What a Trip to London Taught Me About GPS Apps and Navigation

thames river parliament london at dusk

London's River Thames

On a recent trip to London, CIO.com mobile app reviewer James A. Martin used three popular GPS apps and a dedicated GPS device for navigation. Each of them led to frustration, and a lesser-known app downloaded at the last minute proved to be the best option.

I seriously considered tossing my iPhone and Android smartphones into the brown waters of the Thames. How liberating, if not exhilarating, it would have felt. But I took a deep breath, stepped away from the bridge railing, put both devices back into my pockets and continued along my confusing trajectory.

What had pushed me to the edge? Two words: "GPS navigation."

I recently spent almost three weeks in London. If you’ve been to the U.K. capital, you know how confounding it can be for visitors. Streets meander and suddenly change names — with only a street sign here and there to assist. In most places, there are no visible high rises to ground you.

Having visited London in the past, I knew what to expect, navigation-wise. I was also trying to minimize AT&T’s expensive international data roaming charges on my iPhone 5s.

So I armed myself before leaving the U.S. with two iOS apps, CoPilot Premium USA ($8) and Garmin’s viago ($2), both of which offer downloadable maps for purchase for European countries and other regions.

I also borrowed a portable GPS device from Garmin, the nuvi 3597LMTHD ($330 list price) and equipped it with optional maps for the United Kingdom and France. And I used a low-end Samsung Galaxy Fame Android smartphone with a one-month unlimited data SIM card purchased in London, with the goal of using Google Maps and Google Navigation.

I was curious to see which of these options fared the best. As you may have guessed by now, each led me astray in one way or another.

copilot error message during london

* CoPilot Premium. Faced with a nearly endless to-do list before departure, I forgot to download the CoPilot Premium U.K. map at home. When I tried installing it over Wi-Fi in my rented flat, the download kept freezing and stopping. I received the same error message: “Internet Connection Not Found! Try again shortly.” It’s a shame, because in the United States, CoPilot and its downloadable maps are a fairly solid smartphone GPS option.

* Garmin viago. I'm a fan of viago (see my review) and had downloaded and installed the necessary map for London navigation on my iPhone before leaving home. But the app stalled whenever I tried to look up a destination while out and about in London, with cellular data turned off. (The iPhone 5s has built-in GPS, so you shouldn’t have to rely on cellular data if you have an app that supports directions via downloaded maps and content.)

* Garmin nuvi. The Garmin nuvi, which works well in San Francisco, repeatedly failed to find a satellite in London. The device also doesn’t offer pedestrian or transit modes, so it wouldn’t have been very useful for walking even if it had fixed on a satellite. (Seriously though, why don’t all dedicated GPS devices offer pedestrian modes?)

* Google Maps. Next I tried Google Maps on the Samsung phone. Folks, there’s a good reason Google says its Maps pedestrian mode is in "beta" — it had me going in more circles than the London Eye. Another American I met there had similar issues with Google Maps.

* A surprise winner: Citymapper. Finally, acting on another friend’s advice, I downloaded Citymapper, which is free for both iOS and Android. Of all the options I tried, this app proved to be the least exasperating. (Sorry, that’s as much enthusiasm as I can muster.)

citymapper android

Citymapper on Android

The app, which covers only a handful of major cities (including London), offers pedestrian, transit, cycling, taxi and other routing modes. It doesn’t give you turn-by-turn directions, however. Instead, the app shows your route on a map, with start and end points and a familiar pulsing blue dot to indicate your current position.

This isn’t ideal, because you have to look at the screen frequently. And the Android app, unlike the iOS version, annoyingly overlays useless information on the map. As a result, I had to pinch and zoom in on the map to get a better view. Whenever I tapped the GPS icon to see my current position, the map zoomed back out and I had to pinch and zoom in again for a closer look. Sigh.

That said, Citymapper was far more efficient in getting me from point A to point B than Google Maps. Its search function is excellent. And I like how it estimates taxi fare, walk time and even how many calories you’re likely to burn when walking.

Ultimately, my experience in London reminded me of how much GPS technology has to improve before it’s consistently accurate and reliable, especially for pedestrians. In the meantime, if you find yourself in London, I recommend investing in a good paper map, asking locals for directions and using a combination of your smartphone’s GPS and compass to figure out where the heck you are.

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