Choosing the right turn-by-turn app for your iOS device

Competition is certainly heating up in the realm of turn-by-turn navigation apps. Consider Garmin’s (s grmn) acquisition of Navigon, MotionX’s In-Vehicle Telematics partnership with Pioneer, and TomTom’s recent unveiling of an iPad version (s aapl) of its popular navigation app at this year’s IFA in Berlin. But are the biggest names really also the brightest stars when it comes to turn-by-turn navigation? I took a look at the field to find out.

What to look for

Offline as much as possible. Companies are putting a lot of bells and whistles into their navigation apps these days, but their real value boils down to being able to find your way without an active network connection. Even if you are travelling in well-connected areas, carriers are cutting back on unlimited bandwidth, and having to download map tiles along your route certainly eats up your limits.

MotionX GPS Drive is a favorite for many, but the way it handles map downloads might not please some.

Pre-installed or downloadable maps. No navigation app will work without a map, but there are different strategies for getting maps on your device. Many include the maps in a very large initial download.  Others are starting to include ways for the user to pre-select which maps they want to download before a trip. MotionX GPS Drive, for example, allows users to download relevant maps along a particular route, whereas ForeverMap allows the user to select maps on a state-by-state basis for downloading. Each strategy has its advantages, but apps that pre-load all maps at once are less dependent on Internet connections.

Multi-point vs. preferred routes. This is a tricky feature that’s often misunderstood. Most apps allow you to plan a multiple destination road trip by adding several stops along a given route. But this doesn’t necessarily allow you to select a preferred route from a selection of many options. Many have implemented a way to choose the fastest over the shortest route, or a way to avoid toll roads, but ALK’s CoPilot Live Premium understands that users might have other reasons to want to avoid some areas and veer towards others. With its Drag Route feature, you can drag the route line to change how you get to your destination with more finesse.

Offline routes and POI database. Some apps have maps located on the device, but still need to be online in order to perform a route calculation. This may be because the route itself is calculated online, but more often, it’s because a GPS reverse lookup requires Internet access to turn a contact’s address into a format the routing system understands. This basically renders the app useless in a situation where network connection isn’t possible. Good navigation apps also include local points of interest (POI) databases alongside their installed maps that can be accessed and used to generate a route without connecting to the Internet.

iPad and iPhone versions. Having an iPad version of the app available is key to route planning for serious travellers. The iPad allows for easier review of the route, and while some may be using their iPhone as the only turn-by-turn navigation device while driving, but the iPad’s larger screen may be better for older eyes or co-pilots providing directions. This is more crucial if you have the 3G or CDMA version of the iPad, so you can use the device’s GPS  to keep you on track.

Here’s a chart of how the various apps I compared stacked up in these and a few other important categories. The apps are listed according to my order of preference, from left to right:

Leading the pack — CoPilot Live Premium

CoPilot Live Premium HD adds lots of value on the iPad.

After spending countless hours both on and off the road with more navigation apps than I care to remember, I would have to say that ALK’s CoPilot is currently the navigation app to beat. I particularly liked the way I could alter the calculated route by dragging the route line, that all the maps were included in the initial download, and that I had no difficulties creating new routes on the device at times when there was no Internet connection at all. The user interface is streamlined and easy to navigate, and there’s an iPad version that makes it even easier to find your way around the app. Route generation is quick, and browsing the maps renders the roads and street names very fast even when panning and zooming around. For road warriors and frequent travellers, CoPilot is the app to get.