Looking to get from A to B for free? Vodafone eForum Community Champion Nabs has been putting the best unpaid satnav apps to the test, so you don't have to.
It’s crazy to think that in just a few years satnavs have gone from dedicated dashboard-bound devices to free apps for our phones. It’s never been easier to get from A to B, but there’s also never been a bigger range of apps vying to plan your route.
To help you make your choice, Vodafone eForum Community Champion Nabs has been putting three of the best free satnav apps through a rigorous roadtest. He’s pitted the biggest name in the mapping game, the quiet contender and an open-source alternative against one another, but which one takes all the right turns? Read on to find out…
Sat nav apps: Blow-by-blow for turn-by-turn
If you routinely cover a lot of miles in the car you’ll know that having a satnav handy is essential. Luckily there’s now a myriad apps for each major mobile platform that’ll get you where you need to go accurately and for free – just slot your smartphone into a car cradle and you’ll be away. But which app should you entrust your journey to?
Google Maps has to be the most well-known player in the mapping space. It comes pre-installed on every Android phone, and is also available for free in the Apple App Store. It’s invaluable when it comes to finding nearby businesses and walking around big cities, but how does it fare when it comes to driving?
“Google Maps, obviously, has the mighty power of Google behind it,” says Nabs, “so the actual maps themselves tend to be really detailed – there’s a lot of information on offer here. In terms of navigation itself, the traffic information is very good and very reliable compared to some other apps, while Google’s also just added lane-assistance, which shows you which lane to be in for your turning.
“I tested the app in routes that I knew, but I can see that feature being really useful, even if it is limited to A-roads and motorways at the moment.
“The biggest downside here compared to some other apps is that you need a data connection to do most things with it. The app will pre-load the maps for your whole journey – so if you have signal at the start you’ll be fine – but if you’re out in the back o’ beyond when you begin your journey you might have trouble. You can download maps for offline use, but it’s not a very straightforward process.”
HERE Maps, currently available in full on Windows Phone and in Beta on Android, is the modern, consumer app incarnation of HERE, the mapping platform formerly owned by Nokia. HERE’s mapping tech handles the in-built, in-car satnav on a host of newer cars, but how does the app stack up?
“I found HERE Maps to be very accurate,” says Nabs. “The maps are really good and you can download them all for offline use – you can limit your selection down to a region or a whole country. I’ve downloaded the whole of Scotland for instance, and that’s really handy because it’s only 200MB, meaning it’s not a big drain on storage. What’s more, if you’ve got the maps saved offline it can still pinpoint where you are using just the phone’s GPS – which means it’s not reliant on a strong data connection.”
“It takes a little bit longer to locate you without mobile signal, but not so long that it’s not unusable (around 20-30 seconds).
“For driving, I wouldn’t say there’s anything glaringly missing. It’s got a cool feature called Collections, for example, where you can add a load of your saved places and it’ll remember them. That’s better than Google Maps, which just has presets for Home, Work and your search history.”
Do you like to root for the underdog? Navmii (formerly Nav Free), available on iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone, is an open source mapping app made by a handful of dedicated developers, promising quick updates and endless retooling. But is it better than the big players?
“Navmii is another good free navigation tool. Like a lot of the smaller free mapping apps, it uses OpenStreetMap data, which is a crowdsourced mapping platform. That means that anyone can go on to Open Street Map, open an account and modify the map – they can add things or take them off if they’re not relevant. What Nav Free does is adds navigation features to those maps.” That crowdsourcing model should mean that you get reliable, constantly updated information from people who really know about each area.”
“It means that in terms of raw mapping, it’s very similar to a lot of others found on the Play or App Store that uses this data,” Nabs adds. “But that’s a good thing: it’s clean and simple, and it has the option to add feedback to the maps if they’re wrong, right from within the app. Accuracy-wise it’s pretty spot on though, and it’s likely to get updates quicker than some bigger companies’ apps because it’s run by three independent people..”
And as for downsides? “You don’t get live traffic information for free on this app – it’s only available as an in-app purchase.” And if you’re feeling particularly flush, you can also pay for a selection of celebrity voices to guide you through your drive!
So is there a clear winner? Nabs believes that each app has its benefits – it’s all just a matter of personal taste:
“For driving I wouldn’t say that any one app is hugely better than the other two, but if you also walk around a lot I’d say that Google Maps has the edge because it has a heap of information for local businesses, as well as Street View. For online use it would have to be Google. If you’re stuck without a data connection then HERE Maps is best, while Navmii is a great alternative for supporters of open data.”