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Top 5 GPS Apps For The iPhone

Find your way around town or across country with one of these navigation applications for your iPhone.

I have the worst sense of direction in the world. I couldn't find my way out of a wet paper bag with a fork and a flashlight. To complicate matters, I'm a guy, and guys don't stop and ask for directions.

I've used personal navigation assistants--PDAs or smartphones equipped with GPS--since 2004, and have graduated to navigating using both Android phones and iPhones. Pricing for navigation apps has changed over the years. You used to be able to buy the app with maps for one price and be done with it. Now, after your initial purchase, most navigation app publishers charge a subscription fee for the maps you need, or for other services such as live traffic. Maps can range in price from $0.99 to $30.00 or more.

Still, I wouldn't be without a GPS app. On Android, Google Maps Navigation is an awesome application and free to boot. No one has beat it yet. On my iPhone 4S, though, I'm at a navigational disadvantage. Google Maps for iOS hasn't seen any real improvement since July 2008.

To remedy my problem, I decided to take several GPS apps for the iPhone for a spin. I looked at nine in all. My favorites? TomTom for iOS was the best, followed by iGo primo, Garmin StreetPilot onDemand, Skobbler GPS Navigation 2, and Magellan RoadMate North America.

Apps that come with maps, or without?
All GPS apps obviously need maps to work. The question is, which is better: a storage-based GPS app, which comes bundled with maps, or a connectivity-based app, which downloads maps over a cellular connection as needed? Each has its pros and cons.

Connectivity-based apps offer the freshest, most up-to-date maps possible. The downside is that you'll need a solid 3G or 4G cellular data connection. Anything slower, such as GPRS or EDGE, won't work well, as your vehicle is likely going to be moving faster than your device can download data. In metropolitan areas where the coverage is good, this might not be an issue. But when you're driving out in the middle of nowhere, with spotty cell coverage, a connectivity-based GPS app might let you down.

Storage-based navigation apps get their maps a couple of different ways. Some apps download the entire map at time of purchase. Others let you purchase maps from within the app. Either way, all you'll need is a Wi-Fi connection. Though they conveniently don't require a cellular connection, storage-based GPS apps have their own drawbacks:

  • Maps take up lots of space.
    Maps and their metadata (points of interest, etc.) aren't small files. Accordingly you might have to cut back on the photos, music, videos, and other apps you keep on your iPhone. The storage-based navigation apps I looked at each needed a total of between 1.25 GB and 1.75 GB of space on my iPhone.
  • Maps become outdated.
    The biggest problem with any storage-based navigation app is that the maps get old. After about six months, the data in general is considered outdated. According to the US Department of Transportation, 15% of U.S. roads change every year. Most storage-based GPS apps offer some kind of annual subscription for refreshed maps. If you find an app you like and know you're going to use it, invest in the map subscription. Subscriptions usually cover two to four updates a year.

    A final word before we get to the reviews. There's been a lot of information released about the NTSB's distracted driving recommendations. Although I don't agree with all of their conclusions, the point about distracted driving is well taken. It should go without saying that you should download apps and set up your phone for navigation before you drive--not during.

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