Garmin’s nüvi vs. iPhone’s Maps: The Ultimate Showdown

With the release of iPhone OS 3.0, Apple gave the go ahead to turn-by-turn GPS-based navigation apps. Several such programs are already available in the App Store, with more on the way. Perhaps the most anticipated of these apps is the still-to-be-released TomTom for iPhone. Of the navigation apps already for sale, the most full-featured is Navigon’s MobileNavigator.

Perhaps you’re considering purchasing one of these apps, but you’re hestitating. Before you make a decision, you want to know: “I have an iPhone. My car has no built-in navigation system. I’ve been thinking of getting a dedicated GPS unit for the car, like the ones sold by Garmin or TomTom. Would I be better off getting an iPhone GPS navigation app instead?”

Good question. And I intend to answer it. Soon. But not today. For today, I want to address an even more fundamental question: “Rather than purchase either a dedicated GPS device or an iPhone navigation app, would it be sufficient to just go with the Maps app that comes free with the iPhone? How well does it measure up?”

To answer this question, I compared Maps to a Garmin nüvi 760 (which I chose because it’s the GPS device I happen to own). What follows is the round-by-round results of the match-up. The results would be similar with any other recent GPS navigation unit.

I’m driving alone in a car and need directions to an unfamiliar location. Which device is better?

The Garmin. No contest. Hands down.

This gets to the most significant advantage of the GPS unit: It provides text-to-speech turn-by-turn directions, as you drive. A short distance before a turn, it alerts you that a turn is coming up. When you actually get to the turn, it tells you which way to turn and gives you a heads up as to the next turn on the route. This means you could typically navigate to your destination without ever having even to glance at the device.

If you do look at the screen, you’ll get additional information, such as how many miles to your next turn. The Garmin (as is typical of virtually all GPS devices) shows a “3-D” view of the road in front of you, continually updated as you continue to drive. 

None of this is available via the iPhone’s Maps app. Unless you have a passenger in the car to work with the iPhone as you drive, the device isn’t much more useful than a map and directions printed from a Web site. While Maps does update your current location in real time (via the moving blue dot), this is not nearly as effective (even with the new 3GS Compass-based feature that shows the direction you’re heading) as what you see on a Garmin display.

Finally, if you do plan to follow what’s on the screen, you’ll want the device mounted so you can easily glance at it while you’re driving. The Garmin comes with mounting options. The iPhone does not; you’ll have to pay extra to get one.

What if I make a wrong turn or deliberately decide to take an alternate route for part of the trip. Which device handles such deviations better?

The Garmin. Again by a long shot.  If you deviate from Garmin’s recommended route (whether intentionally or not), the Garmin quickly adapts. Faster than you can say “recalculating,” Garmin updates your remaining route to accommodate your “wrong turn.”

The iPhone’s Maps app has nothing like this. Make a wrong turn and you pretty much have to either figure out how to return to the existing route on your own or manually request that a new route be generated.

I want to plan a trip with a stop or two along the way — like stopping at a restaurant on my way to the theater. Can I create one route that includes multiple stops?

You can with the Garmin. Just select a second destination after entering a first one. The Garmin will ask if you want to add the second stop as a “via point” or start over with a new route. Pick the former of the two options and you are on your way.

Once more, Maps has no comparable feature.

What happens if the phone rings while I am following a route?

The Garmin is the better choice here.

With your Garmin paired to your iPhone via Bluetooth, you are alerted to phone calls and can answer them simply by tapping a button on the Garmin’s display. You don’t ever have to touch the iPhone. You converse through the Garmin’s microphone and speaker. Most importantly, talking on the phone does not interrupt the Garmin’s display of your route. Turn-by-turn instructions continue even while you are connected.

In contrast, using Maps on the iPhone presents a dilemma. Answer the call and you are kicked out of Maps. While you are taking the call, you could thus miss an upcoming turn. Basically, you have to choose between using Maps or taking the call.

I want to quickly map directions to a friend’s house. Which device is better?

At last, the iPhone wins a round. To just get a quick display of the path from a starting point to a destination, the iPhone is better. You can enter a complete address (including street, city, and state) in one text box and tap to get the result.

With the Garmin, there are separate screens for street number, street name, and city/state. It takes significantly more time to enter it all. Worse, if you make a mistake, and don’t realize it until you get the obvious wrong result at the end, you have to start completely over. There is no way to edit a prior entry, as you can easily do with the iPhone.

Also, with the iPhone, if you tap the address of any name in your Contacts database, you are directly transferred to Maps with the address shown as a drop pin. The Garmin has no comparable feature.

I need directions to a specific “point of interest,” such as a restaurant or movie theater. Which device makes it easier to do this?

The situation here is close to a tie, with the slight edge going to the iPhone.

When looking for a commercial location, you don’t want to have to enter a full address. You probably don’t even know what the address is. You just want to enter something like: “AMC theater” — and get the desired results. This is what the iPhone’s Maps app excels at doing.

With Maps displaying your current location, enter “AMC theater” in the Search text box. Within seconds, drop pins appear on the map showing the locations of all nearby AMC theaters. No further typing is needed. With a couple of more taps, you can set Maps to display the route from your current location to your selected theater.

The Garmin has a similar capability (via Points of Interest > Spell Name). However, in my experience, the Garmin fails to find what I am seeking much more often than the iPhone. Plus, if the Garmin has any trouble finding matches for your request, it can take a long time before showing any results at all. 

The Garmin’s advantage is that it can find places without having to type anything at all. For example, just tap Points of Interest > Fuel and you should quickly get a list of nearby gas stations.

The iPhone can match this feature, but only if you exit Maps. At this point, you have a wealth of (mostly free) map-related third-party apps at your disposal. For example, using Yelp, you can quickly get a list of nearby restaurants, gas stations, or whatever — all without any keyboard typing. Plus, apps like Yelp offers reviews and a wealth of other information you can’t get with the Garmin. With movie theater apps, such as Flixster, you can similarly get reviews, show times and even purchase tickets. While these apps offer a map display of your chosen destination, they typically won’t show a calculated route (unless the app is one that transfers you to Maps).

A final small plus for the Garmin: It does not require an Internet connection for these features to work It all works from the device’s built-in data and its GPS connection. For the iPhone, apps such as Yelp (and even some features in Maps) require an Internet connection.

What about showing traffic?

Showing traffic on major routes is a free built-in feature with Maps. With the iPhone, you also have the option to launch Safari and access traffic-related Web sites.

With the Garmin, traffic information is available. But, depending upon which model you have, you either have to pay extra for it (as is the case with my 760) or use a free but ad-based service. On the plus side, the Garmin audibly warns you of traffic problems ahead and allows you to map a detour route if desired. It’s also been my impression that the Garmin’s traffic data is more accurate and more extensive than what appears in Maps.

I may need a device for directions outside of my car, such as when walking around. Which one is better?

The iPhone is the clear winner here. As it’s your mobile phone, you likely always have it with you. You dodn’t need to remember to or decide whether to take it. That’s a big out-of-the-gate advantage of an all-in-one device like the iPhone. As a bonus, the Maps app offers an option for plotting an actual walking route, as opposed to a driving route. The Garmin has no comparable option. 

The Garmin is portable. It can be removed from its car mount and put in your pocket (an advantage the Garmin has over dashboard-installed built-in navigation systems). But the Garmin then becomes a second device (after your iPhone) to worry about. If you’re like me, you will almost never want to bother with it. 

What about getting updated maps?

With Maps, you always have the latest map information available via Google. And it’s free.

With the Garmin, you have to pay an annual fee to get the latest map data.

Bottom line

On balance, the Garmin comes out ahead. If I’m in my car, and I need directions, and my choice is between Maps or a GPS device (such as the Garmin), I would choose the GPS device every time.

To be clear, I am not saying that getting a GPS device is preferable to getting an iPhone at all. Far from it. All I am saying is that, assuming you already own an iPhone, a separate GPS unit is a better choice for directions than depending on the iPhone’s Maps app. Of course, GPS devices have one further downside that must be weighed into this equation: they cost additional money. For many people, especially if they don’t often drive to unfamiliar locations, the iPhone’s Maps is good enough. The extra cost of a separate GPS device would not be worth it.

But if you can afford the price, and especially if you frequently travel to unfamiliar locations, a dedicated GPS unit is preferable to Maps overall.

Are these GPS devices also preferable to the third-party iPhone navigation apps? As I said at the top of this article, that remains the subject for a future column.