portable product have arrived intact in the iPhone app. It really is startling to see how well both TomTom and Navigon have overlaid their core features to the iPhone.

Navigon comes with 1.29 GB of maps and POI data, good because, like TomTom, it's not "connected." There's no live traffic, no online search, nothing like that. I can't say I miss it. The app runs almost exactly like the last Navigon portables, with such nice touches as lane guidance (those screens that pop up saying which lanes you should—and definitely should not—be in). It lays out well in both landscape and portrait modes, and the driving interface, with its customization options, looks the best.

Navigon has always had some trouble with its POI interface—in this case, you can can easily search for something in the wrong place. If you don't know the specific city a POI is in, just putting in the nearest big city is not enough. I recommend sitting down with it and familiarizing yourself with the POI search flow, because once you get the hang of it, you will be better at knowing where to look for stuff.

The biggest glaring omission of this app was the route view, what I used to call MapQuest view back when people remembered what MapQuest was: You get a full rundown of your turns, so you can see where the hell this thing is trying to take you. For the price, it's still reasonable, and Navigon has already updated its software—for free—a few times since launch, so who's to say that a good route summary isn't up next?

I gave it an A- until August 31, when the price goes from $70 to $100. After that, it's probably a B+ or B. On the level it can't really beat the TomTom, but when it's $30 cheaper, it most certainly does.

TomTom US & Canada for iPhone
Product page; iTunes link

View gallery »

I know some of you probably recall my negative sentiments about a recent TomTom portable navigator, and indeed, the whole family of TomTom navigators. I am happy to report that, by leaving hardware design in the hands of Apple, and by making at least a bit of effort to streamline the TomTom interface when bringing it to the iPhone, most of my complaints are rendered moot. There's still the matter of taking four taps to cancel a route (it takes just two on the other two apps). There's also the matter of POIs lacking coherent capitalization and punctuation, rendering them barely recognizable in English, and other hints of one-platform-for-all international scaling. But in general, it's a damn worthwhile, even powerful app.

The next step is to see TomTom's dock is any good. TomTom says it improves GPS performance, gives some voice command control and raises the volume on turn-by-turn instructions. I am currently using a generic iPhone dock, the one that sells for $30 on Amazon, and I plugged the iPhone into the car stereo for both music and instructions. Also, I didn't really have any trouble with GPS performance (surprisingly), so whatever this thing costs, its value is as yet undetermined.

In the portable navigator world, Garmin is still king, but in this world, there is no Garmin, so TomTom will probably ascend to the throne. In the current lineup, TomTom's offering is a B+, but that grade could go down as well as up. I just hope they take their roles as developers seriously and work on what still needs improvement, or else so help me I will nail another series of complaints to their door.

The Best iPhone Navigation App: TeleNav vs. Navigon vs. TomTom

Tips for Using All GPS Apps
• Get a dash mount. Like I said, you can pay roughly $10 to $30 on Amazon, but the $30 version (middle in the pic above) has the nicer joint design. If you don't mount it, you're going to kill yourself. Note: The Amazon links are examples, not recommended products. Stay tuned for our review of TomTom's mount, shown in the photo above at right.

• Never drive without a car charger. These things suck juice like nobody's business. Operate without a charger, and your phone will become a brick within the hour.

• All these apps let you access iPhone Contacts. This means you should paste in addresses for your most visited friends and colleagues. It also means that if the app's POI search sucks, you can go to Google Maps, do a search there (or with an app like Where To?) and then add that Google Map entry to Contacts. Instantly it appears in your navigation app too.

• You can listen to music while you're navigating, if you can handle the navi voice coming on to tell you when to turn. Double-tap the home button to get a floating box of rudimentary iPod functions: track ID, volume, play/pause, forward and back. If you pause your music though, you can't double-tap the home button to start it again. You'll have to exit your navigation app, go into the iPod interface, and start it up.

Update: More Notes
Since I've probably driven with more various GPS devices in my car than almost anyone, and have been doing it since these silly things were a lot harder to use and cost $1500 a piece, I wanted to address some general questions from comments:

• There are two major map-makers in the world, Navteq (now owned by Nokia) and Tele Atlas (now owned by TomTom). Though traditionally Navteq's US mapset was superior, they are both now almost imperceptibly identical, thanks to Tele Atlas' acquisition of a US company called GDT a few years back. They are both very reputable sources of road data now, and it would take you a long time to identify any differences, let alone one's clear superiority over the other. In other words, at this point, since it's one or the other, source of road data doesn't really matter.

• Map updates, however, do matter—but they matter at intervals of at least two years. The map makers named above are constantly updating, but they don't publish updates (even to monthly subscription services) instantly. It takes months—sometimes weeks if you're lucky—for map data to go live, and most tweaks are new housing developments and other things you might not notice. Also, map makers may spend a lot of time and effort on an area where you don't live, and never get around to fixing your particular neighborhood problem. (There's an intersection in Poughkeepsie, NY that has been wrong in Navteq's database for five years, because hey, it's Poughkeepsie!) So it doesn't make sense to argue that you should spend over 2X the money for a subscription app that isn't as good as the fixed ones—even if you have to buy expensive map modules or new versions of them in a couple of years. On the flipside, many people driving with three- or four-year-old Garmins are pretty happy.

• Someone mentioned that certain devices make a "ding" sound at the turn. That was always a signature of Magellan (who like Garmin doesn't make an iPhone app at the moment). Every app tells you when you are approaching a turn. They do so at different intervals. While it seems from a comparative standpoint that the intervals themselves matter, they do not after the initial breaking-in period. You just acclimate to the instructions you're getting from your own device, and make safe driving maneuvers based on those instructions.

• The state of California does mysteriously ban suction-cup windshield mounts. I have still driven in California with such a device, and would encourage people visiting California to not worry about it. Those of you who live in California should probably check out those sandbag mounts, but please, if anyone knows anyone who's gotten a ticket for this "offense," email me about it. I really want to hear this story.

• ALK, makers of the CoPilot software, have been around for many years and have not ever been among the strongest contenders. However, due to their price and the fact that they're still around, I have agreed to check out CoPilot, and will be posting on that app when I'm ready. But don't let that stop you from buying Navigon while it's still on sale.

Update #2Click here for iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II, with evaluation of ALK's CoPilot, Network In Motion's GoKivo and Sygic.