Walt Mossberg

These Apps Help Users of iPhones Find Their Way

(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)

Among its many features, Apple’s iPhone is equipped with GPS and includes manual, written driving directions built into its standard Maps application. But that function doesn’t automatically bring up each turn sequentially, and it lacks voice prompts.

Now, a number of companies have launched, or will soon launch, iPhone apps that do offer voice-prompted, automated, turn-by-turn navigation. Of course, many other cellphones have long offered such services. But the iPhone’s large screen, decent mono speaker and large selection of car mounting kits make it a tempting navigation device.

I’ve been testing four such apps: from TomTom, Navigon, AT&T (T) and Fullpower. The last, called MotionX GPS Drive, isn’t available in Apple’s app store as I write this. In the case of the Navigon MobileNavigator, which is already available, I tested an updated version expected to hit the store shortly.

PTECH

TomTom’s iPhone app

One big downside: Because Apple doesn’t allow third-party iPhone apps to run simultaneously with the device’s core functions, any incoming or outgoing phone call will interrupt all these apps during routing. When the call is over, the apps will automatically resume and continue your route. And none of these apps work on the original iPhone, only the 3G and 3GS.

Some of the apps take up a large amount of space on your iPhone, because they store all their maps locally. Others are much slimmer, because they download the apps on the fly, but these require you to have good cellular or Wi-Fi coverage at least at the start of a navigation session.

In my tests, on both local streets and highways, all four apps ate up big chunks of the iPhone’s battery life. So, I recommend that you employ a car charger when running them. Also, they all work much better and more safely if you use a windshield or dashboard mount.

None of the apps stood out as much better than the others at navigation, though they have different styles and features. All include the usual lists of local businesses and other points of interest.

TomTom: The U.S. and Canada navigation app costs $100 and takes up a whopping 1.2 gigabytes of space on your phone. But there is no subscription fee and the maps are always present. Like a stand-alone navigation device, it uses big icons and lettering in its menus. It worked OK in my tests, except that it took a little longer than the others to acquire a GPS satellite signal to accurately situate itself. TomTom’s app doesn’t have live traffic information, doesn’t provide a text summary of your planned route, doesn’t announce street names and doesn’t integrate control of the iPhone’s music player.

Like all of its rivals, TomTom can fetch destinations from addresses in your iPhone contact list. But it didn’t understand a typical Washington, D.C., street name, such as “11th St., NE.” TomTom plans an extra-cost mounting kit that includes a better speaker, a power plug and a GPS receiver more potent than the iPhone’s.

Navigon MobileNavigator: This app costs $90, and it takes up 1.3 GB on the iPhone because it also stores all the maps. There is no recurring fee. I thought Navigon had the cleanest interface and the best 3D map view, including representations of some highway-exit and speed-limit signs. It also barks the word “caution” when you are speeding.

But the Navigon voice was the least distinct, and while it generally did OK, it thought my D.C. test address was a bridge. It also lacks a route summary and live-traffic reports, though the update I tested now announces street names and integrates music control.

MotionX-GPS Drive: Of all the apps, this one looks and works most like a typical iPod app, and least like a navigation program ported from another device. Its main screen has a clever menu arranged in a circle. It’s also fairly small—just 10 megabytes or so. But it must download maps and other info each time you start a route. This also allows it to update the information on the fly. Drive also is potentially the cheapest of the four apps I tested. It will cost $1.99 and include a 30-day free trial. After that, it’s $25 a year.

This app worked well in my tests, and is packed with features, including live traffic, a route summary, and integrated music control. It understood my D.C. test address, but it doesn’t announce street names, and its function buttons are very small and labeled with tiny type.

AT&T Navigator: The iPhone version of this existing service, like Drive, downloads maps and info on the fly, but it takes up even less space on the phone—just 2.3 megabytes. That means you need a good connection at the start of a trip. It worked OK for me. Its interface is clean, and it has a route summary, live traffic and announcement of street names. It also understood my D.C. test address. And it synchronizes saved addresses with a Web site. But it is potentially the priciest. The app itself is free but usage costs $10 a month.

None of these apps is perfect, but each adds a new dimension to the iPhone.

Corrections and Amplifications

An earlier version of this column mistakenly said the Navigon app could synchronize with a web site for trip planning.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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