Map Apps to Bypass the Rivalry of Google and Apple

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Years ago my family made an almost nonstop drive across five European countries, armed only with a thin ring-bound map book for navigation. The book got us to our destination a couple of days later, but it didn't really help during a snowstorm in France or divert us around Madrid's rush-hour traffic.

We tossed that book in the recycling a while ago. Later our GPS unit went, too. Our smartphones now navigate us everywhere and can do many things those older items can't.

But what to do now that Apple and Google are snarled in a maps rivalry? Google's maps are no longer available as an app on the iPhone. And although Apple has its own maps app, it has been much maligned.

There are, though, other options -- in some cases better ones. Apple's new system may offer free turn-by-turn instructions, and Google's Android maps app is pretty powerful. But neither is as good as a dedicated mapping and navigation app.

For a high-end navigation solution, my family relies on Navigon's app after a lot of experimentation. It's $40 for United States maps on iOS and Android. The app is a lot like the experience you would get from a high-end dedicated GPS unit.

Once you've downloaded your area's maps data from the company's servers, it works offline and offers the usual navigation routing and text-to-speech turn-by-turn instructions. It also advises on lane choice on the freeway and even shows you a representation of street signs. The app alerts you to speed limits and speed camera positions; there's also an extensive list of "points of interest" like pharmacies, hotels, gas stations and so on. This means that you can navigate to a city you don't know and find services that you'll need while you're staying there without needing mobile data.

The Navigon app has recently been improved for pedestrian navigation, so it can help you across parts of a city that cars can't reach. It also uses this mode as part of its Last Mile system that helps you navigate back to where you parked your car. There is also a Public Transport mode, which helps you use alternative forms of transportation, though this and a couple of other extras are in-app purchases.

Basically this app does almost everything you need in a mapping app, and it's all offline, apart from some of the features like the Public Transport mode and Google Street View images. That makes it great if you're on a limited smartphone data package or you're traveling overseas. Two minor complaints: It takes up a lot of memory space on the phone because all of its data is downloaded at the start, and sometimes its view of the road ahead can get cluttered with street names and other details. But the benefits outweigh these issues.

Another app I like is Waze (free on iOS and Android). It offers proper turn-by-turn navigation, its graphics are exceptionally clear and uncluttered, and you can even choose the color scheme it uses to represent roads. Its icon buttons are clear and large, making them easy to press when you're reaching for a phone mounted on your windshield or dashboard. Apart from these benefits, it appeals to me because it's a community-driven app. Its strength is that users can quickly and easily use its interface to report road incidents like police speed traps, traffic jams or accidents.

Waze's community power may be ideal if you're often on the road and need to plan ahead if there's traffic. A few quick taps on the app's icons warn you, for example, of any traffic problems in the area around you, or on the route you have planned. You can even chat with fellow users and add them as friends, turning navigation into a social game. If you use these social networking features, and trust the input from a particular group of Waze users that may share your commuter journey, then you can just check the road alerts those users are reporting.

There is also a points system, where you earn rewards by using Waze to navigate to destinations, report problems and so on. Waze's weakness is that it needs plenty of users inputting data to deliver real-time alerts, and that might not be the case where you live. You also need a data connection to use some of its services, and that might be an obstacle if you're on a limited-data contract.

Another map app that's worth a try, if you're looking for a solution on the iOS platform right now, is MotionX GPS Drive. It's $1 to download, and there's a yearly fee, currently $10. The app gets many stars on iTunes and its strengths include spoken turn-by-turn directions and traffic alerts.

Safe journeying!

Quick Calls

Netflix has overhauled its iPad app, adding a "Just for Kids" feature that allows users access only to child-friendly content -- a feature it has had on its Web site for some time ...Amtrak has released an Android app that lets you plan a train and bus journey, check on train status and use an eTicket to travel.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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