Motorcycle Navigation: Did the Smartphone Kill the GPS Unit? Part 2

Mar 21, 2016 View Comments by

In the December issue I analyzed the gaps between smartphones and stand-alone GPS devices in the context of hardware. I arrived at the conclusion that the smartphone has better or equal hardware components, except perhaps for waterproofing, and a stand-alone GPS unit is still better for the specific task of motorcycle navigation.

Hardware is just one factor. Perhaps even more important is the software. After all, we interact with the software’s user interface. The key question is whether the smartphone’s GPS software has reached or exceeded the functionality levels of standalone GPS receivers.

The ubiquitous Google Maps app is cross platform (except for the Windows Phone) and user friendly, but it must have a data connection to function (either through a cellular data plan or Wi-Fi). This is a major limitation for motorcycle usage—sometimes there is no cellular reception in remote areas and other times there is reception but the data plan and/or roaming charges are very expensive.

Software Architecture

To check if a smartphone app qualifies as a good replacement for a stand-alone GPS receiver, it is important to analyze key software components.

GPS software

Typical GPS receiver software architecture.

CoPilot GPS

In order to compare the software gaps, I picked a popular smartphone GPS application CoPilot GPS by ALK Technologies. It is cross platform and can function offline, without a data connection. CoPilot GPS is just one example, which I selected to demonstrate the broad principles. There are other respectable apps with similar architecture and capabilities.

CoPilot GPS was designed as a comprehensive GPS application, with the common features and feel one would find on a standalone GPS device. It follows the freemium business model; however, the free version is limited with basic functionality. For example, multi-waypoint route navigation is disabled. The premium version has more features enabled. There are different CoPilot apps for each region of the world, and the regional maps are bound only to that particular app.

CoPilot GPS Premium by Region

Riders should factor in the additional out-of-pocket expense associated with in-app purchases for optional maps and features as well as the amount of storage needed to upload particular maps.

GPS

User Interface

The user interface is very rich and has all the features one expects to find on a GPS. The map itself is intuitive to use and informative, with color-coded roads. There are 2D and 3D map view modes and a Directions mode, as well as compass, speed, distance, ETA, time-to-target metrics, and speed limits visible on the display. Before major highway turns, a lane guidance image appears with a 3D view of the road ahead.

Waypoint and Points of Interest (POI) Search

Searching for waypoints by address is done through a series of screens, similar to a stand-alone receiver user interface. The POI search is very interesting as the app uses a hybrid search model it can search online (if there is online connectivity) in Google, Wikipedia, and Yelp, but otherwise searches offline in the local maps database. There are also favorite POIs and ability to enter specific coordinates.

Route Editor

Multi-waypoint routes are fully supported, either using route files or by designing a route with the built-in route editor. The route files use a proprietary file format named TRP (which, by the way, is now also supported by TyreToTravel desktop route editor). The built-in editor is powerful and supports waypoint insertion, deletion, re-ordering, drag and drop of waypoints, and loading and saving of route files.

User Settings

There are numerous settings, allowing one to tweak most aspects of the app. For the user interface, for example, different themes can be set for day and night. There is plenty of refinement within the routing preferences (such as toll road usage strategies). The defaults work as expected out of the box, but savvy users can fine-tune and personalize the look, feel, and behavior.

Voice Directions

Full voice directions are provided using the smartphonE’s operating system, or a voice can be downloaded for free based on the requested language. On my Samsung Galaxy Note 3 smartphone, the English U.S. TTS (Text to Speech) engine has a very soft and pleasant human-like voice. Instructions are clear and easy to follow with a Bluetooth headset, even if a rider is not watching the display.

GPS map

2D map with traffic alerts and color-coded roads.

GPS map

3D map showing points of interest (POIs) and speed limit.

Traffic Avoidance

CoPilot’s ActiveTraffic, an optional cloud service, works if the phone has online connectivity. The service is free for the first year, and then costs $8.99 annually. It provides a live, accurate traffic report that is visible as green and red segments on a side bar. It can also change the routing calculation, similar to how Google Maps works.

GPS route

Drag and drop of a waypoint within the embedded route editor.

Routing

The routing algorithm works well and even knows to calculate and offer alternative routes. However, winding routes are not supported as of now. Since this is implemented in software, such a feature could be included in one of the application’s future updates. The software deals with detours and recalculations; however, it insists riders get to the next waypoint no matter what (unless the next waypoint is manually deleted in the built-in route editor).

Maps Database

A proprietary database is used. Many countries are covered but not all. This is not really any different (or worse) compared to stand-alone GPS receivers. Maps are comprehensive and detailed but do not support topological layers, which are needed for off-road usage. Map updates are done seamlessly online, as expected, no cables or special utilities are required. Map files can be quite large and are kept locally on the internal storage of the phone or external SD card.

The Bottom Line

CoPilot GPS Premium USA lists for $9.99. I think it represents an incredible value at that price.

Smartphone apps have proven themselves to be fully-functional GPS utilities. For road usage, apps can do virtually all the things a stand-alone GPS receiver can do and sometimes more, with new features being added constantly. Over time the lines will continue to blur until a smartphone can perform motorcycle navigation better than a stand-alone unit. We’re just not there yet. If riders are on a tight budget or would like to try a different user experience, then a GPS app might be a good tool to consider.

The next article will discuss satellite navigation software applications on the smartphone.

By Yuval Naveh

 


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