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The best (and worst) GPS navigation apps

James A. Martin | Feb. 23, 2015
While doing research for a new article on why GPS-based directions consistently seem to lead me astray, I asked a group of people who use and own GPS apps and personal navigation devices (PNDs) for products they recommend, as well as insight into the current state of GPS technology. Here are some of their likes, dislikes and other general observations about the market.

Piper says a now-defunct Garmin PND was her favorite GPS product "by far."

Common GPS Gripes

"GPS apps are only as good as their devices' GPS geolocation capabilities," according to Henry H. Harteveldt, travel industry analyst and founder, Atmosphere Research Group. "I've found with my Android OS smartphone that sometimes the apps can be way off. For example, a local transit-schedule app, MyBus, is rarely able to determine my correct location. I have to constantly correct Uber to determine my pick-up location." Harteveldt primarily uses Google Maps for directions.

"My one gripe with all GPS navigation is the confusion and lack of direction when returning a rental car to an airport," says Jim Dailakis, an actor, writer and comedian. "They are seldom accurate, and you're better off relying on signs."

Are PNDs and In-Car GPS Systems Obsolete?

Many sources we spoke with say PNDs and dedicated vehicle GPS systems are no longer necessary, thanks to the prevalence of mobile apps for navigation.

"I see absolutely no need for a portable device," Dailakis says. "I suppose the benefit of having one is that you don't incur data charges, but I feel as though cell phone providers are rather generous in that department these days."

PNDs "just give thieves an incentive to break into your car," says Jose M. Lopez, a real estate agent. "It's also more hassle for the user, who has to store and sync that device, pay for map updates, or pay for traffic services. All that is available with a smartphone app."

"There's no longer any value in an in-car GPS system," Chamberlin says. "It seems like updating the software ... is always a hassle." Phablets and other small tablets offer the same quality screens, and they're easier to update, according to Chamberlin.

[Related: What a Trip to London Taught Me About GPS Apps and Navigation]

Cumberford says an older TomTom PND once got him and his fiancé lost in California, and their car was nearly out of gas, but that was because he hadn't updated the device's maps. "This is where an app has the advantage, as it's much easier to update," he says.

However, some users still prefer PNDs.

Real estate investor and developer Brent Cumberford uses Google Maps in the office to locate places on a map, but when he's out driving he prefers a TomTom PND because he can affix it to his windshield for easy viewing. "It also avoids using up the data plan on my iPhone," he says.

There is still a need for dedicated GPS, according to Kwok, especially if you are travelling in a foreign country.

"Google Maps and other GPS apps may not be available in Asia or Australia, while Garmin offers great international versions of their GPS," Kwok says. "Some devices have options to swap maps and navigation via SD card. Also, portable devices sometimes have larger screens and better UI polish than smartphones and apps."


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