Get Google Maps or get lost, both figuratively and literally. Is that all you need to know about navigation apps? Undeniably, Google Maps is the 800lb gorilla of navigation and GPS apps.
But it isn’t the only option. Nor, arguably, is as optimised for driving as opposed to generic navigation as some alternatives.
Google Maps is, of course, installed as standard on every smartphone running Google’s Android operating system. But it’s no longer there by default on Apple’s iPhones.
What’s more, there are alternatives that offer interesting driving-specific features and capabilities that Google Maps often doesn’t even attempt to emulate. Read on, therefore, for our guide to the best navigation app for drivers.
Let’s deal with that 800lb gorilla and also the elephant in the room. Yes, it’s Google Maps. Its biggest advantage involves the intergalactic sums of money Google has spent on physically mapping the world with satellites and via a fleet of car with cameras, sensors and scanners.
Apple has recently been trying to catch up, but Google has been at it for years and for now no other app comes close.
Since Google snapped up the competing Waze app, Google Maps has also benefited from the latter’s user-driven traffic and incident data. Take that information, combine it with the mapping data and Google’s broader search prowess including local data and you have a preposterously powerful combo.
Google Maps can also leverage Google’s voice recognition capabilities to input destinations and search locally. It’s more accurate than Apple’s Siri for nav input, though with iPhone rather than an Android handset, voice control is only available within the app itself. Of course, Google Maps is also free.
What Google Maps hasn’t always been so good at is the simple task of navigation. That’s improved recently with the addition of features like multiple waypoint support and improvements to Google Maps’ turn-by-turn interface. Android Auto also means you can mirror a streamlined version of the Google Maps interface on to supporting car infotainment screens.
Just remember that the ongoing war between Apple and Google means you can’t do the same using an iPhone and Apple CarPlay. Google Map’s overhauled interface is also great for searching and adding petrol stations while you’re en route, an extremely useful feature.
Google Maps still arguably isn’t fully optimised for driving. For instance, the audio guidance still doesn’t call out street names. Nor does it display the local speed limit in most territories.
However, Google Maps’ biggest weakness is related to its greatest strengths. Its essentially an online service. Yes, it is possible to downline maps and run them in offline mode. But that works best for something like a single city. Downloading, say, multiple countries in their entirety for a European tour isn’t really viable. With Google Maps, access to an internet connection is usually essential.
Very hard for general mapping, local searching and nav, assuming you have an always-available data connection
Only available on the iPhone, Apple’s Maps app had a shaky start thanks mainly to some fairly patchy mapping data. Things have improved noticeably since then and the accuracy of Apple Maps is no longer a major concern.
What’s more, it does have some advantages over its main competitor. For starters, the turn-by-turn navigation interface is arguably clearer and more intuitive than Google Maps. In fact, it’s rather reminiscent of a dedicated satnav device and in a good way. It’s that little bit easier to glance at the screen and immediately understand where you’re going and what the next turn is.
Being the default mapping application on the iPhone also comes with a number of advantages. Its performance has been thoroughly optimised for iPhone, so it’s very slick and responsive.
Likewise, as the default application destinations are automatically sent straight from other apps to Apple Maps, though some apps are capable of providing a choice of target navigation apps when multiple options are installed on a given iPhone.
Apple Maps also sports an advanced 3D view that renders buildings and landmarks in impressive detail. Where available, it can be a big help in helping you orientate yourself between with what the map is showing and the real world. The downside is that it’s only available in some locations.
The other big plus with Apple Maps is its integration with iOS generally as well as Apple’s Siri voice assistant. Apple Maps can pull destinations from all kinds of sources, including third party apps like OpenTable.
In theory, also, you can simply bark at your phone to take you to a destination and let Siri fire up Apple Maps. In practice, Siri is pretty unreliable for address input. The voice recognition within Apple Maps itself isn’t as accurate as Google Maps, either.
Apple Maps, like Google Maps, is also primarily an online application. Set your destination and initiate the route and it will cache the data offline. But stray too far off route or cancel the route and you’ll need an internet connection to get going again.
Apple Maps also lacks the wealth of local search data that comes with Google Maps and also its Street View feature. It also lacks that extra layer of traffic information and user-driven incident updates that can give Google Maps and Waze the edge in heavy traffic.
And like Google Maps, it isn’t hugely driver centric. Its support for displaying the local speed limit is patchy at best and it lacks driver-centric features like local speed limits and speed cameras.
Decent, well-integrated default app for iPhone users
The last of the big three navigation apps is Waze. As it happens, Waze has been owned by Google (or more accurately Google’s parent company) since 2013. Supposedly, Waze is run as a separate outfit from Google Maps.
But there has nonetheless been some significant cross pollination between the two apps. For example, Google Maps has taken traffic data from Waze, while Waze has pinched Street View from Google Maps.
However Google runs it, Waze is definitely something a little different. More than either Google Maps or Apple Maps, it’s an app squarely aimed at drivers. It’s also an app that’s driven by its users, it’s a ‘social’ navigation app.
An easy-to-use reporting system allows Waze users to upload traffic hot spots, car accidents, speed traps, road closures and more, all of is then available to other Waze users. You can even communicate with other users for more details.
Waze can also integrate cleverly with other apps and data. It can hook into Spotify, for instance, to allow for easier access to your music on the move. It can also pull data from Facebook and navigate you directly to events in your calendar. Clever.
Waze is also a little niftier when it comes to routing. Over time, Waze can learn your preferred route based on your driving patterns. It will still offer up alternatives based on what it calculates is the fastest route.
But it can adapt in terms of what it offers as a preferred route. It’s also arguably more proactive at reacting in real time to data from its users to reroute with the aim of avoiding jams and incidents. Even though Google Maps theoretically has access to the same data, it tends to be more conservative about how it uses it.
Waze is also fundamentally more driver centric thanks to support for local speed limits, including alerts when you breach the limit, plus a database of fixed speed camera locations.
It’s friendlier, more social and more driver-centric with top notch traffic data and routing
In an age of ubiquitous free mapping and nav apps, why would you actually pay for an app like CoPilot, especially when there are free alternatives that include offline maps? Because it’s more driver-centric than most of the freebies, that’s why.
The interface is thoroughly optimised for ease of use and legibility when driving, for instance. The timing and content of audio navigation prompts is probably as good as it gets, too. It also has a comprehensive database of speed cameras and more accurate and reliable speed limit display than the free options.
What it lacks is the wealth of local search data of apps like Google or the full operating system integration you get with Apple Maps. You pays your money (or not) and you takes your choice.
In many ways the driver’s choice, but expensive
Formerly Nokia Maps and now owned as a joint venture by Audi, BMW and Mercedes, Here WeGo is a straight forward free alternative to the big boys and an intriguing choice for anyone who wants to cut themselves free from either the Google or Apple ecosystem.
It matches Google Maps and Apple Maps broadly for functionality. That includes features like 3D maps including buildings and landmarks, voice control, traffic data and more. It’s well integrated into both the Android and iOS interfaces, too.
But Here WeGo’s killer feature is the ability to download entire country maps for free, worldwide. If you have sufficient storage space on your phone, it’s a great option for running offline.
Great for untethering from Google and Apple or running offline