Finding The Right GPS App For Your Mobile Phone

These days, nearly all mobile phones on the market now include some sort of GPS capability. That's a remarkable change. Just a few years ago, standalone GPS devices, which you stick on your windshield with a suction cup, were in the spotlight. These devices were a boon for anyone sick of getting lost, using paper maps, or printing out AA directions, all of which were driving distractions and potential safety risks.

Now cell phones can do the same thing for most consumers, with a few caveats.

As recently as a few years ago, it was still commonplace to find apps that lacked basic abilities such as text to speech, which pronounces street and exit names instead of just saying, "turn left in half a mile." Today, all of the major iPhone apps (including TomTom, Garmin and CoPilot) have virtual feature parity not just with each other, but with standalone GPS devices as well. All include lifetime map and real-time traffic updates, as well as ever-expanding POI (point-of-interest) databases.

Some smartphones even come with free navigation apps. That means no up-front price, no monthly fees, and no map, POI, or database update costs. The most obvious free app is Google Maps Navigation, which runs on Android smartphones such as the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III . The crowd-sourced Waze app is also gaining traction, especially on the iPhone.

Don't have a smartphone? Don't worry; the latest versions of the Java-based Google Maps, or Orange Maps for non-smartphones are quite good. The latter includes live traffic alerts, automatic rerouting in case of heavy traffic, safety camera alerts - although those monthly fees can certainly pile up. Orange Maps starts at £5 a month for some features and the fee rises to £7.50, for the more advanced options.

Phone Nav Drawbacks

The downsides are few, but important. Most mobile phone GPS apps are smart enough to switch to an incoming call automatically, and to resume navigation once the call is finished. But you'll lose the ability to hear directions during the call.

In addition - and this is purely from anecdotal evidence, although I have lots - mobile phone GPS chips still aren't quite as sensitive as the ones in standalone GPS devices. Having reviewed dozens of phones and GPS apps, I've found phones are prone to lose track of their current positions on occasion. I rarely see that happen with the many GPS devices I test, although it still does.

Two unrelated issues compound the problem. Some apps, such as Google Maps Navigation, still rely on mobile broadband to download route maps during navigation, in addition to using GPS for satellite positioning. That reduces accuracy in areas with poor wireless coverage. And many folks don't buy a separate windshield or a dashboard mount, instead leaving the cell phone in a cup-holder or on a seat where it has trouble picking up a GPS signal.

Device manufacturers could make that process easier. Few phones come with the necessary windshield mount, bracket, and suction cup. A basic mount runs about £19. TomTom sell an iPhone version for £80 that include a more accurate GPS radio, a power cord, and other niceties. But that figure can also buy any of several good low-end GPS devices, and you still have to budget separately for the app.

Despite those minor caveats, cell phone GPS apps are here to stay. Most industry analysts consider standalone GPS a declining market, one that could eventually disappear entirely in favour of mobile phones. We believe there will always be a market for larger, infotainment-style navigation systems for the car. And with street prices hovering around the £120 mark even for models with text to speech and updated maps, a standalone unit is practically an impulse buy now. But for people who don't want to shell out for - or carry - another gadget, your mobile phone is finally good enough to drive with.

  • Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
  • Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc.