bit-tech.net

Using the iPhone as a sat nav

Posted on 1st Sep 2009 at 10:36 by Antony Leather with 19 comments

Antony Leather
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.


TomTom

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?

19 Comments

Discuss in the forums Reply
docodine 1st September 2009, 10:43 Quote
...So basically the software is good, but the GPS chip on the iPhone is god awful?
wuyanxu 1st September 2009, 10:58 Quote
i plan to use my iPhone 2G as GPS when the TomTom car dock comes out. the way it "enhances" your GPS is by providing an alternative GPS chip, once pluged in, the phone's local services will use that instead of whatever the phone offers.

so in theory, it is possible to use ipod touch or iphone 2G with the dock. (or so i've read)
Combatus 1st September 2009, 11:01 Quote
Indeed. There are a few glimmers of hope though - the Maps application seems to work fine and most people who've tried Navigon's app say it's much smoother and rarely drops the connecttion. Plus Copilot claim their next patch will 'improve gps performance'. How that will work I have no idea though.
Combatus 1st September 2009, 11:03 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by wuyanxu
i plan to use my iPhone 2G as GPS when the TomTom car dock comes out. the way it "enhances" your GPS is by providing an alternative GPS chip, once pluged in, the phone's local services will use that instead of whatever the phone offers.

so in theory, it is possible to use ipod touch or iphone 2G with the dock. (or so i've read)

Yes it will be possible as it has its own GPS receiver but it's probably going to cost as much as a dedicated TomTom unit...
Xtrafresh 1st September 2009, 11:24 Quote
So basically the thing has a GPS chip, and it works, except if you want to use it? How can this be, didn't Jobs' Mob test this at all?

I never jumped on the iBandwagon, so i guess i classify as a hater, but this all sounds very much like when the iPhone was first released and people were reporting it was fantastic, except when you wanted to use it as a phone.
kenco_uk 1st September 2009, 11:28 Quote
Hmm.. I wonder if it's because of the windscreen on your vehicle - it's a known issue that heat-reflective windscreens bugger up a gps signal. What gps chip is used in the iPhone? Is it sirfstarIII? Does the gps download updates for itself? I'd assume so as you say it can get a quick fix. Does the TomTom mount use a sirfstarIII chip?

I also thought the TomTom software worked off a sort of predictive gps, e.g. if you were going through a tunnel, it would take a guess from the speed and direction and not lose it's signal, but lose it's signal, as such?
Combatus 1st September 2009, 12:20 Quote
It gets a quick fix using network triangulation while it waits for a GPS signal. For a single position fix or while walking it works fine but in the car it struggles to keep up.

Could be something to do with my car windscreen but my last PDA worked fine using its internal GPS - again it points to a weak receiver in the iPhone. AFAIK the iPhone uses a PMB 2525 Hammerhead II GPS chip. Not sure about the Tomtom mount yet as it's not been released.

It may have predictive GPS but when I've used it, the message comes up pretty quickly saying 'poor gps signal' and the map greys out and doesn't update.
GreatOldOne 1st September 2009, 12:32 Quote
Navigon + iPhone + Jag S-Type = Win. :)

http://forums.bit-tech.net/showthread.php?t=173274

Works flawlessly for me. Lane assist is great (helped a lot at the weekend on a trip to Brum and back via Spagetti Junction), and I love the way that it fades down the music currently playing from the iPod when it announces upcoming turns and lane changes.
steveo_mcg 1st September 2009, 13:07 Quote
Built in Nav is the only thing that'll work in my 406, two different standalone bluetooth devices and a tomtom failed to get a lock. Bloody French and there bloody metalic windscreen....

/wanders off muttering.
Sebbo 1st September 2009, 14:16 Quote
have managed to use the Maps app itself while driving (rather, a passenger was being my navigator using the Maps app) and it's performance was very good, it kept up quite well and didn't lose the signal. i've yet to try one of the paid navigation apps though
jezmck 1st September 2009, 14:18 Quote
I use my Garmin SatNav in my Peugeot and very rarely have issues with the GPS signal, likewise with my BlackBerry.
MonkeyTurnip 2nd September 2009, 14:01 Quote
navigation on my HTC TOUCH pro 2 is smooth and accurate, easily getting GPS fix etc, you should have not moved away from HTC IMO.
SiG 3rd September 2009, 06:30 Quote
Having navigation/map options on ANY phone (or similar portable device) is always a godsend.

Interestingly though, it would appear it is illegal in Australia for you to take advantage of these aids while driving. This link (which may not be a fully reputable source) is about a man who was pulled over for using the iPhone as a sat nav.
sub routine 6th September 2009, 17:39 Quote
ta for the review. Every time i go for a poo i like to buy new apps. a bad habit i suppose, and i`ve looked at the tomtom one for a while, they can poke it. 60quid is a ripoff if the iphone cant actually cope with it.

spider ftw right now.
defender 7th September 2009, 13:40 Quote
Check out Wikimap. It allows users to save open street maps (osm) for offline navigation and browsing. It also allows users to view and share new waypoints, images, and wiki pages to other wikimap users.

http://itunes.apple.com/WebObjects/MZStore.woa/wa/viewSoftware?id=313803704&mt=8
BLC 8th September 2009, 12:54 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Monkey200SX
navigation on my HTC TOUCH pro 2 is smooth and accurate, easily getting GPS fix etc, you should have not moved away from HTC IMO.

QFT.

I have an HTC Touch Diamond and Tom Tom works beautifully on it: GPS lock on is very quick (providing that the A-GPS data is up to date), the animation and scrolling is smooth, it will not freeze if driving through a tunnel, I can use live traffic services... It's like using a dedicated unit, but having the convenience of only having to carry my phone.

A friend of mine recently purchased Tom Tom for his iPhone 3G S and having seen it in operation, I'm very very glad that I've stuck to HTC for the time being. The biggest advantage in HTC phones is the community behind it - places such as www.xda-developers.com. There are many many tweaks and improvements that can be made to it, even if you don't want to flash the radio or OS ROMs (although I'd highly recommend doing so - it's fair to say that the BT audience are considered enthusiasts, and not afraid of rolling one's sleeves up ;)). With the iPhone, the only way to do this is to jailbreak the phone, and even then I doubt whether it's possible to completely reconfigure the OS in the same way as you can with Windows Mobile.

PS, this is not an anti-Apple rant. I prefer the flexibility and open-ness of Windows Mobile for the time being, but I am a fan of the iPhone. In fact, since I got my iPod touch, I'm starting to use my phone pretty much only as a WiFi router so I can get online with my iPod! Well, and for calls & messages, obviously... It does make me regret not getting an iPhone, but I'm still very eager to see Windows Mobile 7.
Spaceraver 11th September 2009, 19:03 Quote
Why do Apple reIease a phone with a inferior GPS chip? Surely at such a pricetag, one would expect it to work out of the box and not rely on phone mast data?

I also want to endorse www.xdadevelopers.com as a good source for all Win Mo users.
I too can't wait for Windows Mobile 7. Really want it for my Touch HD. Only problem is that I lack a inbuilt Chip, but have it working with a Holux external box, which also doubles as GPS on my laptop. :D

BLC <-- have you tried EnergyROM 3? made by NRGz228, it's how the OS really should be. Way more intuitive to use..
BLC 12th September 2009, 17:23 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spaceraver
BLC <-- have you tried EnergyROM 3? made by NRGz228, it's how the OS really should be. Way more intuitive to use..

I haven't tried any of the recent versions - I'm using GenY 2.10 at the moment. Lots of lovely free RAM with this one :).
Shepps 13th October 2009, 11:43 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Spaceraver
Why do Apple reIease a phone with a inferior GPS chip? Surely at such a pricetag, one would expect it to work out of the box and not rely on phone mast data?

As far as im concerned its the TomTom / CoPilot offerings that are inferior not the hardware itself. I've used the Navigon AG software up / down motorways, down country lanes and in the middle of cities and i've never lost gps reception. It can take a min to lock on but once its going it's pretty decent.
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