It’s often said that a standalone satnav is far superior than a smartphone app, often for a multitude of reasons that are demonstrably wrong. Here I’ve a list of some of the available options with my opinions of them, followed by an explanation of why I think phones are only mostly better than dedicated units.
I did give in and buy a Garmin, and I’m documenting my finding out what I’ve been missing here.
There’s no technical reason for apps to be less good at the important bits than a normal satnav – smartphones have Google Maps
It’s generally regarded by anyone who has tried anything else as pretty unideal, but it’s catching up and is workable if you’re not interested in plotting a route and instead just want to go to your destination; I keep it around to use when I’m already in a town and want to find a restaurant or something, but I’d hate to have to use it to do anything substantial. It occasionally gains and loses support for multiple waypoints, but each time it supports them, if you cause it to recalculate for any reason (by going off-route) it’ll recalculate directly to the destination rather than considering all your waypoints.
- Probably already installed
- Has every POI
- Not great at planned routes; if you go off-course it’ll often recalculate directly to your last point, ignoring all waypoints
- Offline mapping is strange; you download small regions at a time and they are prone to expire
- No offline route-calcuation
CoPilot’s popular among people who plan routes with several waypoints; one of their big markets for which they make another app is caravanners and another is truck drivers.
One of the big features for me is that you can set ‘Routing Profiles’ where you can adjust the priority/cost of using each road category (dual carriageways, main roads, urban roads, small roads etc.), and save a series of profiles – I have a ‘rideout’ one that generally sticks to good roads, a ‘Dirt Bike’ one that sticks to shit roads, a ‘No Motorways’ one that does what you’d expect, and a ‘Normal’ one that’s like all the other satnavs. An other is the “POI Alerts” (which are confusingly in the “Safety Alerts & Warnings” menu); you choose a series of POI categories and a range, and a little icon appears on the map display when a matching POI is in range and on- or near-route. You can tap on the icon to scroll-through them, and there’ s a button on each to set it as the next waypoint on the current route.
I think it’s about £35 to get CoPilot premium and the UK maps. You get a few days free as a trial, during which there’s no voices for navigation (but still icons on the screen) and no automatic recalculation – you have to hit a button on the screen.
- Designed for planned-routes; easy to create and edit routes on the device
- Handy features – route profiles, up-ahead alerts, traffic routing, speed limits etc.
- Uses its own route format (.trp) and loading the route into CoPilot involves copying it to the right folder manually; you can’t open a .trp you emailed yourself with copilot.
Calimoto’s big feature is routing based on corners; it’s meant to be the ‘windy roads’ option, basically. It’s very good at that, but seems unaware of the sizes of those roads – sometimes you’ll get gravelly singletrack roads, other times it’s swooping major arteries. That said, it’s very good at not being boring. You can use a map region online indefinitely for free; you pay to get all maps, offline maps and to be able to tune the routing.
- Easy to share routes with other Calimoto users at the beginning of a ride
- Featureful storage/search/recall of tracked rides so you can go out again
- Can open-with on a GPX file so you can use anything else to plan the routes
- Reliably produces non-boring routes
- Entirely useful without paying
- Feels quite different in different regions; I get singletrack roads in Hertfordshire, but major A roads in Surrey, say.
- Lots of cutesey prompts that get in the way more than they entertain
- The map drawing is _really_ buggy; though the route is always drawn correctly sometimes it doesn’t match the map underneath
- Often it’ll put you into a layby or round an extra junction to get more corners; it’s worth going along with the map very zoomed out to catch and avoid these
Along with the kurviger.de website this is a route-planner and navigator in one. The free version only lets you opt for curvy or not-curvy routes, but on the pay-for one you can also optimise for scenery and it always seems to try to minimise the number of junctions involved. Weirdly, the subscription for the website and for the app are completely separate, but you can only really make much use of all the features if you’ve premium on both.
- Different legs of the route can have different profiles – motorway for the first leg, then extra-curvy to lunch, then a scenic trip round to dinner, for example. Lends itself really well to touring
- QR-code sharing of routes makes it really easy in-person with other kurviger users
- Optimises for simpler routes (fewer junctions) while also doing twisties or scenery
- Kurviger.de website is really easy to use, and generates generic GPX files
- Need premium separately on both app and website (£10/y for the site and something similar for Pro mode in the app, but I can’t find the price on their site)
- Voice navigation is a Pro feature
- Offline maps are a little clunky to set up, offline routing moreso.
This is excellent as a take-me-to-a-postcode app; it can’t do multiple-waypoint routing, but it much simpler and clearer than TomTom, with decent traffic estimates (when you’ve got data on) and speed camera warnings, and it’s all free. You can download the maps or use them online, and it’s completely free in either case.
- Simple to use, feels finished & polished
- Good traffic estimates & speed limit awareness
- Lots of POIs
- Can’t do multiple-waypoints; no way to load a route in
The killer feature here is turn-by-turn navigation off-road, but this is also a featureful and functional, if a little clunky, road satnav. I use this primarily to store my PoIs (cafes, ferries, trails, covid-compliant laybys etc.) and for navigation off-road
- Turn-by-turn off-road routing (but as a bicycle, so you need to have a high-resolution route)
- Can create, load, edit and export GPXes; it’s a pretty good GPX editor to go alongside any other satnav
- Useful for all outdoorsy things; can buy OS maps and local equivalents, or use various types of OSM map for free
- Excellent for PoI management/storing – good categorisation, exporting/importing of GPXes
- Very configurable in display and instruction
- * Route calculation is online-only and requires the installation of a helper app (bRouter)
- Quite clunky; definitely a map app first and a satnav second
- Very poor search; best used as an app you ‘open’ a location with, rather than searching in the app itself
Some I’ve not used much recently
These all might have changed somewhat since I wrote this:
Like Locus, this is map first and satnav second, but it’s a hugely better search for PoIs. I barely use it now because Locus has all my PoIs in it now, but I’ve nothing against it.
The app’s fine; it’s like the modern TomToms (not the Rider V1/2, but the 300 series); the UI is really modern feeling, but a bit surprising and oddly lacking in features. I’ve not yet managed to plan the route I actually want to do in it, and while it’s got this neat ‘timeline’ down the right hand side of the screen to tell you where on your route any roadworks and petrol stations are it doesn’t give you any information about them (like how far away they are). It does have a really handy thing that keeps track of your average speed in average speed camera zones, though. It feels polished rather than finished, really. It’s £30/year, but you get 50miles per month indefinitely as a free trial (maps are free). Aside from the average-speed zone handling and familiarity with the TomTom interface there’s no great reason to get this over Here, to my mind.
It’s completely free, but the user interface is pretty surprising. I know people who’ve got used to it, though, and now don’t mind it. You get one country’s map free with the install and it’s actually pretty good at points of interest, but it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well – I can’t think of a reason to use it over Here Maps.
Garmin’s app. It’s long been famed for being atrocious, I’m amazed it’s still on the play store. But I’m also amazed people still buy Garmins. :)
is now a Google product, but it’s actually good :) For a long time its main feature was the community – it’s all about showing you user-reported cameras, accidents, and traffic. Surprisingly, it still works for that, and despite being Google underneath it seems a pretty reasonable satnav, though I’ve not used it for a couple of years.
Standalone units vs Phones
There’s not any reason for a phone to be bad at satnavving – they typically have plenty of storage space for maps, use the same or similar GPS and GLONASS chips and are at least as likely to be able to use GSM and WiFi to get better/faster fixes.
There’s some obvious benefits, too: a smartphone is more of a general-purpose computer so you’re less dependent on the way the satnav happens to implement podcasts or music, and can just use whatever app you prefer. You’re not tied to any particular route-transfer options since you can just email them to yourself, and you can use the web browser to look up addresses not already in the device. Get your calendaring and route planning right and you can turn up to ferry terminals with the booking reference appearing on your screen as a notification.
You can even use multiple satnav apps – mid-route I’ll often switch to a different one to find a petrol station or lunch stop, for example, and I use different ones for road and off-road riding, and on-road different ones for a dull commute somewhere to a Sunday blast.
Finally, the hardware’s generally better – the maps render faster, the screen resolution is much better so looking at maps when looking at an overview of the route, or modifying it, is a much more pleasant task.
That’s not to say phones are _always_ better, though weirdly when this argument comes up on forums and suchlike the people arguing in favour of standalone satnavs seem to generally cite features that are commonly available in all the apps (like offline mapping) as if they’re comparing with a quick glance at Google Maps. The things that make standalone satnavs better are those that come from the ‘standalone’ bit, and they’re almost all to do with the hardware.
If you were to design a standalone satnav for a motorbike, you’d have a bracket you can clip the satnav in with one hand, and make it such that as the satnav’s put in some sort of robust, waterproof power connection is engaged so that the thing is always charging. You’d use a screen with something to prevent glare, which works well with gloved hands (perhaps resistive, and a UI that doesn’t demand multitouch?) and you’d probably have a series of hardware buttons in addition to whatever’s on the screen.
When using a phone, you’ll generally use a pouch or a Ram X-Grip which is only complicatedly one-handed and often obscures buttons or bits of the screen, and you’ll need separately to plug in your relatively fragile, not-waterproof USB micro lead (which has until now just been dangling about) as a second step to just mounting the device. Android’s glove mode doesn’t really work and “touch-screen compatible ” gloves rarely are and that really bright and vivid screen that’s great for looking at photos (and maps) isn’t great for glare (and a case is only going to compound that). Iphones only have one physical button, and of Android’s three, one’s famously unpredictable.
I don’t know many people who have started using a dedicated satnav in the past four or five years. I know lots of people who last used one four or five years ago (in the days of the Rider 2 and the Zumo 550) and have been put off them for life (I’m in that camp). Everyone I know who uses one now, though, used one back then.
It’s really hard to get a decent go on a dedicated satnav, though – none of the people selling them seem to think that offering test rides is particularly worthwhile – so I don’t really know much about the options hardware-wise any more, and I’ve been told that extrapolating anything from my use of a Rider v2 and a Zumo 550 would be incredibly unfair.
What I do
I use different apps for different sorts of rides:
- To take me to a postcode as quickly and boringly as possible, I use Here Maps
- For a planned day-trip I’ll use Kurviger – do the planning on the website and send the route to my phone
- If I’m out somewhere on my own and want a fun way back I’ll use Calimoto; I don’t tend to use it when leading people because of the propensity to go down dirt roads
- For a touring holiday or any other ride where I’m going to several places I’ll use CoPilot
If I’m going off road I’ll use Locus Maps for navigating, using the OSM maps. I also have ViewRanger for viewing the OS maps, but I find OS maps too busy and confusing to navigate with.