Where am I, and how do I get out of here? I have an interview in 30 minutes, and I have no idea where I’m going! Great, the road is closed — what now?
In all of these situations, it’s a good thing your phone is an ever-present GPS device just waiting at your beck and call. But its guidance is only as good as the navigation app you have installed. So I’ve taken a look at some of the best options you can find on Google Play. Here’s my experience behind the wheel with each.
Most of the time, I use Google Maps. It’s free, the directions are accurate, and I find the voices easy to follow without getting lost. It comes pre-installed on Android devices that ship with access to the Play Store, and it’s heavily integrated with Google’s other services.
This makes it easy to open an event in my calendar and start driving to the destination without having to manually enter the details a second time into Maps. The app also plays along nicely with the website, allowing you to enter in locations from the comfort of a desktop.
But Maps isn’t without its pitfalls. For one, the interface changes regularly (just think back to how it used to look several years ago), changing where things are located and requiring me to relearn behavior I could previously do from muscle memory. It’s not uncommon for software to change, but when it comes to an app that you’re using in the car, it helps not to have to rediscover how to do things.
While Maps downloads all the map data necessary for a trip when starting up, it can’t reroute without a connection to the Internet. It does allow you to store a specific area for a limited time, but there’s no ability to download all map data to your Android device. This is what I would consider the app’s largest limitation and the reason I feel a need to check out what else is out there.
Nokia HERE has gone through multiple name changes over the years. For a while it went by the name Ovi Maps, then briefly Nokia Maps, before becoming what it is today. It’s only been publicly available for all Android devices for a handful of months.
I find HERE’s interface to be remarkably straightforward. It’s easy to navigate, with nearly everything tucked away into a single sidebar.
HERE’s maps are free to download, though you must create an account in order to do so. Data is organized by continent, and while you can store most of the globe on your device, you probably won’t be able to fit much else if you do. North American alone requires nearly 7GB. Europe is even larger at over 9GB. Fortunately you can get individual states and countries for just several hundred megabytes.
The app’s default voice didn’t pronounce everything correctly, but I found it easy to follow. Alternative voices are available for download at around 40-60MB each, and like the Maps, they’re free.
I haven’t driven with HERE extensively, but from my initial impressions and its excellent price (or lack thereof), it seems like an easy recommendation.
Sygic is pricey. You can download the app and start driving around for free, but it won’t be long before you need to part with money.
The full set of maps comes priced at $139.99. You can buy individual continents or countries at a time, but rarely does the price of each dip below $30, even with the sales that come around often.
That’s not all. Individual features also cost money, and some require yearly subscriptions. This app, put bluntly, is an investment.
Why? This is what Sygic does for a living. The company exclusively makes navigation apps for mobile devices. That’s it. It’s not part of a larger tech organization, one that sees providing maps as a necessary part of producing a competitive mobile operating system. So it has to find a way to stay profitable. It also contains detailed maps of areas that certain competitors lack, especially outside of Europe and North America.
Unfortunately, I find Sygic’s voice instructions and directions confusing, taking me on less direct routes and causing me to miss turns. Even after the recent redesign, I find entering an address and searching for businesses to be more awkward than I like (the experience feels more like a dedicated GPS unit or in-car navigation system than a smartphone app).
Sygic is also dense with options, so don’t dive into the settings area unless you want to hang out there for a while. But at the same time, that’s also a good reason to spend some time getting to know the app. You could probably tweak it to feel just right (I couldn’t, but your needs may differ from mine).
Waze is a navigation app, but it’s also a social network. Users share real-time traffic information, routes, and gas prices to improve each other’s driving experiences. You can take part in the comradery, or you can simply use the app to get you from one place to another.
If you’re going with the latter choice, Waze does a good job. The app directions are easy to follow, and routes can sometimes be more accurate due to feedback and input from real people. You also have the cool ability to see friends’ estimated arrival time when you’re heading to the same place. Just know that you’ve giving up the ability to download maps, as that would mean sacrificing all of the social features that Waze is all about.
But there is one thing I must point out. Waze is the sole app on this list that tossed up an ad while I was driving. Sure, it was trying to get me to download a Waze-specific feature (celebrity voices), but that was a hugely unnecessary distraction. I don’t appreciate ads in my apps in general. I especially don’t want them popping up while I’m behind the wheel.
And just a quick note: Waze is owned by Google. So while it’s an alternative to Google Maps, it also kind of isn’t. How much that matters is entirely up to you.
Consider this more of a primer than a comprehensive look at Android’s navigation tools. I haven’t said much about which app has the best selection of places of interest (POIs) or which offers the most accurate real-time traffic. Frankly, there’s just too much to tackle all at once.
So with that said, there are a number of other navigation apps in the Play Store that may be well worth your consideration. Navfree and MapFactor are both two free options that utilize OpenStreetMaps data to steer you around (I’ve had mixed results here, but both have over 10 million installs). There’s also MapQuest, Navmii, and Telenav Scout. When it comes to GPS apps, it’s good to try out a bunch for yourself. You never know which one will appeal to you most.
Which is Best for You?
The answer to that is a big, unsatisfying, it depends. A GPS solution may work great in my corner of the world, but its support could be nearly non-existent in yours. No matter how good a navigation app is, it’s useless if it doesn’t have your area mapped out.
Google Maps is great in the US and other Western countries, but its support varies as you go elsewhere. It also doesn’t let you download everything for offline use, creating an opening for competitors to step in. Sygic is more than happy to fill in the cracks, but it’s going to cost you. Nokia, on the other hand, will take a swing at it for free and is your best choice for offline maps.
If you’re relying on an app to guide you through busy streets and open roads, which one do you trust? This list isn’t all-encompassing, so if I left an app off that you swear by, please share your experience in the comments below.