Free smartphone sat-nav apps - review

Why waste money on a dedicated in-car sat-nav when your smartphone can do the job for free?
 
 
 

Free smartphone sat-nav apps - review

  • Here Drive+ on phones
    Scott Colvey
    Last updated: 23 December 2013, 16:47 GMT

    Many people are now comfortable with the idea of using a satellite-navigation, or sat-nav, device for driving directions. Modern in-car sat-navs are convenient, reliable and – as long as you’re sensible enough to ignore erroneous suggestions to drive off cliffs – safe.


    But one thing dedicated sat-nav devices are not is cheap. Along with the device itself, sat-nav manufacturers will try to sell you all manner of extras – from new maps to traffic alerts.


    Alternatively, you could download a free sat-nav app for your smartphone. With a dashboard or windscreen bracket (buy one cheaply from eBay or Amazon), you could save a packet. But are these free-wheelers any good? Obviously voice directions are important, but what else should you look for? Will you get traffic alerts? European maps? Will you need a 3G data (mobile internet) connection? We took four popular options for a test drive.

     
     

     

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  • CoPilot Live screenshot BT
    Scott Colvey
    Last updated: 23 December 2013, 16:47 GMT
    BT rating
     

    Website: CoPilot

    Operating system: Android, iOS, Windows Phone

    Let’s be clear from the off: the free version of CoPilot Live which you can download to use offline doesn’t offer in-car sat-nav as you might know it.  Instead of the road-ahead view made familiar to drivers by the likes of TomTom, the giveaway CoPilot app displays only a bird’s eye view of the world – much like looking at a road atlas.

    If you want the full pseudo-3D effect, then you’ll need to pay to upgrade to the full version of the app (prices vary, but start at £19.99).

    The cheapskate in us think that this is a shame, but CoPilot Live is otherwise an excellent sat-nav app. Indeed, if you’re the type of driver that likes to keep their eyes on the road, then you might consider the 2D maps a bonus – because by nature they’re a tad less distracting.

    One particularly nifty feature of CoPilot Live is the option to choose the vehicle type. While Google Maps lets you choose only walking or driving direction, for example, CoPilot extends the transport options to motorcycles and motorhome – and then set journey preferences for each type of vehicle. If you drive a motorhome or tow a caravan, for example, this is a good way to plot routes that avoid narrow or winding roads.

    In fact, CoPilot Live’s vast array of settings, including loads of different voices and a selection map styles, mark it out as a sat-nav app that you should certainly try.

     
     

     

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  • CoPilot Live screenshot BT
    Scott Colvey
    Last updated: 23 December 2013, 16:47 GMT
    BT rating
     

    Website:  Google

    Operating system: Android, iOS,

    Owners of recent Android smartphones will find Google Maps installed and ready to use, while it is a free download for Apple iOS users (Google Maps included with iOS 5 and earlier does not include driving directions).

    Google Maps’ interface is barren, with the ‘flat’ interface and unlabelled icons proving confusing to some. In particular, our older testers preferred the CoPilot and Navfree interfaces – they’re just more traditional.

    On the plus side, setting directions is helped by Google’s excellent search capability: this is forgiving of basic misspellings, and will find landmarks as well as locations. As well, the 3D-style driving directions much feel like any other sat-nav device.

    Nicely, road names right down to street level are announced by the voice directions, which seems a natural way to receive guidance – “In 300 yards, turn left into Smithfield Close”, for example. The directions are also very accurate because Google owns some of the world’s best map data – and for the same reason the maps cover more or less the whole of the world.

    However, in terms of extras – there’s free, if basic, traffic information and that’s about it. It also suffers from one significant flaw: you can only download the current map screen to view offline, not a full route.

    In a connected world where every smartphone has a 3G data connection, this might sound like an empty complaint, but 3G data costs money and reception can be terrible outside of major towns and cities.  More than once we found the driving directions went haywire because we moved out of 3G coverage – and for a sat-nav app, that’s really the end of the road.

     
     

     

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  • Navfree screenshot BT
    Scott Colvey
    Last updated: 23 December 2013, 16:47 GMT
    BT rating
     

    Website: Navmii

    Operating system: Android, iOS

    Compared to the other sat-nav apps tested here, Navfree has a quaint look and feel about it, with icons that wouldn’t look out of place on a Fisher-Price tablet computer. That’s not a criticism, incidentally – there’s a lot to be said for large, colourful icons that make sense (as explained in the Drive+ and Google Maps reviews).

    Though Navfree is indeed free to download and use offline (so you don’t need 3G) for basic driving directions – there are various ‘base’ versions that each contain map data for a single country – pretty much everything else is a paid-for add-on.

    Want traffic alerts? That’s £1.99. Fancy a different voice? Time to cough up £2.99. Of course, this is not dissimilar to traditional sat-nav devices such as TomTom, so we’re not really complaining – but be aware that this free lunch is improved with a few paid-for side dishes.

    There are no surprises with Navfree’s driving directions or graphical style, though adverts do appear at the top of the map view.

    As with all the other sat-nav apps here, Navfree’s display rotates to reflect the smartphone’s orientation and in landscape mode the advert strip really gets in the way – particularly on a smaller-screened devices, such as iPhones. Again, this is something that can be fixed with a payment – adverts can be disabled with an in-app purchase of £1.49.

     
     

     

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  • Here Drive sceenshot
    Scott Colvey
    Last updated: 23 December 2013, 16:47 GMT
    BT rating
     

    Website: Nokia

    Operating system: Windows Phone

    In a world dominated by Apple iOS and Android, relatively few people own Windows Phone 8 handsets. But whatever you think of Microsoft’s tile-based, large-font interface, it works brilliantly in Here Drive+. The app is wonderfully easy to navigate, with giant, clearly-labelled controls throughout.

    There’s nothing revolutionary about the way Drive+ presents its driving directions – you can choose from the usual pseudo-3D effect or 2D view – but we did like the way that a local (as opposed to whole-route) overview can be summoned at any time with one tap: it can be very useful for a quick bit of context. In some places, 3D buildings are overlaid on the map too, which is more pretty than helpful.

    We really loved the My Commute feature. Supply Drive+ with basic details about your daily commute and the app ‘learns’ about your route: if a preferred road is suffering a traffic jam, then Drive+ plus will alert you – after a few days, it works well. As with the rest of Drive+, this is a completely free service to owners of Nokia Lumia handsets (owners non-Nokia Windows Phone handsets have to pay for the app).

    Like Google Maps, driving directions are available for most of the developed world but, unlike Google’s flawed effort, Drive+ allows you to download maps to your device, country by country (or region by region if storage space is tight) – so no 3G data connection is required when you’re actually driving.

    We could go on and on about what we like about Here Drive+ but in short, it is a great in-car sat-nav app – and that it’s free on Nokia Lumia smartphones and offers downloadable worldwide maps is just remarkable.

     
     

     

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