Smartphones have transformed the way we navigate our world, notes Consumer Reports. They combine built-in GPS with a cellular data connection so that they know precisely where we are and can instantly download maps, driving (or walking) directions and traffic information from the Internet.
Navigation apps that run on smartphones, such as Google Maps and Waze, put many in-dash units from car manufacturers to shame with their impressive voice control and real-time info on accidents, public transportation and speed traps. Many carmakers are surrendering part of their in-car interfaces in new vehicles to ones designed by Apple and Google. Those systems can access the Internet and your contacts, making them much smarter than traditional built-in navigation systems. Drivers of older cars routinely mount a phone onto the dash for similar reasons.
Consumer Reports lists four apps with real-time info that ensures that you’ll take the best route and steer clear of trouble.
Apple Maps (iPhone)
Apple Maps provides an easy-to-read trip overview showing adequate, though sparse, info on tolls, construction, traffic delays and road closures. Consumer Reports likes it for:
3-D views of buildings and landmarks in New York and other big cities, including detailed, photorealistic “flyover tours.”
Easy sharing of maps and directions using messaging, email and social networks, convenient for meeting family and friends in unfamiliar places.
Mass-transit directions, which were previously missing from Apple Maps but will be available with iOS 9 this fall. Like Google Maps, the new Apple Maps will let you plan a trip using multiple modes of transportation (bus, car, walking, etc.).
Google Maps (Android, iPhone)
Google Maps is uncluttered yet brimming with details. Street names and points of interest are clearly marked, and you can choose a route that avoids tolls. Consumer Reports likes it for:
Continuous traffic and accident updates, along with suggestions for alternate routes.
Directions for pedestrians, cyclists and mass-transit commuters that are easy to use. (Cycling from Consumer Reports in Yonkers, N.Y., to the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., for example, apparently takes 11 days, 13 hours without sleeping, eating or bathroom breaks.)
Street-level views in Google Maps, which can help you get to your destination. You also can take 360-degree photo tours.
Waze (Android, iPhone, Windows)
If you want to avoid being ticketed by aggressive police officers, Waze could be for you. It has strong core navigation with sharing tools. Consumer Reports likes it for:
Updates on speed traps, red-light cameras and other hazards of the road. Much of the data comes from other “Wazers” in the area, and the app allows you to return the favor.
Gas-price reporting for some service stations near your location.
A speedometer showing average speed in comparison to other Waze drivers along your route. One caveat about the app: You may be tempted to share road reports while driving, but that’s dangerous. Pull over first.
Here (Android, iPhone, Windows)
This app works from maps stored on the phone, which means you don’t have to blow your plan’s data allowance on map updates – or risk having no connection when you want directions. Consumer Reports likes it for:
Local maps that you can download for an entire country or just for the state where you’re driving.
A simple interface that makes it easy to see maps, street names, directions and traffic delays.
The onboard speedometer, which glows red when you exceed the local speed limits.
Two Windows-only features, one that warns you about traffic jams without bothering you with directions, and another that remembers where you parked.
For more information, check out the report online at ConsumerReports.org/cro/hiddenhelpers.