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Free GPS apps tested on the road

Head of testing Paul Smith put three free GPS apps through their paces earlier this week and there was one that came out a clear favourite.

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We last reviewed in-car navigation in August 2013, and before that in March 2012. Back in 2012, the only real option was to purchase a dedicated GPS device and then set aside a budget for regular map updates. By 2013, using a smartphone app was a viable alternative, particularly for people with only an occasional need for GPS navigation.

Apple Maps in action.
Apple Maps in action.

One year on, we are testing in-car navigation again and this time our first question “is it worth buying a dedicated in-car navigation device?” One year is a long time in the development of a smartphone app, so we’d expect to see significant progress. Before we conduct our full test with paid apps and dedicated devices, we have looked at a few free apps: Google Maps (Android, but also available for iOS and Windows phone), Apple maps (iOS only) and Here Drive+ (all Windows phones from release 8.1).

For this first look, we set up a route that covered urban and rural environments – between Wellington Airport and Makara Beach. We wanted to see how well the apps navigated across the city so we threw in a few intentionally missed turns to see how they responded. We were also interested in how well they followed rural roads, particularly when mobile reception was lost.

All three apps got us to our destination using a logical and sensible route. However, only one coped when mobile reception was lost and one tried to re-route us over a cliff when we missed a turn. After this brief test, we think only one could potentially challenge a dedicated in-car GPS device.

Base mapping data is key

Of the three apps tested, only Here Drive+ has a full map of New Zealand available offline. The downloaded map takes up 80MB of phone memory. Google and Apple Maps rely on a data connection to load a live map of the immediate area. When mobile signal is lost, the map stops refreshing. A recent update of Google Maps allows offline maps to be saved. However, these are limited to an area of 50km x 50km, are saved for only 30 days, aren’t searchable and they don’t work with navigation. So for the purpose of in-car navigation, Google Maps needs a data connection.

Setting up the route

With a data connection, all three apps provide a good search function, using the internet to search for anything from addresses to local businesses and points of interest. However, Google Maps was by far the most comprehensive—it was the only one to find the Consumer NZ office using just the search “Consumer NZ” where the others needed an address. None of the apps allowed me to add a “via” destination – visiting multiple destinations needs to be input as multiple trips.

Without a data connection it is a different story. Both Google and Apple Maps offer no ability to search for or select a destination without a data connection. The downloaded Here Drive+ map retains a search function when offline. It might not be as comprehensive as a full internet search, but it contained enough information for me to find and select my destinations and other points of interest.

Once a destination is selected, the apps calculate a route. Google and Apple Maps offer a choice of three routes presented on a map overview with distances and estimated travel times. It is up to the user to select the most suitable option. Google offers options to avoid tolls, motorways and ferries but Apple offers no customisation options. Here Drive+ provides just one route—the user can force the app to offer the fastest, shortest or a balanced route. There are also options to avoid tolls, motorways, ferries, tunnels and unsealed roads.

Guiding to the destination

Google Maps in action.
Google Maps in action.

We used Google and Apple Maps on an iPhone 5S. The screen wasn’t very big, which made it tricky to see the visual detail. The app design didn’t help—lots of detail was packed into the small space. I found I relied more on voice navigation, so I wasn’t distracted from driving. Here Drive+ was installed on a Nokia Lumia 820 with a slightly larger screen. The app design was clean and uncluttered in comparison to the other two, using large icons and symbols in lieu of text—it made the most of the screen space. Google Maps has the option of showing a satellite map, while the other two use a 3D street map. The satellite map didn’t offer anything more than the basic street map view and made the display more distracting.

Google Maps relied heavily on road names for guidance. This got confusing—I found myself looking for street names (not always easy to find) to confirm my route. Here Drive+ used road signs and destination information on main routes (“turn left towards Northland”) and, for the most part, the names matched signs on the roadside. It used street names when navigating through suburbs and in rural areas. Apple Maps used a confusing hybrid of both, which led to some real confusion. On leaving the airport I was told “in 3 kilometres, stay left on Sussex Street heading towards Porirua” (Porirua was the other side of the city, 25 kilometres from my location and I’d never heard of Sussex Street). All apps announced a few ghost turns when street names changed but the route didn’t need a turn—annoying but not a critical error (Apple was again the worst, getting confused by hairpin bends as I wound my way up Raroa Road in Aro Valley). All apps announced at least one turning a little late—as the junction arrived, and Apple Maps missed a critical turn on to Aro Street (although this was shown visually).

As my route took me out of mobile reception, the three apps continued to offer guidance. This was a surprise, as the map data on Google and Apple Maps stopped being refreshed. The apps saved the entire route and still gave me turn by turn navigation, despite no other mapping data being shown. I’ll be interested to test this again over a longer drive with no reception. Here Drive+ continued unaffected by the level of reception. To confirm this, I set the phone to flight mode and still received full navigation and mapping.

Going off-route

During the test I intentionally missed a few turns to see how the apps recalculated the route. Google Maps was the clear winner here, recalculating very quickly and advising a u-turn, before finding an alternative route when the turn wasn’t made. Note, however, that this relies on a data connection. Once out of mobile coverage, Google Maps cannot recalculate a route.

Here Drive+ also recalculated routes, although not quite as quickly as Google Maps. It refused to offer the option of a u-turn, which meant it recalculated a long alternative in one case.

Apple Maps recalculated routes quickly and, in the most part, they were logical. However, Apple Maps insisted I turned right onto a non-existent road and drive over a 40m drop. As with Google Maps, go off-route without a data connection and you are on your own.

Anything else to mention?

Here Drive+ displays the vehicle speed and provides warnings compared to posted speed limits. I was dubious about this at first, but they were accurate throughout my journey, picking up 30km/h zones in the city and rural speed limit changes. This feature works without a data connection too, and can be turned off.

Google Maps and Here Drive+ show some traffic data and recalculate journey time based on traffic delays. It was hard to tell in this short test how accurate the data was. Apple claims to use TomTom traffic data, but no traffic data was displayed in the app. None of the apps offered any lane guidance.

All of the apps lost the GPS signal through Mount Victoria tunnel, but regained it quickly. Here Drive+ and Google Maps didn’t drop the signal at all outside of the tunnel. Apple Maps dropped the signal a couple of times, each time announcing “proceed to the route” when reacquiring it, even though I hadn’t left the route.

All three apps burned through the phone battery quickly—the Nokia lasted just 90 minutes, while the iPhone made it close to 2 hours before dying.

And the winner is...

Here Drive+ is the one I’d choose. I found it the easiest to use and the most unobtrusive. The route recalculations could certainly be improved, and it isn’t perfect by any means. But it is free—it doesn’t even need a data connection once the base map is downloaded—and it did everything I’d expect from an in-car GPS navigation device. I’d also be happy to use Google Maps, as long as I stayed within network coverage. It isn’t as easy to use as Here Drive+ and was annoyingly complicated at times, but it got me to my destination with no real dramas and I’d trust it to do so again. I’d be reluctant to rely on Apple Maps, though. It got me to where I wanted to go, but the experience wasn’t great. Without local knowledge I would have made a wrong turn or two.

Ultimately, the offline capability of Here Drive+ makes it the clear winner—it’s the only one suitable for New Zealand given our patchy rural mobile coverage. Having to rely on a data connection is a deal-breaker for the others.

I’m really interested to see how Here Drive+ and Google Maps stack up against the paid apps and dedicated devices in the full test. The devices will have to be pretty good to justify their price tags.

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