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The old saying goes: “No matter where you go, there you are,” which is fine and dandy until you really need to know where “there” actually is.
There’s no shortage of iPhone apps that can get you from Point A to Point B, but today we’re only covering the best. For most of us, that’s Google Maps, but you might be surprised to find that there are some truly worthy contenders in the GPS space.
Let’s look at a few iOS favorites, or you can check out some of the best GPS apps for Android.
The Best of the Bunch
In no particular order, the most talked about GPS apps on the Internet (according to Google Trends) are Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps. By now, I’m sure most of you know all about the “big three” but let’s touch on them briefly to see some of what they’re known for.
Although it took a while for a Google-branded maps app to make it to iOS — 4 years after its initial release on Android — Google Maps is still the most robust consumer mapping and navigation app on the market. Within two days of its 2012 release, the app was downloaded more than 10 million times, and was rumored to be one of the main drivers of iOS 6 adoption.
According to famed tech reporter David Pogue, then with the New York Times, the iOS version was even superior to the same app on Android. Apple has since locked down some of the integrations that saw Google Maps as the superior choice, in favor of its own service. But Google Maps is still a solid choice.
It offers turn-by-turn navigation, offline mapping, offline GPS and functionality for non-drivers such as public transport routing, walking directions and dedicated bike routes.
Waze was once a hotshot startup that won the “Best Overall Mobile App” award at Mobile World Congress, beating out Dropbox and Flipboard. Since then, the application was acquired by Google for a reported $1.3 billion, which raised questions about anti-trust issues since Waze was one of the few legitimate competitors to Google. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) later decided it wouldn’t challenge the acquisition.
Since being acquired, Waze has been run as a standalone app as opposed to being swallowed by Google’s larger service, Google Maps.
Waze is unique among GPS apps as it brings a social, crowd-sourced angle to mapping. Many GPS services offer real-time traffic updates, but the best source of this information is often from drivers themselves. Waze monitors drive times to give better details about traffic as well as offering a suite of messaging and emoticon features that allow drivers to comment on their commute.
If there’s an accident that’s causing a traffic jam, for example, it might take a few minutes to several hours to appear on a traditional GPS service. A Waze user can send a report immediately and provide other road users with information about what’s causing the slowdown.
Waze has also caught a bit of heat for using this functionality to report the locations of speed traps and DUI checkpoints.
Apple Maps was once the laughingstock of the tech community. Meme upon meme was created detailing just how bad the directions were as well as the many inaccuracies — or spots of missing information — on the maps.
Since then, it’s improved a lot.
As an iPhone user myself, I still don’t think it’s on par with Google Maps, but it’s come a long way and deserves a fair bit of praise for the amount of improvement it’s shown. It’s a respectable, if not above-average GPS app, although it lacks any killer features that would make you switch from Google Maps if that’s what you’re currently using.
Offline Mapping & GPS
All of the above apps handle offline mapping, as do many others, but Google Maps is the only one that offers you more-or-less the same functionality that you’d get online. Others work equally well, but require (often large) downloads of cities, regions or even entire countries in order to work offline.
It’s an important distinction to make. Many GPS apps can handle offline navigation, but Google Maps is the only one that really handles it like you’d expect, if you aren’t into downloading your maps beforehand.
Maps.me was a choice I’d never heard of, but came highly recommended by our iOS editor.
I gave it a shot and was really impressed with the level of detail of the maps, as well as the offline navigation capabilities. In fact, that’s what the app is best-known for: its ability to navigate completely offline.
Of course, you’ll need to download a rather large map file for your area, or the entire country, but once you’ve got that squared, the routing capabilities, points of interest mapping and even turn-by-turn directions are second-to-none, including Google Maps.
Other Offline Mapping Options
Sygic operates with many of the social and sharing aspects of Waze, only with better offline directions and route planning.
HERE Maps has a beautiful and intuitive UI that allows for not only offline mapping but saving entire lists of things to see or do along your route and then adding them on-the-fly.
Navigon is one of the most rock-solid GPS apps on the market, but offline navigation is where it truly shines. Unlike many others who use real-time data updates, Navigon downloads maps to your device and is fully capable of getting you where you need to go without a mobile data connection.
For hikers, there are a trio of standout choices for the iPhone: Gaia GPS ($19.99), Memory Map and MotionX [No Longer Available] ($1.99)
Gaia GPS ($19.99)
Gaia works better if you download the topographic maps that accompany it, but you can hike for five to ten days with your phone on airplane mode while the GPS still functions as normal. With Gaia, you can plot your route, share it with others and plan for strategic stops to take in the sights or to hunker down for the night.
Memory Map is sort of a throwback to the old Garmin handheld systems, but it’s a powerful solution for those that are willing to pay a premium for one of the best mapping solutions on the planet. The maps are highly-detailed, and feature everything from topography to complete 3D overviews for finding the best path through an area.
Of course, when it comes to this level of quality, you’ll generally have to open your wallet. Memory Map is a free download but the maps run $5 to $200 each, with most of the USGS and NOAA charts priced at a relatively reasonable $10.
MotionX is so much more than a hiking or cycling app (more below). You can not only plan your route and waypoints, but you can follow previous trails (from others or that you traveled), view topography information, track times and view data about your trip upon completion.
Strava is one of the best mobile solutions for anyone on two wheels. It works great for joggers and walkers too.
Aside from the wonderful maps and a suite of powerful cycling tools including pace, lap and trip time, caloric expenditure and distance, it also features a ton of social network-esque elements that allow you to connect with others, share photos and cheer each other on. If you’re competitive you can compare your section scores against other Strava users, and take on a premium subscription to see a wealth of real-time information while you ride.
Cyclemeter is another great option for cyclists. With Cyclemeter you can plot a course, get on-the-fly directions or save your favorite routes for next time. In addition, you can view distance traveled, max and average speeds, total and lap times, caloric expenditure and additional information such as a calendar showing your previous rides and an integrated pedometer to show just how much you’re moving.
Google Maps, as well as others on this list, handle public transportation just fine, but if you’re looking for one that focus solely on the needs of non-drivers, Transit is the best in the business.
This app offers real-time schedule updates, combination routes (walking, public transport, taxi or Uber), and reminders that will use GPS to point out when you’re approaching your stop. It’s the best in the business and there’s a reason it has a nearly perfect score on the App Store after over 5,000 ratings.
What’d we forget? Is there a GPS app that deserves to be on this list? What makes it better than the rest? Sound off in the comments below.