CoPilot GPS review: You can argue with free

ALK Technologies free CoPilot GPS app offers downloadable maps, but route guidance is extremely hobbled because of a lack of turn graphics and voice prompts.

CoPilot GPS
The CoPilot GPS app offers very basic route guidance and does not recalculate automatically. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

When heavy hitters such as Microsoft and Google can offer iPhone navigation apps with turn-by-turn guidance for free, smaller companies find it tough to compete. ALK Technologies makes a play for continued relevance with its free CoPilot GPS iPhone app, building on the company's previous CoPilot Live Premium apps.

Free always sounds good, and CoPilot GPS makes its case against Google Maps and Microsoft Bing by offering downloadable maps. As part of the setup process, CoPilot GPS presents a list of maps for different regions you can download. With this very thoughtful approach, you can load up the U.S. and Canada, at 1.3GB, just the U.S., at 1.2GB, or individual regions, such as the Midwest, taking up 300MB. You can choose at any time to change the maps on your phone, as well.

To keep the downloads small, and make up for the app being free, CoPilot GPS does not include 3D, or perspective view, maps. Similar to the free competition, the maps only show in top-down view. However, CoPilot GPS does offer a variety of color schemes.

Where the interface for CoPilot Live Premium was confusing, ALK has cleaned up the menu structure in CoPilot GPS somewhat. The map screen shows a big, red button at the bottom labeled "Add Destination," and an odd little button made up of purple boxes opens up the Driving menu. This latter menu lets you switch to walking mode, and has the extremely useful "Cancel Destination" button, something ALK's paid navigation app lacked.

Along with downloadable maps, CoPilot GPS also offers better destination options than most of its free competition. Along with manual address entry, if offers saved locations, points of interest, and photo locations. This last is particularly cool, as it looks at the geotag for any photo stored on the iPhone and inputs that as the destination. The app also offers Wikipedia locations.

CoPilot GPS comes with an extensive points of interest database, but other destination options rely on an Internet connection.

CoPilot GPS
The app can set a destination based on the geotag from a photo. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Other cool features in CoPilot GPS are weather, a music player, and sharing options. The weather feature does not integrate with the maps, just launches a forecast for any location you specify. It, of course, relies on a data connection. The music player is a convenient way to access the iPhone's music library without leaving navigation.

The sharing options include Facebook and Twitter. Once you have signed in through the CoPilot GPS app, you can do useful things such as send a tweet about your ETA to a destination.

So far, so good, but the app takes a dive when it comes to route guidance. ALK's business model involves upselling users on voice prompts, which costs a flat upgrade fee of $19.99. Without this feature, it is very difficult to use CoPilot GPS for navigation, especially in a car.

The need to constantly look at the phone while driving makes it a bit dangerous, so it would be better to have a passenger using the app to help navigate. When under route guidance, the app shows your location on the route, along with an arrow showing the direction of your next turn. But it does not bring up any explicit graphics showing the upcoming turn as you get close.

Further, it does not automatically recalculate if you miss a turn. There is a big Recalculate button right on the map, which is helpful. However, when testing out the route guidance, we generally would only hit the button while at a stop light. The app did not remember which direction the car was going, so often it would come up with a new route going the other direction on the street. This proved very frustrating.

The voice prompt upgrade, an in-app purchase, also adds 3D maps and graphics for upcoming turns, which should make turn-by-turn navigation much more usable.

CoPilot GPS, without the voice prompt upgrade, seems worthwhile to keep around as an emergency backup, for those times you find yourself in a location without data access. However, it would never work as a primary navigation app.

Download the free CoPilot GPS app for iPhone.

 

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