Updated: Using an iPhone as a GPS device

This article has been updated in places marked Update. I also crossed out items that I found are no longer correct.

I’ve been traveling for work a lot recently and having a GPS is a necessity.  I was considering buying GPS to take along with me, but instead of carrying another device along with me I decided that using my iPhone as a GPS may be the better alternative.

Choosing an App

Although my iPhone 3GS does have GPS hardware and a maps application, it does not have a turn by turn direction app (you Android users can stop laughing now!).  There are several such apps available in the App Store.  There were two GPS apps that I considered; the Garmin and TomTom apps.  The Garmin app costs $40 and the TomTom app costs $50.

I have previously used Garmin GPS units so I was leaning toward their app until I read the reviews.  The big problem with the Garmin app is that it does not pre-load the maps onto the iPhone.  It pulls maps as needed over the air.  The advantages of this is that you will always get the latest maps and the app does not take up storage on the device to store maps.  However, the disadvantage of this approach is that you are dependent upon having a data connection to get a map.  If you are in an area without coverage (which happens from time to time on AT&T) you are stuck.  Also, if the maps do not download quickly so you can be without information when you really need it.  Many people complained about this in the app store and the app has a low rating because of this.

The TomTom app takes the different approach and loads the maps onto your device.  You can buy the app with different countries, depending on your needs.  As you would expect, support for more countries does cost extra.  Pre-loading the maps does take quite a bit of storage.  The US maps version uses 1.4GB.  I have a 32GB iPhone so this isn’t a big problem but it might be for an iPhone with 8 or 16GB storage.  You can download updates from TomTom for free.  Traffic information is available at extra cost.  Subscriptions to traffic info can be purchased in-app for $20 per year.

I ended up choosing the TomTom app for the performance even though it takes more storage and costs $10 more. I should note that it takes a long time to download and install the app since it is so large.  Also, forget about doing it over 3G since you can only download an app over 20MB using wifi.

Additional hardware

I also invested in a windshield mount.  Every GPS unit comes with one but iPhone does not.  I found one from Scosche for $25 at Staples which was perfectly adequate.  It lets you position the phone in either landscape or portrait (not all do).  I already had a car charger for iPhone, which is really necessary since using the GPS hardware eats up battery pretty quickly.

Using iPhone as a GPS

On my last trip I was armed with my iPhone, car charger, and window mount. All set! Before the trip I set my hotel as a favorite. TomTom lets you set favorites by either entering them by hand or you can choose any item from your contacts list. Why do you have favorites when you have your contacts list?  Favorites is handy because navigating all of your contacts could be difficult in a car.  Favorites are large and easy to tap, contact entries are small and require more concentration to tap.

After setting out from the car rental lot to find my hotel in a city I’ve never visited before, I very quickly found out that the iPhone’s speaker is not nearly loud enough to hear the spoken directions.  Even with the radio off, the traffic noise makes it very hard to hear.  I’m using an iPhone 3GS, so maybe the iPhone 4 is better, but I had a very hard time hearing what it had to say. This is a big problem. I don’t know that TomTom can do much about this.

The volume issue can be corrected by piping the iPhone’s audio output into the car’s stereo.  The downside of this is that you cannot listen to the radio or a CD while navigating, but if your iPhone is your iPod this might not be so bad unless you want to listen to a ball game or talk radio.  Piping the audio to the car can be done with an iPhone to aux in cable or by using an FM transmitter.  The former approach is only viable if your car has an aux input and then requires an extra cable.  FM transmitters don’t work that well and are not inexpensive.  Bluetooth audio may also be an option, but I haven’t had the opportunity to try that.

Update: I found that the TomTom software has a separate volume control from the iPhone’s volume buttons.  If you tap the bottom bar it turns into a volume control.  If you crank this up the volume is sufficient to use in a car.

One nice thing about the TomTom software is that it will fade down audio playing on the iPhone when it needs to give you directions.  This is important if you’re using your iPhone as an iPod and GPS at the same time.  TomTom runs in the background in iOS4 so you can get audio directions even if the TomTom app is not visible.

In addition to the low audio, I find the fonts used to display the “next step” at the top of the screen are too small and are hard to read when the device up on the dashboard. Maybe this can be corrected by software in a future release.  The problem is the same when using the device in portrait or landscape.

Navigation wise, the TomTom software worked just fine. It got me where I needed to go even when I missed a turn or two (because I couldn’t hear the direction). It would also tell me which lane to be in which I found handy.  I do wish it would give more audio cues than “in 200 yards turn right.”  Saying street names and exit numbers would be more helpful.  I would prefer to hear directions like “in 200 yards turn right onto Main Street” or “in point two miles take exit 3B”. Update: The TomTom software does announce street names and road numbers as long as you use one of the voices marked as “(computer)”.  These voices aren’t as nice as some of the others, but are more functional.

TomTom has all the standard points of interest, so if you need to find a gas station, restaurant, hotel, or amusement part you’re all set.  You can also choose which of these to automatically put on the map.

An unexpected issue was other iPhone apps interrupting my navigation.  Incoming text messages, push notifications, and calendar notifications show a pop up over the TomTom software and require user interaction to make the popup go away.  If you’re not careful and hit the wrong button the app could switch on you.  All of this is not something you want to deal with while driving.  I like keeping my eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.  I don’t want to have to read a popup or figure out how to switch back to the GPS app.


So, was this experiment worth it?  Is using the iPhone as a GPS a better solution than buying a dedicated GPS?  From my experience I’d have to say no. With my latest experiences, I find that the iPhone with TomTom is an adequate solution for navigation.

First of all, I was hoping this would be a cheaper solution than buying a new GPS.  I spent $75 on software and hardware.  I already have an FM transmitter, but if I didn’t that would be another $50 at least. For $125 I can buy a decent GPS unit.

Update: Since I don’t need additional hardware for audio, the cost is $75 for software and a mount which is less expensive than a decent dedicated GPS.

On the plus side I really like the idea of having one device do all of the things I want.  My iPhone has all of my contacts on it which means I don’t have to re-enter them onto a second GPS device.  I also have one battery to keep charged and one less charger to carry around which is important as I carry too much stuff anyway.  Also, I always have my iPhone on me which means I always have my navigation software. I won’t have the problem of forgetting to bring my GPS or someone borrowing it.

However, the negatives are substantial enough to not recommend this approach.  The quiet audio problem is close to a dealbreaker.  There may be workarounds, but this was supposed to make my life easier not harder.  The interruptions to navigation by other things happening on the phone create distractions while driving which, besides being annoying, is dangerous.  Neither of these problems are faults of the software, but are inherent to the iPhone itself.  I don’t fault TomTom, but that doesn’t mean that I can recommend using an iPhone as a navigation tool.

Update: There are negatives to this approach most notably that iPhone notifications can interrupt your navigation which is distracting. This is not a fault of the TomTom software but that of the iPhone platform.

I have another trip coming up so I’ll have more opportunity to see how well this works.  This time I’ll bring my FM transmitter in an attempt to solve the audio problem.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Update: Things went better on my last trip using the iPhone.  The phone was able to give me directions that I could hear and they did include the street names.  I did miss one exit though because the system did not tell me to take it.  I had to take an exit to stay on the same highway (I hate that!) and the system did not warn me about it.


About Lee J.

Mobile Guy!
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