Forget about buying a dedicated portable navigation device (PND) for your car. Navigation apps provide all the features of PNDs plus more, and at much lower prices (you can’t find a better price than “free”). Since apps integrate with the rest of your device, they can offer unique features that an isolated PND can’t match.

Important Differences

There are important differences among navigation apps, for example, how they function and the quality of guidance they offer. A little knowledge of these distinctions will help you choose the one that’s right for you.

App Size Matters

The biggest difference is app size. While some apps store their maps onboard, taking up gigabytes of space, others rely on maps downloaded from Internet-based servers as needed. The latter type requires only megabytes of permanent storage space, but draws more heavily from your data plan.

Getting Traffic Info

Another distinction is how an app obtains and deals with traffic information. This is an increasingly popular feature, and the quality and reliability varies widely from app to app. All navigation apps offering "real-time" traffic data get their information from each state’s Department of Transportation (DOT), which uses sensors embedded into the road to monitor traffic flow on highways and interstates. These apps also get information from local authorities who respond to accidents on arterial or neighborhood streets.

In addition, some of the better apps use your phone’s GPS to determine your vehicle’s location, direction, and speed and then transmits this data anonymously to a cloud-based server network. There, it is analyzed with similar information from other drivers and ultimately fed back to the individual app as "crowdsourced" real-time traffic information.

"MotionX GPS can interpret traffic impacts of local events, such as a rock concert or a sports game."

However, the quality of this crowdsourced data also can vary from app to app, depending on the kinds of users and the quality of the analysis performed “in the cloud.” For example, crowdsourced traffic information supplied by INRIX, a company that supports several different navigation apps, is based on both data feeds from individual apps as well as from commercial fleet drivers who continuously report to INRIX throughout eight hour shifts. This broad base of data, in addition to its frequent updating, generally results in more accurate traffic information coming back to the INRIX-supported apps: NAVIGON MobileNavigator, MotionX GPS Drive, and CoPilot Live.

An interesting feature unique to INRIX is its "predictive traffic" capability. It uses real-time and historical traffic information as well as proprietary technology that interprets the traffic impacts of local events ––such as a rock concert or a sports game––to provide “traffic forecasts” to supported apps. Among navigation apps, only MotionX GPS takes advantage of this feature.

Crowdsourcing the Data

Other traffic information suppliers provide crowdsourced data to other apps, but use their own analytic technology to interpret it and, as a result, may return different conclusions about traffic on the same stretch of road. A company named NAVTEQ, for example, is behind the real-time traffic in the StreetPilot app from Garmin ($59.99,

By contrast, an app named Waze (Free, collects data from its users only, which means it relies on more limited crowdsourced traffic information than either INRIX or NAVTEQ provides. This, in turn, could mean spotty coverage that yields a shortage of data or old data, which may return unreliable traffic information to the app.

Rounding Up the Best Navigation Apps

NAVIGON MobileNavigator

($59.99 +extra features via in-app purchases,

MobileNavigatorThis app underwent a major update this fall. New features include using multi-touch gestures and animated menus for fast switching between pages, 3D maps that can be zoomed and rotated in any direction, and a simpler user interface; tapping a point of interest (POI) on a map instantly adds it to a route. Map management has been improved, too: The new MyMaps function lets users store only the maps they choose––such as a single state map––to reduce the app’s size. The new FreshMaps option, for a one-time fee, provides lifetime quarterly map updates. Additionally, the INRIX-based Traffic Live service is available by subscription for $20 per year.

Garmin StreetPilot

($59.99,; “OnDemand” Version: $99,

Garmin StreetPilot

StreetPilot stores the app’s maps in the phone, while the “OnDemand” version downloads maps from the Internet as needed. This is the first iPhone navigation app to include multimodal pedestrian routing with bus and train transit schedules in many major cities. The low price of the “OnDemand” version only buys full-functionality for 30 days. A subscription ($3 per month or $30 per year) is required to continue to use key features––such as spoken turn-by-turn directions with street names, 3D maps, real-time traffic re-routing, photorealistic Junction View (which provides a photo-realistic rendering of highway interchanges with lane guidance) and Google Local Search.

Magellan RoadMate


Magellan RoadMate

The RoadMate app from Magellan, also recently updated, now offers a photorealistic Junction View plus red light and fixed speed camera alerts to help avoid tickets. Other notable features include free real-time traffic information, location-based promotional offers and coupons from merchants along the route, and POI sharing with friends via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

CoPilot Live

($9.99,; Premium version: $24.99,

CoPilot Live

CoPilot Live offers an impressive array of features for little cost, including voice-guided turnby-turn directions, real-time weather forecasts at the current location and the destination, Bing Local Search, and Wikipedia Search. The Premium app adds more advanced features such as 3D maps, the Take Me to My Car parking spot locator, specific navigation functions for RVs, motorcycles, and bicycles, a junction view named ClearTurn, and lane assistance. The INRIX-based ActiveTraffic feature is available by subscription for $10 per year, and a subscription to real-time fuel price data costs $5 per year.




TomTom sells a variety of navigation apps covering North American countries (USA, Canada, and Mexico). Their standard features include: fuel-saving eco-routes, multi-stop routes with up to five waypoints, photorealistic lane guidance, spoken street names, and Google Local Search. Real-time traffic functionality is optional; it costs $20 for a 12-month subscription.

MotionX GPS Drive

($.99 + extra features via in-app purchases,


One of the most popular "off-board maps" navigation apps is MotionX GPS Drive. It was recently optimized for iOS 5 with Twitter integration. You can Tweet current location, destination, and estimated time of arrival. It also features a voice navigation mute button on the Map view, and backups of routes and locations to iCloud. Its impressive array of standard features includes multi-stop routing, Bing Local Search, and Wikipedia search. In addition, INRIX-based real-time and predictive traffic information with traffic-influenced routing, as well as cached routes, map, and other related features are free for 30 days––then cost $3 per month or $20 per year by subscription.




Completely revised with all new code this fall, Waze is a "social driving and navigation app" that utilizes off-board maps. It also provides free voice-guided, real-time, turn-by-turn guidance with available automatic re-routing based on real-time traffic, construction, road hazards, and police information––provided by other "Wazers" in the app’s community. New features include swipe gesture shortcuts to the main screen and traffic reporting, estimated time of arrival (ETA) pop-ups triggered by changes along the route, and a built-in POI search function that is fully integrated with Yelp, foursquare, and Bing.

INRIX Traffic

(Free, ; Pro Version: $24.99, via in-app purchase)


This app is built for daily commuters already familiar with their routes, but who need some advice about the fastest way to go. INRIX Traffic provides real-time traffic and traffic forecasts that cover highways and Interstates as well as arterials and city streets. The app offers information about accidents, police incidents, construction and events, plus a "comparative traffic" map that shows at a glance whether current conditions are better or worse than normal. The Pro Version provides additional road coverage on arterials and other secondary roads, views from live traffic cameras on roads nationwide, the ability to save destinations, and a timeline function that reveals the fastest route, best time to leave, and ETA.

With all of these navigation apps available, and with many more arriving at the App Store every day, who needs a dedicated portable navigation device? There’s never been a better and easier time to beat the rush.

Steering Through the World of Navigation Apps
January-February 2012
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