GPS technology has freed us from the tyranny of the printed, folding map. But at the same time, it has made us slaves to our cellular provider’s data plan. Many of the leading GPS and mapping app providers, including Waze, Apple Maps, and Google Maps, will only work if you’re connected to a network. These services aren’t preloaded with map information. Rather they send relevant maps to your phone on the fly, over the air. (Google Maps has limited offline map support, allowing for downloads of maps that are a maximum of 50km x 50km square, which is fine for city walks but insufficient for even a modest day trip.)
So what do you do when travel takes you off the grid, or into a foreign land where your data plan doesn’t work? Suggestions like “switch to another carrier” or “carry a standalone GPS device” aren’t altogether helpful to the vast majority of users who simply want to use their trusty smart phone to navigate hostile territory like they’ve become accustomed.
Fortunately, there’s a solution: GPS with offline map support. A number of GPS app providers let you (or even require you to) download maps for offline use as a key feature of the system. With offline maps, your phone uses its built-in GPS radio (which works independently of your data plan) to figure out where you are, then simply plots your route on a map that’s stored in your phone’s memory. With a capable offline GPS app, you won’t notice much of a difference versus the traditional maps-on-the-fly method.
To get a look at the market for offline GPS systems, I downloaded four of the most notable names in GPS that support offline maps, turned my cellular data services off, and hit the road. These apps don’t represent every last offline GPS tool on the market, but they do cut through a good cross-section of some of the most capable solutions out there.
Sygic GPS Navigation (RATING: 7; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; free app, world map is $50, but promotions are common) is a full-featured navigation system, though it’s considerably less user-friendly than I’d like. Before you get started, you select the states or countries you’re traveling in, then download the maps to your device. For 50 bucks, you can get offline maps for most of the paved world.
Search is slow but otherwise capable, even when you’re disconnected from data. There’s no POI search feature (though a few key POIs like gas stations do appear on the map), so all waypoints or destinations require a physical address, and you’ll need to enter that information piece by piece—first city, then street, then house number—rather than all at once like you might be accustomed to.
On the road, Sygic offers both a top-down 2D view and a smart-looking 3D display, complete with local topography. Both are presented in vibrant color, which helps map features stand out when you’re driving. I preferred driving with the 3D display, both from an aesthetic and usability standpoint; all told it’s probably the prettiest looking GPS app in this roundup.
Sygic ships with metric units by default and tends to be quite chatty when using voice navigation. One of the first things you’ll want to do is turn off the audio notifications when you’re speeding; the spoken nagging about it makes for the absolutely worst driving companion ever. Otherwise, instructions are helpful, accurate, and delivered in a timely fashion, and Sygic recovers quickly with new instructions if you miss a turn or take a detour.
While some of the onscreen elements are a little too small to make out at a glance and more than a few elements of the interface are needlessly complicated, on the whole, Sygic is worth consideration. Additional features (all cost extra) include walking instructions, live traffic alerts, speed camera location information, photo-navigation, a heads-up display system, a dashcam feature, and celebrity voices—including both Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns(!).
Navmii (RATING: 8; iOS, Android, BlackBerry, Windows Phone; free app, national map packs are under $5 each), formerly known as Navfree, is an exemplary app that is well worth considering, mainly because most of the functionality of the app, including map packs and offline use, is totally free. Android users can download a single app that covers the whole world, but iOS users have to pick from more than 20 regional options. Within iOS (reviewed here), you can download additional country packs for a nominal fee (the fee varies based on the region).
Navmii is ad-supported, but those ads can be removed with a whopping $2 investment. Even with them, the app is easy to navigate. Designed with streamlined efficiency and a minimalist aesthetic, Navmii gets you from point A to point B as seamlessly as possible. Search is natural and lets you search for full addresses or points of interest. On the road, the interface is presented in a pared-down, Apple-like motif, with minimal clutter and color. While driving, POIs are mostly hidden by default; you can activate them on a category basis. The app really seems to be tuned for efficiency; roads don’t really curve so much as kink angularly at intervals, and spoken directions don’t announce street names.
Much like Waze, Navmii is designed to crowdsource traffic, road hazard, and other driving information (like the location of speed traps), but in offline mode these features of course don’t work. (Speed/red light camera information is one of the few add-ons you can download for a small fee.) But whether you’re online or off, in the car or on foot, Navmii is really a breeze to use—natural and intuitive and, most of all, fast. At the very least, there’s no risk to give it a try—and downloadable celebrity voices include Stephen Fry and Snoop Dogg(!).
CoPilot Premium HD (RATING: 6; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; regional map packs are $9.99 to $29.99) was historically seen as a clunkier navigation system, but it has evolved with the times into a capable GPS.
CoPilot’s app is free, but you’re nickel-and-dimed on every little extra. Maps are sold on a regional basis (Europe is $30, for example), and voice navigation costs an extra $10. Live traffic runs $10 per year after a free first year. Map downloads are easy and pushed to you when first using the app. Unlike many competing apps, CoPilot splits U.S. maps up regionally instead of by state, so you get the whole west coast in one chunk, for example.
CoPilot includes a slightly odd POI search system, requiring you to pick a category (hotel, gas station, auto dealership) before searching CoPilot’s database by keyword from there. If you want something more free-form, you’ll need to search Google, Yelp, or Wikipedia(?) through CoPilot’s integrated links—but obviously these three don’t work if you’re offline. It’s a needlessly convoluted search system that unfortunately slows you down a lot. Searching by address requires a city or ZIP code first, then drilling down to street, then number—again, a slow process.
Once you’re on the road, CoPilot performs well. The service now offers 2D and 3D maps, shows POIs on your route when you’re not in motion, and recovers gracefully after detours. Voice nav is overly chatty (and is fond of telling you when something is “just ahead”) but unfortunately doesn’t announce street names. There’s also an option to quickly switch CoPilot into walking mode if you’re on foot.
Better search and more all-inclusive would improve CoPilot immeasurably, but even as it stands it’s a worthwhile GPS tool.
Like Navmii, Navigon (RATING: 5; iOS, Android, Windows Phone; North America app $50, plus substantial in-app purchases) has different app options corresponding to various regions, but unlike Navmii these don’t come cheap. 50 bucks gets you North American coverage. $80 covers just the British Isles. From there, Navigon keeps piling on the fees. The numerous optional extras include 3D display ($11), live traffic ($20), and urban guidance ($5), which adds information on bus and train routes. Even getting map updates costs extra ($20 for eight updates over two years). Whew!
The price alone makes Navigon an also-ran, but otherwise the app is capable. Search is thorough, but it can be plodding. While POIs are included, they aren’t comprehensive, and Navigon forces you to search through a cumbersome menu of nested choices to find what you need. Once you do find where you’re going, though, Navigon tends to shine more brightly.
On the road, the dark color scheme can be a matter of personal taste, and naturally it looks better at night. The voice navigation is helpful and concise, and Navigon lets you simply tap on part of the screen if you need a repeat of your next turn. Street names are announced as well. Navigon offers multiple route options when you first create a route, and it recovers with reasonable grace during detours. Freebie extras include integrated Foursquare search, and a “reality scanner” augmented reality engine that lets you find nearby POIs via your camera.
All told, Navigon will get you where you need to go. Getting your wallet there with you is another matter.