Best iPhone GPS Navigation App for Family Road Trips?

Top GPS Navigation Apps for the iPhone

Right in the heart of Silicon Valley, on our way to Portola Redwoods State Park, our family got lost.  Hopelessly lost.  Why? Because we lost connectivity and couldn’t look up our destination on our iPhone. The exchange that ensued along Skyline Blvd was, let’s just say, less than friendly.


Carrying printed maps seems a lifetime ago.  Even printing out Google Map directions is so 2003 now that half the world seems to have a smartphone.  I can remember the day I first got my iPhone (no idea how I survived without one before) I was so excited to be able to look up directions on the go using the iPhone Google Map.


However, discontentment over the Google Maps app quickly set in as soon as I found myself driving alone.  Let’s face it, the Google maps app has some serious deficiencies and can be down right dangerous.  There are 5 things a good driving GPS navigation app must do really well.:


#1: Display maps and information clearly for a quick glance

#2: Provide clear voice prompts for turning directions

#3: Pick optimal routes to destinations and properly re-route when you make wrong turns.

#4: Is usable with or without data reception

#5: Has a good user interface to minimize fiddling around when you’re driving


Since the Google Map app on iPhone currently only does #4 half well, I decided to test out three popular GPS navigation apps – Motion X GPS Drive, Tom Tom USA, and Co-Pilot Live Premier HD.  Here’s now they fair on these 5 criteria and the differences you’ll find.


Quick Scores (scores are out of 10)




Having a clear map display is absolutely critical in a good GPS navigation system. When you’re driving alone you don’t want to take your eyes off the road for more than a fraction of a second.  Being able to anticipate up coming turns allows you to get into the right lane early and prevent sudden moves.


All three apps have a fantastic map display with big and bold graphics. Upcoming turns are displayed very clearly and all the pertinent information about your estimated arrival time, distance to the next turn and so on are clearly displayed alongside the map.  I found it very easy to see my turns with a quick glance.  Tom Tom has the advantage of being the only one of the three apps that allows you to see the map horizontally or vertically.  This is helpful because it doesn’t matter what position your phone is in, you can still see your map.   Co-pilot and Motion X only display vertically which didn’t work so well when I was trying to prop it up and had the phone plugged into the charger.  An iPhone holder would solve the problem.


Both Tom Tom and Co-pilot’s maps also switch automatically to a different map display mode when complex highway merges or exits come up.  They display all the lanes on the highway and which one you should be in.   I loved that.  (I really don’t like making sudden moves when driving.)





Having a GPS navigation system with voice prompts is critical for safety.  That’s the single biggest reason I started looking to an alternative to the Google Maps app.  (Although, I hear that the next release of Google Maps on the iPhone is promising voice prompts too.)


The voice prompts on the Motion X and Co-pilot apps were good enough, but of all the three apps, Tom Tom has hands down the best voice prompts.  I absolutely loved the advanced voice prompts on the Tom Tom.  It gave you plenty of advance notification of the turns coming up and the exits you’re looking for.  The voice prompts worked beautifully with the map display.  I also thought the voices on the Tom Tom sounded a little less robotic then with Motion X GPS Drive and Co-pilot.  Plus, if you get bored, you can buy funny voices like Bart Simpson or Darth Vader.


Motion X GPS Drive doesn’t come with voice prompts.  You have buy it as an add on for $2.99/month).  It’s a low entry fee to try out voice prompts, but over time it makes the Tom Tom and Co-pilot apps that come with voice prompts seem like a bargain over time.





All three navigational apps had good basic routing.  All three seemed to suggest the simplest routes to most destinations.  On occasion, in big cities with many different ways to get to the same place, all three systems would direct us on rather circuitous routes.


Tom Tom Route View


With Tom Tom in particular, I found it cumbersome to view your entire route.  Motion X GPS Drive was a little better, but Co-pilot was awesome in this regard.  The route view was far superior to the other two apps.  Best of all, from that route view, you can easily ask Co-pilot to find you an alternative route or simply drag the route to a different street to have co-pilot re-route you down that road instead.  Unfortunately, Motion X GPS Drive does not allow you to choose an alternate route at all and Tom Tom’s alternative route functionality was kludgy.


Co-pilot Alternative Routes


Now, what happens when you make a wrong turn? Tom Tom was hands down the best app at dealing with wrong turns.  In fact, it’s so markedly better that I almost think it’s worth paying a premium for the Tom Tom app just for this one feature.  Motion X GPS Drive does not re-route you automatically.  You have to click a button to get it to re-route you and you better hope you’re connected to the internet at that time.  Co-pilot re-routes you automatically like the Tom Tom.  However,  I really like that Tom Tom announces that it’s re-calculating your route so you know you’ve made a wrong turn. It will even sometimes tell you to turn around if that makes more sense.  Co-pilot on the other hand doesn’t tell you it’s re-routing you. In all the wrong turns I’ve made intentionally and unintentionally, it never seemed to tell me to turn around.  All in all, I found the way Co-pilot dealt with wrong turns unnerving, particularly when driving in big cities.


Have you ever been on a road trip and needed to find a grocery store along your route?  Well, you’re in luck if you’ve got the Tom Tom or Co-pilot app because both will allow you to look up grocery stores, gas stations, parking lots, parks and so on along your route and add any number of stops before your final destination. However, the user interface for adding these stops is much easier to use on the Co-pilot app.  Plus, the Co-pilot has a separate category for “grocery stores”.  I have no idea why Tom Tom doesn’t have a category for grocery stores when it has a category for just about anything else.  As a mom, about half the time my detours are to find a grocery store.  (Yes, sometimes details really do matter!)





Why is this such a big deal?  Well, anyone living in San Francisco will tell you that even in big cities you can’t always count on having strong phone data reception. And what about when you’re out in a National Park trying to use your GPS navigation app to find your campground?


The biggest draw back of the Motion X GPS Drive app is that you have data reception or wifi for the maps to work and to search for points of interest.  The app is barely usable without an data connection.  Sure, you can download a map for a specific route onto the phone, however you might not always remember to do that.  And if you happen to take a planned or unplanned detour and then lose connectivity, you’ll have to revert to your sense of direction or a paper map.


Fortunately, both Co-pilot and Tom Tom’s maps are available regardless of whether you have connectivity.  As long as you know the address or GPS coordinates of your destination you’re good to go.  If you make a wrong turn, Tom Tom and Co-pilot can still re-route regardless of whether you have connectivity or not.


But what if you need to look up your destination and you don’t have connectivity?  If you have the Co-pilot or Tom Tom,  you can search the internal directory of points of interest even without a connection to the Internet.  Neither app is comprehensive, but it’s still something.  When I compared both directories, Tom Tom’s internal directory seemed to have more POI’s listed. For instance, I could find Portola Redwoods State Park on the Tom Tom but not on the Co-pilot.  In fact, I couldn’t even find it using Co-pilot when I had connectivity because their current Bing search is so hopeless.  Thankfully, the next release will be replacing it with Google search.


On the other hand, if you do have connectivity, Tom Tom offers many many different ways to look up POI’s by searching Facebook, Twitter, Photos with GPS information, Wikipedia and so on.  Co-pilot is a bit more limited and Motion X GPS Drive is even more limited.





Motion X main menu


I believe that user interface is always important, however, when you’re talking about a navigation system for driving, it’s an absolutely must.  Every finger press is eyes off the road.  Every extra screen that needs to load when you’re lost seems like an eternity.


When comparing all three apps, Co-pilot definitely has the best user interface.  Despite how much the app can do, I was able find my way around the app within minutes.  Tom Tom’s interface is decent, but some of the flows are rather confusing.  On the other hand, I found that with Co-pilot, I always knew exactly where to press.   In particular, the interface for finding alternative routes or adding stops along a route was superb.


Co-pilot has a lot more customizable features.  I found some helpful but others seemed unnecessary.  It feels like all the additional settings add clutter to the user interface.  However, the defaults worked well, so you may never really have to fiddle with all the settings.





Motion X GPS Drive costs $2.99 in the app store.  However, what you don’t realize is that this basic app doesn’t come with the all too important voice prompts which are included with Co-pilot and Tom Tom..  The voice prompts for Motion X cost another $2.99 per month.


Co-pilot Live Premium is the middle-priced app at $17.99 for the non HD version, and $24.99 for the HD version.  It comes with everything that Tom Tom comes with plus a one year free trial of their Live Traffic add on.   (Live Traffic is $9.99/year)  With the Live Traffic add on, if there is an unexpected delay due to traffic, the app will automatically suggest a new route if there is a faster one. It also lets you know how much further you have to go before the traffic clears up again.  You can also purchase the fuel prices add on for $7.99 so you can look for the cheapest gas nearby and navigate there.


Tom Tom USA is priced at $49.99 and does not come with the live traffic add on.  (Live traffic: $2.99/month or $19.95/year)  It works similarly to the Co-pilot’s Live Traffic.





Although you might be tempted to buy the Motion X GPS Drive app because the initial cost is so low, it really doesn’t save you any money in the long run.  You’ll be paying monthly for the absolutely necessary voice prompts.  The one year total already puts you over the cost of the Co-Pilot Premium Live.  The real contenders here are the Co-pilot and Tom Tom.  Between you and me, I’d have to recommend the Co-pilot because it is superior on most of features that really matter, especially once Google search has replaced the Bing search.. The biggest advantage that Tom Tom has over Co-pilot (and it’s not an insignificant one by any means) is that Tom Tom handles wrong turns so beautifully.  I would love to see Co-pilot make improvements in this regard.   A few other nice to have improvements I’d like to see in the Co-pilot include adding Facebook places search and adding more POI’s to the internal directory.  Nonetheless, the highly competitive pricing of the Co-pilot makes it hard to justify paying almost double for Tom Tom.


updated: September 13 2012 by LiLing Pang



at 09/01/2012 08:16AM JaimesTH wrote:

After a recent road trip where I had to navigate via an old fashioned map :), I’ve been looking into iPhone Navigation apps. Thanks for the great info!!
About the author

LiLing Pang is Co-founder and CEO of Trekaroo . She is a mom to two boys and a girl (13, 11, and 3) currently traveling through Central America. Together with her husband, Brennan Pang, they hatched the idea of Trekaroo one summer day along the California coast while searching for the best kid-friendly tide pool near La Jolla with their curious 2.5 year old.

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