Navigation apps may be free, but portable GPS units still rule

Many smartphones offer free sat nav applications, but we're still buying dedicated nav devices by the container load. We take a look into the issues around their use, and compare free and paid apps against against GPS units.

It wasn't that long ago that for every car you owned, you had a street directory which you'd update every few years. For out of town or interstate trips, you'd pop down to the local branch of your state motoring association and pick up a few maps. It was all pretty simple until, of course, you got lost, in which you'd pull over to the side of the road to do a bit of map reading, scream at your poor navigator or, heaven forbid, balance the map on your lap and try to sneak a few peeks in at the traffic lights.

Then, along came GPS technology with the portable sat nav relegating the shouting, recrimination and the need to pull over to sepia-memories filed away along with your embarrassing baby photos and the glory days of World Series Cricket. So with mobile app stores teeming with sat nav applications and more and more smartphones offering free navigation services, are the days of the dedicated portable GPS device at an end?

We'd argue not. To understand why, we'll take a look at a host of navigation apps and see how they compare to your run-of-the-mill TomTom, Garmin, Navman, et al. We'll also take a look into the legal and other issues that surround using a mobile phone as a sat nav device.

Baked-in navigation apps

Nokia was the first to market a mobile phone that was able to successfully moonlight as a sat nav device, but for various reasons, the 6110 Navigator, and subsequent attempts, failed to light the public's imagination. It wasn't until 2010 when Google switched on its navigation app for Australian Android users that free-to-use navigation hit a critical mass down under. And if Apple decides to make the navigation feature of its new Google-free Maps app available to Aussies when iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 launch later this year, the question "should I ditch my TomTom/Garmin/Navman/etc in favour of my smartphone?" could well hit fever pitch.

Nokia offers free maps on all its latest Windows Phones. (Credit: Nokia)

We all love free, but that most lovely of four letter words usually comes with a caveat or two, whether it be lining up for hours on end or throwing away one's privacy. In the case of Google Maps Navigation, you need an active data connection as the app pulls down map information from the internet, as required. Regardless of whether you're travelling to the back of Bourke or just Bondi, the initial route calculation is done by Google's servers somewhere off in the ever popular cloud. Should you venture off course and lose data connectivity, your smartphone is able to perform route recalculation work on its own, so long as you don't venture beyond the map tiles that the app has downloaded in advance.

As the amount of data transferred during all of this is usually in the order of megabytes, rather than gigabytes, it shouldn't be particularly taxing for most users' data plans. But it does mean, though, that if you're intending to use Google Maps Navigation overseas, you'll need to suck it up and purchase a local SIM card with a data plan or exercise a little bit of ingenuity. For the latter, you'll need to be on a Wi-Fi network when you're entering your destination, not deviate too far off the beaten track or have a sudden change in plans.

If you're one of the few who have followed Nokia onto the Windows Phone platform, you're in luck, as the included Nokia Drive application is not only free, but works offline, too. That's because when it first starts up, it downloads all the mapping data for your current country. Once up and running, you're also able to store and use maps from seemingly every country in the world.

Other free apps

Apple iPhone users can experience the joy of the completely free offline navigation software right now by downloading any one of the various flavours of the NavFree app — NavFree is also available on Android, albeit for a vastly reduced number of countries. This app uses crowd sourced OpenStreetMap data and, as such, contains a few more errors, primarily missing traffic restrictions, compared to some others, which use commercially compiled maps.

The free OpenStreetMap project in action. (Credit: Openstreetmaps)

Address entry can be rather problematic at times, and it's not a small app to download — each country's edition of NavFree clocks in at around a gigabyte. All up, though, it's a pretty impressive piece of kit for zero dollars. It's best suited for overseas holidays and has saved this writer several times in a number of European countries.

Features-wise, all of the free nav apps listed above miss out on some of the features that we've become accustomed to on portable units, such as lane guidance, junction view graphics and camera warnings — although users of NavFree can purchase the latter for a few dollars, online. Unless you're using Google Maps Navigation with a data connection, you'll also have to do without spoken street names; Nokia Drive users can enjoy speed limit warnings as partial compensation.

Paid smartphone apps

If you can't live without some of those missing features, there are, at least for iPhone users, a number of apps out there, ready and waiting to help you out. Our favourite is the TomTom app that comes loaded with all the bells and whistles — lane guidance, junction view, spoken street names, speed limit information and camera warnings, while traffic info is an optional extra. In most situations, it works just as well as a standalone TomTom device, but for that privilege, you do pay a hefty price — AU$75 to be precise.

At AU$35 the Sygic navigation app is a cheaper option, but doesn't quite have either the visual or ease-of-use, spit and polish of the TomTom app.

The hidden cost

No matter whether you pay for your navigation app or use one provided gratis, there are additional costs to be paid, at least when you're using the device solo in Australia. In an effort to stamp out distracted drivers who steer and chat (or even worse, SMS) on their mobiles, state and territory laws forbid drivers on P and L plates from using mobile phones in any way, shape or form whilst the motor's running. Drivers with full licences are able to chat via a hands-free device or use their phone as a sat nav, but aren't allowed to touch their phone, even to turn it off, once the engine is started. Although laws vary state to state, generally speaking, dedicated portable navigators need only be mounted to a car and not display images, such as TV and video, which may unduly distract the driver or other drivers.

Phones being used as a sat nav device are required to be, essentially, mounted like a sat nav, which in practice means that you need to shell out for a windscreen mount. A USB charger that plugs into a car's 12V cigarette lighter port is also a highly recommended, as using a phone's GPS receiver is hard work on the battery. Good versions of each should set you back around AU$45 and AU$15, respectively. This, combined with any app purchases, moves the price of the set-up perilously close to that of an entry-level standalone GPS device.

But the biggest single factor of why standalone GPS units still sell in huge numbers every year is that, for most households, GPS devices live with a particular car. This way, regardless of who is driving the car, whether they're an Apple fanboy (or fangirl) or use an Android phone, there's a navigation option at hand, which you can just plug in, affix and go. Mobile phones, meanwhile, are very personal items. So, if you're thinking of doing away with portable sat navs forever, you'll need to ensure that every phone has a nav app (paid or otherwise), while every car will need to have the appropriate cradles and charging cables on hand.


Given the thrall that Apple has over Australian phone users, not to mention third-party accessories manufacturers, there's a chance that, come the launch of iOS 6 and the iPhone 5, assuming of course that Australia receives navigation as part of the package, the GPS landscape could be tilted in favour of smartphones.

For the time being, our advice is this: buy a Garmin/TomTom/Navman for the car. They are still more convenient, have fewer legal restrictions around their use, and some of the common features, such as lane guidance, camera warnings and speed limit info, are handy to have. Navigation apps may well have their day, but for now, they're best saved for when you're travelling overseas.

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