Using the iPhone as a sat nav

Written by Antony Leather

September 1, 2009 | 10:36

Tags: #copilot #garmin #gps #iphone #sat-nav

Companies: #tomtom

Previously, I've mainly used GPS for marine navigation rather than pointing the way on road trips. Having navigated busy areas off the south coast of England, I don't tend to find A-roads such a problem. That said, having had TomTom on my HTC TyTN II Windows Mobile PDA for the last few years I'm all too aware of how much of a boon it can be.

I've therefore been waiting patiently for a similar app for my iPhone 3GS. The iPhone 3G - which has a dedicated GPS chip - has been with us for what seems like an age but it's only with the release of version 3 of its OS that true Sat Nav apps, with turn-by-turn directions, have been able to start appearing. The latest of these is the much anticipated TomTom app but having used this and also CoPilot Live, I have to say I'm not just disapointed, I'd actually rather use a compass and a sextant to navigate as they're far more reliable.
Why do you need a phone with sat nav, I hear you ask? Well, for starters it should be cheaper than a dedicated sat nav as you only need one hardware device. Then there's the portability factor - I've been on trips far from home in a friend's car when we've come across a closed road or we simply fancied going to a local point of interest but had no idea how to go there.

A map book can certainly help you out and I still remember my dad poring over them the night before family holidays. However a sat nav can usually find the way with a mimimum of fuss. After all, I think many of us dream about the all in one device that can do whatever we ask of it. Well the iPhone is probably the closest you'll get at the moment.

CoPilot Live

With a couple of lengthy road trips coming up, I was desperately missing my previous phone with its TomTom. In the absence of a stand-alone GPS and knowinh that TomTom for the iPhone wasn't likely to be released for a while, when CoPilot Live was released and retailed for just £25.99 with UK maps, I jumped at the chance to see what it was like.

Using the iPhone as a sat nav iPhone Sat Nav apps - Copilot vs TomTom

My initial impressions were good. It was clear, easy to use and made great use of the iPhone's screen and interface. With all the maps loaded onto the iPhone, unlike the actual Maps app, the program ran very smoothly indeed.

The same couldn't be said however of the GPS performance. While out on the road with my iPhone 3GS no more than two inches from my windscreen, CoPilot Live spent more time trying to determine my current position than it did actually showing me the way to go. When it did get a signal from a satellite, the feed and movement of the map was slow and stuttery as a result.

CoPilot have said they're releasing a patch which will imrove GPS performance. Let's hope it does because at the moment I've found it unusable for navigation in your car.


I was expecting big things from TomTom. After all, the company mentioned it had its sat nav app working on the iPhone a year before it was officially announced during the 2009 Apple WWDC in June. Two months later the app arrived but with CoPilot, Navigon and Sygic all having released apps of their own, many had given up on Tomtom and gone with one of its competitors.

Using the iPhone as a sat nav iPhone Sat Nav apps - Copilot vs TomTom
Tomtom's effort looks great and promissed superb functionality but it's let down by poor GPS performance

With CoPilot having failed miserably to provide smooth navigation, struggling to talk to GPS satellites or make use of assisted GPS using triangulation of network signals, I decided to splash out and try TomTom.

If anything it's even slicker that the CoPilot interface with great colour coding and it's a perfect match for the iPhone. Creating a route is quick and simple too and with plenty of themes available, you're sure to find colours that appeal to you on the map.

Unfortunately a main gripe of people who have reviewed it on iTunes is that there's a total lack of live services such as traffic and there's no plans to include them at a later date either. Despite retailing for £59.99 which is nearly the same price as some of the low-end stand alone units, this is very disapointing.

The nail in the coffin however is that it also suffers from poor GPS performance. What makes TomTom worse with this issue is that when it loses a GPS signal the map goes grey and actually freezes meaning it's unusable. This happens regularly to the extent I'd much rather stop and get my road atlas out.

The terrible GPS performance in both apps isn't totally unexpected. TomTom have actually made a seperate GPS receiver available for use with the iPhone 3G/3GS and the app to boost performance - clearly they thought it was necessary and CoPilot are clearly aware of the poor performance as they've mentioned improvement to the way their app handles GPs data in their first update due soon.

Instead of being one of the most useful apps you could buy for your iPhone, the first batch of sat nav apps leave a lot to be desired in terms of actual usability. After all, we're not talking about a free app like iHandy Level which is more of a cool gimick than something you'd actually use to put a shelf up straight, we're talking about £59.99 of software program that doesn't work.

Unfortunately this seems to be an issue with the iPhone itself. While the Maps application is undoubtedly useful and I've never had an issue getting a quick position fix, the GPS technology in the iPhone doesn't appear to be sensitive or rapid enough to be used for turn-by-turn navigation.

I'll report back when CoPilot have released their next update, but in the meantime have you tried any of the iPhone 3G/3GS sat nav apps or used their GPS functionality in any other way? What are your thoughts?
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