Smartphone sat nav

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With a mapping app, your smartphone can put you on the right road as easily as a specialist in-car sat nav. We take five for a drive.

Ovi Maps

Nokia’s mapping system runs on most of its smartphones. Although not quite as capable as the TomTom and CoPilot apps, Ovi outshines them in terms of value — especially if used overseas. That’s because, once you’ve downloaded a map, turn-by-turn navigation does not need an internet connection. So, load it with maps over wi-fi or a domestic 3G tariff before you travel and you will not incur exhorbitant overseas data costs, as you might if you use a system that needs constantly to refresh. (If you want traffic information, however, you’ll still need to connect to the internet.) Maps are available for more than 180 countries, 74 of which include spoken navigation, and the only limit to how many you carry is the phone’s memory. Download Nokia’s Own Voice app, record 53 phrases into the phone and you can even listen to directions in your own dulcet tones. Once installed to the phone, maps loaded quickly. They look workmanlike but aren’t as pretty as those generated by TomTom’s software, despite a few 3-D landmark buildings to help you get your bearings.


Google Maps Navigation


Running on most Android phones, Google’s turn-by-turn navigation does not skimp on features — it even supports voice recognition on selected handsets. In contrast to Ovi Maps, the software needs to be in constant contact with Google’s servers: the advantage is live traffic updates and no complete map downloads are required so you won’t stretch your phone’s memory, but you will need a solid data connection which, depending on your tariff and location, could be costly. The system is fast and responsive, although its voice gives some iffy pronunciations of British placenames. Map views are attractive and clear, and it can display Street View photos, too.


CoPilot Live

Available for Android, iPhone and Windows Mobile handsets, CoPilot Live offers more routing options than TomTom, including navigation for cycles and large vehicles (helpful if you are an HGV driver and want to avoid being featured in the Daily Mail after getting your vehicle stuck between two thatched cottages), as well as local searches and trip-editing features. But it’s not as simple to use as TomTom, or as good-looking — the driving view isn’t quite as clear. It also took longer to grab a satellite signal. You can plug addresses in straight from the phone’s contacts, although this was not reliable, while typing on the virtual keyboard was a little awkward. Traffic and fuel prices are available for an extra £20 a year.


This app looks and works in the same way as TomTom sat nav devices, with easy-to-use, attractive menus and features such as “IQ”, which chooses routes according to time of day. Despite the high price (and that shown is only for UK and Ireland mapping), traffic info costs an extra 59p per day or £5 a month. It recalculated routes marginally faster than its cheaper rivals, and the map and driving view were the easiest to read — clear and accurate with details of speed, distance and time to destination, as well as an ETA. But the real reason for purchase is its compatibility with TomTom’s £100 car kit, which fixes the iPhone to the windscreen and boosts satellite reception (as well as making the software work with the GPS-less iPod Touch and older iPhones).

Vodafone Navigation

Available on iPhones on Vodafone, as well as some own-brand handsets from the network, this app downloads maps as you go over 3G (it requires that wi-fi is turned off, and the updates will drain an iPhone’s battery in two hours). Subscriptions cost £5 for one month, £3 for successive months. UK network charges are included. The service is no better than its free rivals, with only basic information on screen — next junction, distance and time to destination, but little more. In tests, our iPhone sometimes lost the GPS signal, and the screen took time to refresh. But its mapping is pleasingly clear and simple to use, while its “Around Me” option is an effective local search, locating streets, cafes and more.

Does sat nav work on smartphones?

Yes — with compromises. Here are some pros and cons to mobile navigation.

Satellite reception
These apps use the same satellite network as traditional GPS devices, although reception is often inferior. All but Ovi Maps also demand A-GPS (assisted GPS), which needs an internet connection to refresh displays and add traffic data. This could prove expensive overseas.

Screen size
Mobile screens are not ideal for in-car use: they are smaller than most sat navs and can be harder to read in bright sunlight.

Walk, cycle, drive…
Most of these apps are more flexible than sat navs, with all but Vodafone’s offering walking directions. TomTom can also guide cyclists, while CoPilot Live has settings for motorbikes and even motorhomes.

Power usage
Except for the TomTom attached to its car kit, all were less than suitable for long use. Handsets get noticeably warmer while in sat nav mode and battery life is measured in mere hours. Best to buy an in-car power adaptor for your phone.

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