iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

When I published the turn-by-turn navigation app battlemodo, many readers asked me to evaluate some other popular choices. Because everything I do, I do for you, here are CoPilot, GoKivo and Sygic, a.k.a. the best of the rest:

I must make it clear that the reasons for choosing TomTom, Navigon and TeleNav for the first roundup was based on prior experience and reputation. Costs are higher on those apps, but it's because you mostly know what to expect.

With this second round, things start out on shakier ground: My only experience with Networks In Motion, creators of GoKivo, was their dreadful VZNavigator app. ALK, publisher of CoPilot, has been around, but mainly in the Windows CE space. And Sygic I had honestly never heard of. The good news is, they all beat my expectations, and one of them comes out a real champion, especially when price is a major consideration.

CoPilot Live North America by ALK

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The strongest of the lot, made stronger by the $35 price tag. You get a full 1.23GB map database on the phone, which I prefer because it means your device will function even in the Reallybadlands. Still, it's not the best designed app in this category, not by a long shot.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

The POI search may actually be the best one out there, because it works like a Garmin: You type in a name, and it continues to spiral outward until it finds the place you're thinking of, even if it's 100 miles away.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

There's a trip planner, like Navigon's, that lets you add and delete stops, and even optimize them for maximum geographical efficiency.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

The system is built to be connected, with weather and a social function "free" with purchase; live traffic and fuel prices will cost you $20 extra per year—which is still cheap compared to anything else.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

ALK is promising a presumably free update with text-to-speech for street names read aloud, and monthly map "improvements," direct to the phone.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

The site has a design that would make Jon Ive spin in his grave (were he dead). Not only is it crowded and noisy, but there is too much ambiguity (not one but two get-started pop-up menus) and lack of feedback: After planning a trip you select a gas station from the quick-stop menu—does it cancel the original trip? Or just add the gas station? It sure as hell isn't going to tell you. Some of this becomes apparent with use, but it's still a design flaw.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

The software itself was a little shaky. When I first started, it froze on a (mandatory) registration page, saying I didn't have internet access when I did. Occasionally, it still hangs on the opening splash screen, making me force quit.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

No iPhone status bar when app is running—no service indicator or clock, and a proprietary battery-life indicator that's on the main screen but not subsidiary ones. (Navigon, TomTom, TeleNav and GoKivo all show the true iPhone status bar.)

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Keyboard isn't QWERTY, so I spent what felt like 14 whole minutes looking for the letter "z."

Because the thing is so damn cheap—whiners, stop right here, because full-map apps can't get any cheaper—I can forgive many of its flaws. If all you have is $35 to spend, buy this. [iTunes link]

GoKivo GPS Navigator by Networks In Motion

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Like I said, my experience with previous Networks In Motion products has not been pleasant. Compared to TeleNav's Sprint Navigator and AT&T Navigator, NIM's VZNavigator was atrocious. So imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed GoKivo.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

There's a "keep it simple stupid" mentality that seems to work for this interface, especially for areas you basically already know. You find your area on the map, and do a keyword search to find POIs in that particular vicinity (a la Google Maps).

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

The navigation screen is much improved over earlier VZNavigator screens, with clear maps.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Slide-out music transport is very cool—all apps let you pop up "now playing" to skip or adjust volume, but this lets you browse music, start songs, set shuffle and repeat, all within the navi app.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Connected data means fresh maps and traffic info—I was surprised how well it worked even on a mountain, though spotty coverage does mean unreliable response time, and possible blackout.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Vertical orientation only, no landscape view (which I prefer).

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

There's no way to drop a pin on the map and navigate to it, even though the interface all but begs for that kind of interaction.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Despite using Yahoo Local database, POI search doesn't always show you places you know are there—this seems to be affected by how zoomed-in your are on the search map, but it's confusing.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

If you don't really know where to search for something, you're screwed.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Subscription of $10 up front, plus $10 each month thereafter, is fiscally unsound when compared to standalone apps, even $100 TomTom. GoKivo is, in effect, $120—per year.

I would be happy to give GoKivo a "Most Improved" award, based on how far it's come since earlier VZNavigator days. But in light of the cost structure, there's no way to recommend it. [iTunes link]

Sygic Mobile Maps America

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Sygic is, in some ways, the app I liked best of these three, but its proximity in cost and feature set to Navigon renders it more of a discounted impersonator.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

There's a powerful routing tool at the heart of Sygic, that lets you not only program a circuit of addresses, but lets you modify that circuit in many ways, simulate the run, and pull up a list of turns. It's also very easy to add destinations straight from the map, a feature not seen on all navi apps.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Like Navigon, Sygic can read street names aloud with text-to-speech functionality.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Fairly clean navigation screen, if you can get past the Euro stylings.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

There's no woman's voice for English turn-by-turn instructions, and the US English voice is named Lucien—no offense to dudes named Lucien, but that's proof of what you see throughout the app: Sygic is just too country-agnostic for a great US experience.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

Not only does the app block the all-important iPhone status bar at top, it doesn't even match some take-for-granted iPhone interface behaviors. For instance, instead of scrolling down a list by flicking up, you have to tap gingerly on up and down buttons on the side.

iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part II: The Best Cheap GPS App

POI search doesn't work at significant distances: only searches your surrounding 10 or 20 miles, unless you specify another town. (Navigon has a similar problem.) POI categories are also a little jumbled.

Sygic is, at this point, $30 cheaper than Navigon, and $40 cheaper than TomTom. The thing is, it's noticeably "cheaper" in the way it's designed too. Despite its functionality, it's not a good way to save money. [iTunes link]

In The End

You probably gathered by now that the good way to save money is to buy ALK's CoPilot. If you have the $60 to spend on Sygic, get CoPilot plus a year of CoPilot connected services. You'll still have money left over for an ice-cream cone—or a down payment on the $10-$30 car mount. GoKivo, like TeleNav's AT&T Navigator, is out because the $10/month model doesn't offer enough for its added cost.

If you want something more aesthetically sound than CoPilot—and there's no shame in that—Navigon is still the best bet. And though it's up to $90, that's not a terrible price compared to standalone products, and it does continue to gain features like text-to-speech for free. Whether you want to pay $25 extra for Navigon's live traffic is, for the moment, your call.

Click here for iPhone Navigation App Battlemodo, Part I, with introductory discussion about GPS iPhone apps in general.