Android Apporama: GPS & Navigation
One of the many things that smartphones are good for is car navigation. Android comes with the Google Maps navigation system, but you may be interested in alternatives either because there may be something better out there (there is) or because you want to be able to use maps offline. So over the past several weeks, I’ve been using nearly every mapping option I could find, looking for the perfect free or near-free offline navigating option. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it. I did find some options that would work in a pinch. I looked at Accuracy (How up-to-date and comprehensive are the maps), Appearance (Does it look cool?), Addressing (How capable and convenient was it finding addresses), Estimations (How well it could guess how long it would take), Exploration (Can you use it to drive around without a destination in mind?) Offline Status (does it work offline), Retention (Did the program stay open and remember your route if you switched over to the music player and back), Features (what else it can do), and Voice (Whether it pauses your music while it’s talking, for example). Any grade not listed is a “C” which means that it was satisfactory but did not exceed expectations at all.
If you want to use the device a lot, I strongly recommend that you put down for one of the two premium options. Note that unlike most Android apps, you can only install either premium on one device per license.
Good: Accuracy (A), Appearance (B+), Addressing (A-), Estimations (A), Exploration (A), Retention (A), Features (A+), Voice (A)
Bad: Offline Status (F)
Summary: Except when I am either minding my data usage or testing alternatives, I almost exclusively use Waze. Not only does it get you from Point A to Point B, but it is remarkable at finding the best routes to do so and comes with some special features. It uses data from other drivers to monitor traffic speeds and give you the best estimates possible. Upon leaving my house and driving to Mark Thompson’s, a 230 miles trip, it estimated within five minutes how long the trip would take, and that’s despite uneven traffic, toll booths, and so on. It’s done this more than once. When there is unforeseen traffic, it will update your ETA accordingly and offer you alternative routes. When the turnabout was added, the map was updated within two weeks. It speaks clearly, pauses music while it’s talking, and pronounces the names of the streets that you’re supposed to turn on so that you don’t have to look at the device. In addition to all of this, there is a fuzz reporting system. People report cops looking for speeders and red light cameras, so you are often made aware when you are entering a speed trap. Waze virtually never has trouble finding an address (though it’s imperfect at directing you to the exact house on a street sometimes). There is, however, virtually no offline functionality.
Good: Accuracy (A), Appearance (B), Addressing (A+), Estimations (B+), Exploration (B), Retention (A), Features (A), Voice (A)
Bad: Offline Status (D)
Summary: Google tries really had to gear you towards Google Maps, so when you find an address on Google Maps or with Google Now, it makes it kind of difficult to use anything else. Which is mostly fine, because Google Maps will get you where you want to go. It’s by far the most integrated of the mapping programs. There is an offline option, but it’s very geographically limited, which is kind of self-defeating because you’re most going to want to use it when you are out of your own neighborhood. If you disconnect from being online, it will continue to work unless you go off-route.
A couple things that apply to all of the offline maps. Unless you upgrade maps (and you shouldn’t, because if you want to pay anything more than a nominal fee you should skip straight to “Premium” below) you will be using OpenStreetMaps, which is the Wikipedia of mapmaking. It’s not as bad as it sounds! It won’t drive you into a lake! The biggest issue where it comes into play is when you’re trying to find a specific address. A lot of them simply aren’t there, so you may have to improvise by finding a nearby intersection. Also, unless otherwise noted, you do have to be connected to the Internet in order to look up addresses or to simply enter an address, which is annoying if you have designs on using a device without Internet as an impromptu GPS system. However! You can still use these maps to save on your data plan if you have a light one. This can make it helpful to have one of these on your phone.
Good: Accuracy (B), Retention (A-), Features (C+)
Bad: Appearance (C-), Exploration (D+)
Summary: MapFactor is, compared to all other options, kind of ugly and bland in its interface (and you can only explore – sans navigation destination – in 2D). That’s not a bad problem to have, in the overall. Everything else is… adequate. If you’re trying to listen to music or an audiobook, the voice will try to speak over it. You can, however, turn the voice off (it’s not intuitive, you have to change Language from English to None). On the Retention front, it does loose the route sometimes if you keep it off the screen for too long, but it only happened rarely and it easily returns you on your route after you reopen. It translates and parses address from the Contacts list well and easily. Also, once you are at a place, if you want to save it under Favorites, it is easier with MapFactor than with any of the other apps, free or premium.
Note: MapFactor has the option to buy professional maps in addition to using OSM for free. I didn’t investigate this option and do not recommend it unless you need somewhere where you can install the maps on your SD card (the other premium options won’t let you do that).
Scout GPS Navigation & Maps
Good: Accuracy (B), Appearance (B) Exploration (B), Retention (B+)
Bad: Voice (I)
Summary: Note that this one, in the appstore, may be listed as Skobbler, which is the company that was purchased by Scout recently. This one is right up there with MapFactor. It looks nicer than MapFactor, though like MapFactor is won’t let you do much of anything as far as setting routes if you are not connected to the Internet. I gave it an “I” on Voice because it is both better and worse than the rest in this category. It’s better in that it you can hear it clearly because it suppresses the volume of any music you might be listening to, but it’s worse in that you cannot turn the voice off without also turning the music off. I find that the latter outweighs the former and that reason alone pushes MapFactor to #1, but if you want to listen to music from your car radio, then it’s a draw. For my own part, if Scout fixes this, it will be my go-to choice for free navigation software.
Note: Scout’s online-only option is free. To go offline, you do have to buy the app, which costs all of $2 and which you can install on multiple devices.
BE-ON-ROAD GPS Navigation
Good: Accuracy (B), Appearance (B), Exploration (B), Offline Status (B), Retention (B+)
Bad: Comprehensiveness (F), Features (D)
Summary: BOR cannot import anything from contacts at all, despite ostensibly having that functionality. But! On the off-chance that the address you are looking for is in the system, this is the sole app of the group where you don’t need to be offline to do it (which is why it has a better “Offline Status” grade than the others). Like MapFactor and Navfree, its voice will try to talk over the audio, but you can turn off voice if you are so inclined. There is little in the way of features. If something is out of date, it will go out of its way to annoy you until you update it. Other than that, it… has a really kick-ass logo?
Note: BOR will attempt to steer you towards purchased maps on a trial basis. Make sure you’re getting the free ones or the maps will stop working after a week or so.
Good: Accuracy (B), Appearance (A), Exploration (A), Offline Status (B)
Bad: Comprehensiveness (F), Retention (F)
Summary: The second that NavFree first loaded up, I wanted to love it. The visuals are gorgeous. Better than all of the competition by a mile, including the premium options. Somebody should buy their graphics and then put a real mapping program behind it. Because as much as I wanted to love it, NavFree’s retention is beyond bad. I stopped using it because it seemed like every time I swiped it to move the music to the next song or pause the audiobook or anything it would forget what I was doing and where I was going and I would have to start from scratch, which I am not willing to do in a moving vehicle. Especially since trying to insert an address into the device is a pain and a half. It cannot parse even the most obvious of addresses from the Contacts list. If I had 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on my contact list (which I do, either for the sake of these tests or because Obama and I are buds, you pick), it would shrug in confusion if I tried to draw that from contacts, but if I insert it manually it can find it then. I really, really hope somebody buys the graphics from NavFree and puts it to good use. Until then, it’s only useful for very aesthetically pleasing exploration.
Note: NavFree has a purchased-maps option. It is not recommended. Also, if you wish to download this, make sure to download NavFree USA if you are in the United States. If you’re anywhere else, download the other version.
Do not get this app. Do not waste precious storage space on this app. And under no circumstances should you try to use this app if you actually intend to go anywhere.
Note: You can buy a premium version, which includes more than a handful of states, for $8.
Good: Accuracy (B+), Appearance (B-), Addressing (B+), Offline (A), Retention (B), Features (A)
Bad: Estimation (C-), Exploration (D-) Voice (D)
Summary: Due to some early frustration with Sygic, CoPilot has been my go-to offline mapping program for some time. It’s very functional. You can do anything you want while offline, it has loads of options, looks okay, and can find most addresses. It simply gets the job done. It does have a few downsides, such as an inability to install the maps on an external SD card (Sygic has the same limitation) and poor exploration capability. It’s ETA’s, however, can be wildly off-base if you are driving down certain state highways (it’s good on Interstates). Also, if you have voice on but are listening to an audiobook, it will pause the audiobook and then won’t restart it when it’s done.
Note: CoPilot ($30)has a free option, which you can install on one device. However, it has limited capabilities and only works in 2D. I did not try this one.
Good: Accuracy (B+), Appearance (A-), Addressing (B+), Exploration (A), Offline (A), Features (A), Voice (A)
Bad: Retention (C-)
Summary: Next to Navfree, Sygic is probably the nicest looking of the bunch. It is inferior to Copilot in the more important respects, but it does have that advantage. Retention isn’t perfect for Sygic, but if it closes in the background it does make it easy to bring up your route again. The maps are larger for Sygic than Copilot and cannot be installed on your SD card. I have the maps of nine states on there, and it takes up more space than Copilot which has all points east of Illinois and all the way to Texas in the South, and Sygic takes up more space. On the other hand, Copilot makes you download by region while Sygic lets you download individual states so if you’re not regularly traveling to other states you may be able to save space.
Note: Sygic has a free seven-day trial. It will annoy you with some pop-ups asking you if you want to purchase. It cost me $33 on sale.