With a profusion of free and paid GPS map and navigation apps available for the Android OS, which of those free apps offers the best performance and options? In this hands-on review, Brighthand takes a look at five of the top free GPS options: Google Maps Navigation (GMN); Telenav GPS Navigator; GPS Essentials; Loopt; and Waze Social GPS & Live Traffic. We also pick a winner.
If you've ever handled an Android device, you've probably used Google Maps. Maybe you've even used this service to get directions via GPS. Did you know, though, that Google Maps now comes with a full fledged GPS navigation app? The unimaginatively named Google Maps Navigation (GMN) adds lots of features that the regular Google Maps doesn't offer: a 3D view, voice directions, and automatic route recalculation, for instance.
As with so many things from Google, Google Maps Navigation is still officially in beta, meaning that you use it without any guarantee that it will work quite right. Yet Google is equally famous for betas which work just as well as the final releases of apps from other companies.
GMN is no exception. If has the feel of a fairly well polished nav app, one which is simple but effective. The real strength of GMN can be found in the ability to use Google's large database of maps in addition to satellite and street-view imagery. Instead of simply telling you that your destination is 400 yards away, GMN will actually give you a street view of where your destination is located as you approach. That way, you can recognize the surroundings.
Also, while GMN is still dependent on online data, it handles caching carefully so that if you lose your data connection, you can continue navigating and even re-route if necessary. Working with GMN offline isn't as robust and reliable as if you had full maps residing on your device. Yet Google makes a nice attempt here at avoiding the major flaw of online navigation.
Telenav is almost as ubiquitous as Google Maps. Many smartphones come with Telenav preinstalled -- although as often as not, the app is hiding under another name, such as AT&T Navigator or Sprint Navigation.
Telenav offers a few more features than Google Maps Navigation, such as multiple route options. However, many of the most advanced capabilities require you to pay extra.
Telenav Premium gives you real time traffic incident reports, as well as warnings for speed limits and traffic cameras, and voice control, but at a cost of $3 a month or $21 a year.
So in the end, the free version ends up looking distinctly lackluster in comparison to the more feature-rich and better performing Google Maps Navigation.
Recently, Telenav has started introducing a new app called "Scout" which is designed to extend the Telenav brand. Scout includes cloud integration for plotting your route on a PC, along with direct integration with some car audio and video equipment. Currently Scout is only available for iPhone, but Telenav plans to release an edition for Android by the end of this year. So stay tuned on that.
Then, though, it adds a whole new layer of complexity, allowing you to track not just route and speed but also altitude, time, distance, sunrise and moonrise, battery temperature, and target altitude.
While GPS Essentials offers functions which could be useful to anyone, it's clear that some of the app's features are expressly targeted at pilots of small aircraft. There's even a mode to use the phone's camera and accelerometers to create a kind of "heads up display."
When you add all that to basic functions like mapping, navigation, route-finding, and GPS satellite status, you get a package that's not just very powerful, but incredibly flexible in how you want to apply it.
Most people don't really need all the kinds of tools that GPS Essentials provides, but if you're a slightly more advanced user -- maybe a hiker, pilot, or astronomer -- this app might be exactly what you want.
This app lets you tag your current location via GPS and make it available to your friends. You can also send short messages to them -- such as an invitation to dinner -- which are complete with GPS coordinates.
You can see which friends are located where, and you can even get alerts if a friend checks in nearby.
In other words, Loopt is more like a more precise and more directly sociable version of Google Latitude or Foursquare.
Yet unfortunately, for an app which is all about interacting with people, Loopt seems steadfastly determined to make sure as few people as possible are actually using the service.
While boasting about supporting "select phones" on every major carrier, Loopt refuses to support most of the popular available Android smartphones, including recent major releases like the Galaxy Nexus and Droid RAZR MAXX.
If you try to email them about these compatibility issues, you will be ignored.
Waze Social GPS & Live Traffic
Waze represents an attempt to fuse GPS navigation and user-created content. The lovechild of Google Maps and Pintrest, this app tracks the location of its users. It then uses that information to develop a very accurate live picture of how traffic is flowing.
Users can also report things like accidents, speed traps, road maintenance, traffic jams, and even inaccuracies in the map. Other users will then be alerted as they approach these problem spots. Waze also features auto-rerouting, so that if a traffic jam or accident plays out ahead of you, you'll automatically be alerted and diverted to a better alternate route.
But wait, you wonder. Back up! Did I just hear "tracks the location of its users"? Yes. While many apps are capable of gathering some location data, Waze is one of the few that literally depends on you to broadcast your location continuously while using it -- not just to the software company but also to alert other users so they can see where you are.
For obvious reasons, then, Waze can pose some fairly serious privacy issues. It's true that you can choose to remain anonymous on the Waze map by not registering for an account. Yet that's hardly much of a comfort since you'll still show up on the map. There, anyone can watch your little blip to see where it starts and stops, in which direction you're heading, and how fast. Also, the app permissions give Waze and its developers access to pretty much anything on your device.
Given that Waze has racked up more than 1 million downloads from Google, clearly a lot of people don't care about these privacy concerns. Yet some people probably do.
Considering the near universal availability of Google Maps Navigation, it's hard not to treat GMN as the ideal combination of convenience and thoroughness among free GPS apps. Beyond that, GMN puts in some effort to counteract the biggest weakness of free GPS apps, their dependency on a running internet connection.
So while it's not perfect, GMN definitely stands out as the best choice for simple GPS navigation. Honorable mention, though, goes to GPS Essentials, an app that provides the next best thing to a GPS-enabled Swiss Army Knife. Great for the power user, GPS Essentials gives you an an almost scary level of customization.
If you prefer Apple's smartphone, you should check out our run-down of free iPhone navigation apps. And, in a future article in this GPS series, we'll examine seven paid GPS apps for Android OS phones.
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