These days, a smartphone is expected to do more than just field calls and text messages. Increasingly, users are ditching paper maps in favor of handheld screens, and judging by the backlash that Apple continues to receive after it launched a subpar Maps app inside of its latest iPhone software update, a solid navigation app is now an expectation. For those making the switch from dedicated navigation products – perhaps a Garmin or TomTom unit mounted in a vehicle – the iPhone offers plenty of similar functionality. But one area where phones in general fall short in performance is the offline mode. If you're ever in rural places with weak mobile coverage, or in foreign countries where you'd rather not run up a high roaming bill just to navigate, it's worth it to understand your offline options.
Unfortunately, neither the Maps app that Apple ships on the iPhone nor Google Maps (available for free in the App Store) presently support offline navigation. If you drop signal or force your phone into Airplane Mode (useful for avoiding catastrophic roaming fees when driving up to Canada from the U.S., for example), you're suddenly on your own when it comes to routing.
I'd recommend that you start by downloading HERE Maps. It's a free app in the App Store, and it's actually a very powerful navigation program. Unlike Apple's Maps app, this program includes mass transit directions for city dwellers, a fantastic list of nearby venues, walking directions, and turn-by-turn driving guidance. Best of all, the app allows you to select frequently visited regions and store those maps directly on your phone, so that you can access them while offline. Currently, it only supports a small amount of storage (enough for one or two cities at the time). If that's not robust enough, let's discuss some more expensive options.
For a one-time $39.99 purchase, you can grab TomTom U.S.A. from the App Store. You'll need a large amount of free space (around 1.5GB) on your iPhone to handle all of the maps, but once you've downloaded them, you'll have offline access to every single one. The good news is that you don't have to do anything differently when operating offline, and moreover, anyone who has used a TomTom device previously will see the same user interface on their iPhone. The bad news, however, is that mass transit and walking directions aren't included.
For a one-time charge of $59.99, the NAVIGON North America expands your offline coverage to include Canada. NAVIGON is actually owned by Garmin now, so anyone familiar with Garmin's in-car GPS units will feel right at home with this user interface. Unlike TomTom's app – which requires you to download maps for the entire U.S. – NAVIGON allows you to select just the states you frequent. Or, of course, you can download them all. A pedestrian/walking mode is included, but you'll have to revert to HERE Maps for mass transit directions.
I'd recommend that hardcore road warriors load their iPhone up with HERE Maps, as well as NAVIGON North America to have all of your bases covered. If you aren't aware, using data to navigate in a foreign country can add hundreds of dollars to your mobile bill, which makes the one-time purchase here quite justifiable.
Own an Android or Windows Phone smartphone? Hang tight: We'll have offline recommendations for those platforms in the weeks ahead!
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