iPhone sat-nav apps tested: On your bike

iPhone sat-navs are burning up iTunes, but how do they stack up to testing? We mounted our bicycles and hit the open road to pit them against each other and the free alternative, Google Maps

Flora Graham
7 min read

We're potty about cars, but with Crave Towers located in central London, even we're not crazy enough to actually drive one to work every day. Instead, we brave the mean streets on buses, Underground, trains and bikes, and while we rarely get lost down the Tube, we do sometimes need a little help when we're walking or cycling somewhere new.

We strapped on our helmets and took three of the most popular sat-navs for a test run around the concrete jungle to find out which was the best -- or at least the best of the worst. We tested the apps in the same 5-mile route from central London. We used an iPhone 3GS, although all these apps should work the same with the iPhone 3G, and we made sure the phone always had a clear view of the sky by using a handlebar mount.

Since you should keep your eyes on the road, we used Bluetooth headphones and tested each of the apps for the accuracy of the voice directions. We also listened to the iPod during our trips, to test how the sat-nav interrupted the music

Click 'Continue' to read how TomTom led us astray.

TomTom dominates the sat-nav market and was the golden child at the launch of the iPhone 3GS, but it's taken longer than most to get its app into iTunes. That may be because it was holding out for its hardware dock, which contains an extra GPS receiver. We can see why it wanted to wait, because TomTom shows off how weak the iPhone's GPS receiver is. It often had trouble getting a fix and keeping up to date as we moved.

We found TomTom slow to load, but we liked its large, clear menus. There are plenty of options for planning a route, from typing the postcode to just tapping the map, and you also get the IQ routes feature. This uses data about how long it took other drivers to take a certain trip, rather than depending on the length and speed limit of roads, so your route might change depending on the time of day. The data is gathered by knowing about most other TomToms and Vodafone phones, so although it's probably evil we're happy to use its suggestions.

TomTom takes advantage of the iPhone's multi-touch support in a few places, such as when you're browsing the map. But once your route has been planned, you can't touch the screen to scroll around the map or zoom in and out. Instead, touching the screen opened the menu, which may be normal in sat-nav world, but it's utterly unintuitive if you come from the land of iPhone apps. On the other hand, we liked that TomTom used the iPhone's standard on-screen keyboard.

We found TomTom was particularly bad at audible directions, and it sometimes interrupted our music for only half of the direction it was speaking, so we'd hear 'in 50 metres, turn...' and then we were left hanging for the most important part.

Considering TomTom is the most expensive of the sat-nav apps we tested by far, we expected it would blow the others out of the water. While some of the advanced features are good, and we liked that it used the iPhone's keyboard, without its hardware dock it's just not very good at being a sat-nav.

Download here from iTunes

Pedal-power rating

Click 'Continue' to find out how CoPilot kept us going.

Update: The TomTom car kit hardware dock is now available from the Apple store or from TomTom. It's £100, which doesn't include the TomTom app. Ouch!

CoPilot's user interface uses large, square on-screen icons, and although they weren't quite as pretty as TomTom's, we found them easy to use and more helpful-looking. Planning routes was simple and once it was done, we could use multi-touch to zoom and pan on the map, which is a massive win for CoPilot compared to the others.

CoPilot also includes some social-networking features, so you can share your destination with other CoPilot users or friends who are stalking you on the CoPilot Web site, which could conceivably be handy once in your life.

Like TomTom, CoPilot app often had a hard time determining our GPS position, but where TomTom won't let you continue until it gets a fix, CoPilot soldiered on. This meant we were sometimes left unsure whether our route was up-to-date or not, and we often missed our turns.

In our test, CoPilot was missing some map data -- for example, it wouldn't accept the street number of our destination. And it's own, shockingly awful keyboard isn't even Qwerty -- it shows letters in alphabetical order -- so we found it very difficult to type on. Other gaps in the application mean you can't browse the map without planning a route, and you can't plan a route just by tapping your destination on the map -- you must know the address.

CoPilot's multi-touch zoom and big icons were great, but we can't live without a decent Qwerty keyboard and map browsing.

Download here from iTunes 

Pedal-power rating

Click 'Continue' to find out more about up-and-coming sat-nav contender Sygic.

Update: CoPilot tells us that the latest update for its iPhone sat-nav app includes support for the iPhone's own keyboard. Chapeau!

We found Sygic's user interface difficult to use and confusing, and we hated how it battered us with warning screens every time we opened it. For example, we had to confirm we wanted to travel through the London congestion charge zone, even when we'd configured it to accept tolls all the time.

We found Sygic had the best grasp of cycle maps, however, even leading us through a good cycle path that didn't allow cars. While TomTom and CoPilot often came up with similar routes, Sygic plotted a very different route, which was longer but more bicycle-friendly, we thought.

Sygic's multi-touch support was the worst of the sat-navs we tested. Not only could you not interact with the map once your route was planned, like TomTom, there was no support for multi-touch zooming even when browsing the map. Instead, there's a sensitive zoom control that takes up too much screen real estate -- and it's ridiculous that you can zoom out to see the whole Earth. That might be a fun feature on Google Earth, but it's a waste of time when you're trying to get where you want to go.

Sygic plotted better cycle maps than the others, but it needs more fine-tuning in other areas.

Download here from iTunes 

Pedal-power rating

Click 'Continue' to read our conclusions, and the introduction of a little challenger called Google Maps.

All the sat-navs offered many of the same features, and we had no trouble plotting a route between two postcodes in London. All offered the choice between landscape and portrait views, which you can't get from most dedicated sat-navs.

Unfortunately, all had many of the same drawbacks too. Support for cycle routes was very poor, although Sygic was the best of a bad bunch. All of them directed us on to busy A roads, even where a bike route was nearby.

All the sat-navs also struggled with their GPS connections. Although the iPhone in our tests always had a direct line of sight to the sky, all the software struggled when we were surrounded by tall buildings -- which means most of the City of London was a failure zone. They also ate battery, with all three draining around 30 per cent during our 5-mile, 40-minute test.

Audible directions were almost universally useless, with demands to turn coming far too late to be useful or safe. When we went off-piste and took an alternative route, none of the sat-navs we tested did a good job of adapting. Most of the time, they either kept fruitlessly directing us the same route, or just asked us to "turn around when possible".

We also disliked all the sat-nav user interfaces, none of which followed the usual iPhone standards. Instead, each walked its own path of oddly grouped functions, shifting button locations, and unclear results -- although TomTom had the nicest-looking system, and CoPilot had the best use of multi-touch zoom.

Google Maps

Until the iPhone's GPS improves, we'll be sticking with Google Maps. It has a clear user interface that takes advantage of the iPhone's keyboard and multi-touch zoom, comes up with decent routes, does a great job searching for specific locations, and best of all it's free. It doesn't have many of the premium features the sat-navs boast, such as TomTom's IQ routes, but since many of those features don't work well on the iPhone, we don't think they're worth paying extra for. Unfortunately, it doesn't specifically support cycle routes, but its walking routes are often a good alternative.

The main advantage of sat-navs is they offer turn-by-turn navigation and all maps live on your phone, so you don't need a data connection to download maps as you go, like on Google Maps. In our tests, the turn-by-turn help was almost useless, so we'd only recommend an iPhone sat-nav app if you're likely to be travelling where you can't get data, or it's too expensive to roam abroad.

If money's no object, we think despite its flaws, TomTom edges out the competition. TomTom tells us when the hardware dock comes out it will significantly improve the app's performance -- but of course, that's even more money to lay out.

Both CoPilot and Sygic fight it out for last place, but they're much cheaper. Go with CoPilot if you like a smoother interface and social-networking features. Choose Sygic if you want to be able to browse the map Google-Maps-style when you're not following a route.