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How to choose the best smart phone navigation app

Consumer Reports News: December 21, 2011 03:38 PM

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Navigation devices can be popular gift items during the holiday season, but with a growing number of people switching to smart phones, a navigation app can also make for a welcomed present for yourself or others.

GPS-enabled cell phones provide drivers with the basic functionality, convenience and security of a built-in or portable navigation system, without the need for separate devices and power cords for communication, navigation, and music. Like dedicated GPS units, phones can provide visible and spoken turn-by turn directions to whatever street address the user chooses, along with restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, and other attractions chosen from a point of interest menu. Available conveniences also include traffic reporting and alternate routes to avoid delays, weather information, and voice command for hands-free operation.

But phones generally have smaller screens and buttons than dedicated GPS units, which can make operation more difficult. It’s also necessary to purchase a secure mount for safe in-car operation. Basic mounts start at around $20, but more expensive models add features worth considering, like signal amplification, built-in speakers for better audio quality, and a phone charger. Depending on your wants and needs, some mounts can cost more than $100.

There are two ways to turn a phone into a navigation device. One is by using server-based navigation, meaning that the map data for your route is sent to your phone as needed. The other is to download an all-inclusive application that stores entire maps on your device. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Determining the best solution for you will depend on your preferences, needs, and budget.

Server-based navigation

Some cell-phone service providers, including ATT, Sprint, and Verizon, provide GPS navigation and traffic information that customers can access for a daily or monthly subscription fee. With this option, mapping data is not stored on the phone, and is instead accessed wirelessly over the cellular network as needed. Cost is typically either $10 a month or $3 a day. Another server-based solution, Google Maps, provides similar functionality for free, but only for users of Android devices. Compatibility limitations restrict iPhones to Google’s static maps only, without turn-by turn directions.

With the Google and iPhone exception, server-based navigation provides menus and features similar to those of navigation apps or portable systems, including spoken and onscreen turn-by-turn directions, traffic info, and a point-of-interest menu of destinations like restaurants, gas stations, and stores. Advantages of server-based navigation include automatically updated databases for map info, freeing up more phone memory without the need for storing map data on board. But the server-based option does consume bandwidth, something to consider depending on your data plan.

GPS-capable smart phones and apps

Smart phones have GPS receivers and mapping software, allowing users to download an app that gives them all the functions and features of a dedicated GPS unit.

Navigation apps are available from a variety of smart phone platforms through their online app stores, including Blackberry, Android, and iPhone. Prices vary from free or close to nothing to around $60 dollars. During the holiday season, apps can be found for a discount, making this a great time buy.

Bear in mind that with navigation apps, you tend to get what you pay for. Our testing has found the best apps come from known GPS device makers like Garmin, Magellan, Navigon, and TomTom, all of which provide reliable directions and easy-to-use menus that mimic the look and features of their portable GPS units.

Bottom line
The best bet is to compare features and prices carefully, choose from a leading brand, and above all, make sure you choose an app that is compatible with your phone.

Jim Travers

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