In-car GPS navigation units — while undeniably helpful to the average tourist, delivery driver, commuter, messenger, taxi driver, courier, road-tripper, band on tour, and anyone who’s had to get from one unfamiliar place to another — seem to be a tough sell these days. Blame it on the meteoric rise of the smartphone over the past couple of years, and it’s easy to see why.
While free mapping sites have been available on the Web for more than a decade (MapQuest, Yahoo! Maps, Google Maps, and now Bing Maps), their use for in-car GPS navigation was restricted mainly to geeks who thought nothing of dragging laptops along on car trips and stopping in larger towns to pick up unsecured hotspots — as a 16th century galleon captain might check the stars — every now and again to determine their bearings.
It wasn’t such a bother, they figured, since they could also listen to their giant, first generation Napster-pilfered MP3 collections at the same time! (This secondary benefit became decidedly less geek chic when the iPod and other MP3 players got around to being invented.) Other products, like Microsoft Streets and Trips (to name just one) were also available for the laptop luggers — getting travel information from satellites (just like in-car GPS navigation units), and negating the need for tracking down those periodic hotspots.
Of course, folded paper road maps and friendly gas station attendants have been around for a lot longer, but who thinks to depend on those, anymore? It’s almost like (gasp!) printing out Web directions and keeping them in the glove compartment! Are we dirt-thumping barbarians? This is the 21st century! Like the aforementioned means of moving around in an orderly fashion, GPS navigation has gotten easier and, now, less expensive — free, in fact! Why pay for GPS navigation when GPS software can be downloaded to your iPhone for free?
That was a rhetorical question. Here, I’d like to point out the top five free GPS navigation apps for your iPhone (or other smartphone, if available) that I’ve been able to track down, based on popularity and ease of use. I tried to find a little something for everyone, so they’re in no particular order.
This is what you’re accessing with the “Maps” icon that comes by default with the iPhone, but it’s also available for iPad, Android, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian, and other devices; Android seems to have the most options for GPS navigation purposes at this time. It’s about as bare-bones and simple as it gets, which is one reason I love it so much. You can type in the name of a business without knowing its address, for instance, and it’ll almost always tell you exactly how to get there from your current (or another chosen) location.
While there’s technically nothing fancy (like sexy Australian robot voices) here, it gets high marks from me for ease of use and just working. Out of every free GPS app out there, this is the one I’d give to someone who’s never used a computer, GPS navigation unit, or smartphone if I wanted to make sure they could find their way — they could probably figure it out! Other bonuses: Google Maps for Mobile knows how to get you there by automobile, but also by foot or bus, too! Missed the 120 to downtown? It’ll tell you when the next one (or a viable option) will get you to your destination. Tell ‘em Google sent you!
Waze is fun! It’s a cross between a social network and a GPS navigation app, and it allows people to give and receive real-time crowdsourced information like road hazards, speed traps, accidents, traffic jams, average miles per hour on any given road, streaking taxi drivers (okay, I made that one up, but who’s to say it couldn’t happen?) — pretty much anything that might befall the average traveler can be reported, confirmed, and updated by anyone in the system.
You can even casually chit chat to other commuters — hey, maybe you’ll spot other people on their “Waze” around town. Of course, this does have me picturing a lot of people texting while driving, which — I shouldn’t have to point out — is a damned stupid thing to do!
Waze is also available for iPad, Android, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and other devices.
User reviews about Waze:
“Love the voice reports and real time hazard reporting!” — tryggr
“As good as (or better than) the AT&T app, but most of all it’s free!” — Tony1337
“Not only amazing in concept, but also works extremely well. Saves me valuable time by re-routing trips based on actual ETAs and constantly changing traffic conditions. I can’t believe it is still free.” — Guy5989
“Waze got me out of a pickle today in Austin, TX, although my Tom Tom One had no clue where I wanted to go with its out of date maps.” — S V
Out of the bunch, this seems the most like an old fashioned, in-car GPS navigation unit to me. While you can’t change the default voice to sound like a coin op arcade Berzerk version of Alan Rickman, it does provide turn-by-turn vocal instructions. You can import your maps, trips, and locations from MapQuest.com, AIM, or an AOL account.
Easily accessed points of interest include gas stations, restaurants, coffee shops, shopping centers, parking garages, hotels, grocery stores, schools, and post offices. You can also easily see how traffic’s flowing along your route so you can avoid gridlock and other unkind surprises ahead.
User reviews about MapQuest 4 Mobile:
“I downloaded this thinking it would be a basic navigation app, but to my surprise it included voice turn by turn and recalculation of route should you miss a turn.” — Ezequiel Gallegos
“Voice guidance for free. Really? And it’s not text-to-spitch, but sounds 100% natural! With full street name? Live traffic, too? I particularly appreciate the three-stage voice prompt ‘prepare to,’ ‘get ready to,’ and ‘turn.’ I’ve seen many fumbling designs in (early?) dedicated GPS navigators in this area.” — SillyValley
“What more could you expect for free? Automatic route re-calculation, and turn-by-turn navigation. I entered the same route into my car’s navigation and this app. Minus one street difference, the result was the same.” — A. Jones
“Could not believe that it’s free. Garmin charges $40 for this. AT&T charges $10 per month. Awesome job, and thanks for keeping it free.” — Itzabdul
Billed as “truly free turn-by-turn voice navigation,” skobbler makes use of the OpenSourceMap (OSM) Project, so maps are constantly updated — unless you’re some kind of Indiana Jones punishment junkie and prefer to take the paths less traveled. But then you probably go by ancient cartography, vodka, and intuition, anyway, and likely figure GPS navigation is for sissies. However, if you’re the sharing kind and want to help fellow travelers follow the paths you’ve pioneered, you can add your own information to the OpenSourceMap project and report bugs wherever they may be found.
User reviews about skobbler:
“I have used it twice today and it’s been fantastic! Honestly, just like my parents’ Garmin — but free!” — DrwcMichel
“Been considering a paid voice guided app. Not anymore! Very good and free!” — KingMe2009
“Does the job. I also have a dedicated GPS unit, and skobbler functions just the same. It’s a great app!” — Thirtyfivetee
“Tried it on a short trip (200 miles); it worked great as long as I had a clear view of the sky. It easily found me and replotted a course when I intentionally changed the course set out by the program.” — SaltyOne
I was hesitant to add MotionX GPS Lite to the list only because this is really a limited use (three waypoint maximum) version of a paid app and related services, but it still has some pretty unique features that may be helpful in areas where the other free GPS navigation apps mentioned lack. While mostly useful for bikers, hikers, cross country skiers, and others more attuned to athletic navigation of their surroundings, MotionX GPS Lite is a great way to blaze trails and share your position with other like-minded adventurers in your area.
Terrain maps can be summoned if you favor them over standard road maps, and there are even nautical maps available if you’re a boater! Just remember to keep your iPhone dry.
User reviews about MotionX GPS Lite:
“Replaces the bike computer. Can still get maps on the trail without a signal if you pre-download, but there is a limitation on the amount of maps, I guess, because this is the free version.” — Niceburg
“I use this app all the time to track rides and hikes and it’s been very accurate and useful. I’ve tried other GPS apps that are nowhere near as accurate in speed and distance. Best free app I own.” — Farm-hand
“Did a great job tracking my recent cross country ski outing. It told my total distance traveled, elapsed time, and plotted my route on a map — all I needed to know.” — Luke Bartolomeo
“This is by far the best GPS app available in the iTunes Store (and I have them all). For the life of me, I can’t figure out why it’s free! I have owned the Garmin StreetPilot since the day it came out, and I use it every day. This app gives the Garmin a run for its money, and there is no reason why it can’t eventually blow it away.” — Perry Saperstein
This list isn’t meant to be definitive or etched in stone forever and ever — new free GPS navigation apps for the iPhone are coming out all the time. If I’ve happened to skip one that you’ve found to be invaluable about the town (or country, or planet), please leave a comment and let us know! Please, no matter what apps you favor, use your noggin when navigating — keep your eyes on the road if you’re driving! Having a co-pilot (we called it “the buddy system” in Boy Scouts) is always ideal. Remember: Your brain is the best free app in your arsenal.