When your iPhone comes preloaded with multiple types of maps, you might wonder why you'd ever need a dedicated navigation app. Yet there they are in the App Store, at astronomical prices, like a digital clone of the GPS unit your dad had suction-cupped to his windshield.
With a road trip on the horizon, and, frankly, a desire to see what a $50 app even looks like, we downloaded four leading navigation apps and hit the highway. At the end of the journey, it's completely clear which one we want to keep on our phone forever.
We drove 800 miles from Brooklyn to Chicago, switching along the way between the USA navigation apps by Garmin, TomTom, Magellan, and Navigon. At each stop along the highway, we tested the apps' ability to find gas stations and other general roadside stuff, and we also pushed the apps to locate more specific destinations—we really needed a car wash on day 2, and one passenger had a deep craving for Chipotle. We used the apps' voice directions to guide us in to a few specific addresses, we read over the turn-by-turn directions, and we spent a lot of time pinching and zooming the various viewing modes on the maps.
If you use Android, Google's had turn-by-turn navigation built into its maps for years. For iOS users, Siri can read out a route for you via Apple Maps. So if all you want is basic guidance from point A to point B, then no, you don't need a navigation app.
One way these products earn their download price—and the nearly 2 GB of space they usually take up—is the way the voluminous map data is already stored on your phone, ready to load even with a weak connection. (That said, Apple Maps popped up instantly in rural western Pennsylvania, and also, you need some signal for the apps to locate your phone's GPS, so you're SOL if you get lost in the Holland Tunnel.) Also, Apple Maps was terrible at launch, and hasn't improved much since.
But the real skill of a navigation app is its ability to find things in the area that you wouldn't really even see when looking at a detailed map. A good navigation app can instantly, effortlessly guide you to the nearest Chipotle, no matter where in America you are.
These apps were tested using download codes supplied by the manufacturers, but the TomTom app was the only one I would have absolutely regretted buying. The 3D map cannot be manipulated via touchscreen—any swipe takes you back to the main menu. Until you disable the auto-zoom feature, pinching a map zooms in temporarily, but it settles back into its own predetermined level of zoom a second later. The 2D map interface, which you can actually adjust, looks like a Netscape-era Mapquest.
As for routing itself, the turn-by-turn directions only give you the total mileage—you don't see how many miles you'll travel on each particular road. You also don't get the compass directions for each leg of the route; just "turn right" or "turn left." When navigating to a particular point of interest, the app often lists the street address of the destination at the outset of the trip, but then checking the address again once you're en route is impossible. No address on "recent destinations" either—you have to start the navigation fresh from scratch, and then, you only see that address once. Using this app, a lot of the time, you just feel lost.
TomTom USA Stats
• Size: 1.4 GB
• Price: $50
• Gizrank: 1.5
The Navigon USA interface is clean, fairly easy to use, and it feels complete. You can access useful turn-by-turn directions that tell you the exact distance you'll travel on each leg of the route, followed by a specific instruction on the next turn (like, "sharp right"). Manipulating the 3D map is easy and intuitive. And with directions available if you're walking or taking public transportation, the app is useful even if you're going places without a car.
The Navigon's main drawback is just an excess of stuff you don't need. There's an iPod control on the map screen to take you back to your music. There's a feature called "Reality Scanner," which is a cool idea—point the phones camera at eye level in any direction, and the app tells you what points of interest lie 2,000 feet away. But it doesn't work that well. You can point it right at a business 25 feet away, and if it's not in Navigon's ecosystem, it just isn't part of your Reality Scan. And for all the extras, it's not that easy to do basic things—starting up a new navigation can require as many as five taps to basically say, yes, start the navigation.
One positive counterpoint to the bloat—Navigon is the only app tested that allows you to only download the maps of certain states for offline storage. If you never need directions in California, you can save hundreds of megabytes of phone space. With only parts of the East Coast and the Midwest loaded in, our version of Navigon USA was less than a third the size of the other apps.
Navigon USA Stats
• Size: 472 MB as configured
• Price: $50
• Gizrank: 2.5
The Garmin's interface is not the most intuitive, but it's completely functional once you learn where to look for the information. Everything you want to know is there. For example, destinations on any list, whether it's a point of interest search or the recently found spots, show their distance and the direction they are in respect to your position. If you know you're headed east, you can more quickly assess whether you want to bother plotting this pharmacy or that one when you can immediately see that it's roughly along your route. These details sound like small things, but they add up to make this app stand out.
The lists retain and show the destinations' street addresses. It takes two touches to start navigation to a new destination, one touch to get a look at the turn by turn, and one touch (from within that list only, strangely), to get to a 2D route overview. The 3D display is clean, even though the perimeter of the screen is cluttered with a few seldom-used features: There's a way to stop (but not restart) navigation, a link to buy some "extra" features from Garmin, and a button to report a traffic camera at any intersection. If you choose a particular destination from a list and set it to navigate, going back does not return you to the previous list—you have to start the search over. But, fortunately, the home screen is lean and uncluttered, and starting over from the "Where To?" button is not all that cumbersome.
Garmin USA Stats
• Size: 1.8 GB
• Price: $50
• Gizrank: 3.0
For $10 less than every other navigation app tested, the Magellan RoadMate does just about everything better. A single feature—OneTouch—makes a lot of the difference. This function, accessible on the main menu or (even better) on the map itself, is a customizable screen that can instantly load the destinations you routinely want the app to guide you to. You can also preset the searches you're always asking it to perform. In our case, the biggest help was a saved search for "Chipotle," which we could call up at any point along the trip, instantly accessing any tacos within striking distance. At the next exit, the saved search was ready with new data. (We also added a search for "taco" to the OneTouch menu as backup.)
The app is more customizable in other ways as well—you can easily configure your favorite icons on the main menu screen, and you can tap to switch between things like "distance to go," "ETA," and "heading" on your map's dashboard. Turn-by-turn directions are accessible via a single tap on the map, using an icon that actually looks like it would give you the turn-by-turn list. Your "history" not only shows the names and address of the recent destinations; it also shows the recent searches. And when you go back to the "point of interest" search list, your last search item remains called up, so you can easily browse the other options without starting from scratch.
The map itself is a clean design, even if it's not exactly beautiful. But it also has a nice detail—zoomed in, it uses the 3D perspective, but once you zoom out past a certain point, the orientation shifts to a clear 2D bird's-eye view. The other apps ask you to choose which view you'd like. But the RoadMate, with this feature and more, just knows what you need it to do.
Magellan RoadMate USA Stats
• Size: 1.6 GB
• Price: $40
• Gizrank: 3.5