The Best Navigation Apps for Android – April 2018
We’ll just come right out and say it: smartphones are the most important invention of the past sixty years or more, right up there with the internet and the MRI. Smartphones are the modern Swiss Army Knife, designed to replace dozens of different devices and utilities in our life. MP3 players, landline phones, cameras, and more have all been replaced by smartphones, but one of the most useful tools provided by your phone is a free, always-connected GPS. Gone are the days of having to find your way around an unfamiliar town or using paper maps to map your way through a road trip. Instead, your phone uses a combination of GPS, mobile data, and WiFi to guide you to your destination. Whether you’re looking for a local restaurant or turn-by-turn navigation to drive across the entire United States from New York to Los Angeles, using a navigation app on your phone is the idea way to get around.
There is no perfect navigation app for any one person on Android, though some apps do come close. Whether you’re looking for the best voice navigation system on your phone, offline country data saved to your device, or the ability to use your phone to find your way through the woods with a helpful compass. There are so many different reasons to want a GPS on your phone, there might even be a good reason to keep two or more navigation apps on your phone, depending on your personal needs. Not every app is worth trying out, however, and there are certainly some apps that happen to be better than others. Here’s our guide to the best navigation apps on Android today. Let’s take a look—and with any luck, get you to your destination just a little bit faster.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Google Maps tops our list of the best Android navigation apps. If any application has everything going for it, it’s this one: it’s developed by the same company that powers your phone, it has all of Google’s user-collected data powering it, and it’s been around since the beginning of Android as a platform. Maps added turn-by-turn navigation as a beta feature in Android 2.0, and has been shipping regular updates to the app ever since. It’s perhaps the most-used apps service in the world, responsible for powering hundreds of millions of users navigation, traffic alerts, and so much more every day. If you’re looking for the best way to get around on Android, you’ll want to keep Maps around on your phone. Let’s take a look at what makes this app the app of choice on Android today.
Where to begin with Google Maps?—it’s a tough question. The app feels, in so many ways, like a no-brainer that the moment you begin using it, you’ll see what makes it so great. After logging into the app with your Google account, you’ll instantly be brought to a display showing your current location in the world. This is an app you’ll want to run with your GPS turned on, in order to ensure you’re getting the most out of the app. Maps can run with your GPS in power-saving mode, but it’ll be inaccurate and possibly redirect you in different, incorrect directions. The main display inside of Google Maps might look complicated at first glance, but once you know how to use the app, it’s relatively simple to learn. At the top of the page is the search bar for Google Maps. Entering in an address will automatically load your results, but you can also search for more general terms here as well, like “gas station,” “pharmacy,” or “restaurant.” We’ll cover search results in a moment. In the bottom half of your display, you’ll see options to explore, drive, and use transit, if applicable. The driving tab is typically the main selected option, allowing you to easily access traffic information for your area and the ability to start driving for real-time traffic info without turn-by-turn directions.
The other two tabs on the main display shouldn’t be ignored. The explore tab uses a combination of your location, time of day, and general interests as a Google user to bring up content you may find interesting nearby you. This tab may suggest dinner locations including lists of places that offer the “best” meals around based on Google reviews, or “cheap eats” that include fast food and pizza joints. Below this are options to search for specific meal types—breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks—and nearby locations, including gas, ATMs, groceries, pharmacies, and more. Transit, on the other hand, allows you to use the addresses set as your home and work addresses to hitch a ride on public transit directly to these locations. Obviously, if you live in an area that doesn’t provide public transit, this option will be useless to you, but anyone in a major metropolitan area will rely on public transit quite a bit. Google recently added the ability for your device to tell you which stop to get off when riding on a subway or bus, and the improved public transit options are some of the best features of the app.
Finally, it’s also worth looking in the sliding menu to the left of the screen for everything kept inside the hidden menus in Google Maps. There’s a metric ton of content here, and it’s turned Maps into something more than just a navigation app: it’s a way to share your location, track your travel history, and contribute to helping Google Maps become a much-more accurate application. There’s so much here that it’s difficult to cover everything featured, so briefly:
- Your Places: This will show you a list of your saved home and work addresses, the location of dropped pins on your map, places you’ve saved or starred for future travel, upcoming events gathered from Gmail and Calendar, locations you’ve visited, and your saved maps.
- Your Timeline: This will show you the full history of your previous day of travel, including a full timeline of your map and time frames of the stores you visited. Want to know how long you were grocery shopping? Google Maps can tell you that—with near-precise information. Occasionally, this will lose track of where you were and weren’t, but you can manually add activities, and more often than not, it gets your location correct. Oh, and you can do this for almost any day you’ve traveled with your phone.
- Your Contributions: Most users probably won’t find much here, but if enjoy contributing or writing reviews and posting photos of the local businesses you frequent, you’ll be able to manage all of that stuff here.
- Location Sharing: Ever need to tell people where you are, for a meet-up or so your friends can find the hot new restaurant you’ve been begging them to come to? Now you can do just that, enabling your active location for a certain amount of time or until you turn it off, and sharing it through Maps, a text message, email, or a DM on Twitter.
- Start Driving: This feature is great. If you’ve used Android Auto, you’ll recognize this layout of Google Maps, which shows you active traffic information and information on the roads around you without having to set a destination. You don’t need Android Auto to activate this mode on your phone, though; it’s built right into the Maps app by selecting this option.
- Explore: This is a shortcut to the same Explore options discussed above. Handy to have it here, though.
Below these options, you’ll also find options for a WiFi-only mode, the ability to save offline maps, and a quick link to the Google Earth app, if you have it installed on your device. Offline maps is an interesting feature; You can download sections of Google Maps for offline use on your phone, but you’re going to need to rely on Google’s own map downloader to do it. For the most part, this is a fairly standard map downloader, with one major difference: instead of selecting a region or country to save on your phone, you’ll need to select one using the box on your display that involves zooming out to choose a portion of the screen to download. Unlike our runner-up, it’s imprecise, and impractical for downloading massive amounts of land at once. Offline maps have been in the app for half a decade, but it never quite felt right. Disappointing to say the least.
Of course, none of this matters if the navigation isn’t good, and thankfully, it is. In addition to the typical search box at the top of the screen, you can also use Google Assistant to look up places in your area to travel towards, simply by activating Assistant and asking for directions to a specific location. You can ask for walking or driving directions, and can even set this as a default between one and the other in your settings menu. If you don’t feel like using Assistant, typing in a location into the search box works well, and the ability to view locations you previously visited or searched for works well. You can even push directions from the desktop version of Google Chrome to the mobile version. Maps also puts in the effort of ensuring you arrive at the correct destination; for example, if you’re looking to travel to an airport, you can look up a specific partition of the airport to ensure you correctly arrive at departures or the economy parking lot. Same goes for universities and other public areas with multiple locations.
The entire map interface makes it easy to add additional locations, select a different mode of transportation (including walking public transport, bicycling, and even the ability to select Lyft or Uber from within Google Maps are all choices here) and even include additional stops on your way to your destination. You can select multiple routes, view how busy the route is, complete with traffic updates as you drive, and—relatively new to Google Maps—can even view the parking situation at a restaurant, venue, or other location with a difficulty rating. Maps has slowly but surely evolved into a must-have travel guide with these options, and we’re happy they’re here. And of course, all of this is to say nothing of the actual GPS display built into the app. Despite its slower visual evolution over time compared to the rest of the app, it’s still pretty solid, featuring an automatic day and night mode, turn-by-turn directions with the ability to select full directions, traffic updates only, or a complete mute, an ETA listed along the bottom of the screen, and most importantly, the ability to select route options to avoid tolls, highways, and ferries.
We’ll be upfront: if it isn’t obvious enough, this is the navigation app to have on your phone. Every Android phone on the market today with included Google apps will include Google Maps in their software, thanks to requirements through Google, and it’s a good idea to use the app to its greatest potential. There is so much you can do with Google Maps, it’s difficult to keep track of it all—just look at the review you just read, after all—but despite this, Google Maps never feels bloated. Whether you’re looking to find a place to eat, navigate to and from the restaurant, or let your friends know you’ve arrived, Google Maps supplies you with the tools you need to get around town in this modern age, whether it’s somewhere familiar or somewhere brand-new. If you have an Android phone, you already have the best installed on your phone. Make the most of it.
It’s difficult to recommend an alternate navigation app over Google Maps. Maps manages to do so much, and do so much of it right, that saying there’s an app on the Play Store that even approaches its functionality, visual interface, and full featureset would be a lie. In order to recommend an app over something like Google Maps, it has to do something better than Google Maps, even if it’s a fairly limited feature. The Play Store is filled with different GPS apps, some from established players like Garmin and some from no-name companies, but only one major third-party GPS app stuck out to us as worthy of being installed on your phone: HERE WeGo.
HERE WeGo, or HERE Maps for simplicity’s sake, was originally an app developed by Nokia and first released on Windows Phone back in 2014. First meant as a mapping and navigation app for Nokia’s Windows Phone line, it wasn’t until early 2015 that the app reached both iOS and Android, finally allowing users outside the doomed Windows Phone ecosystem to access the app. Nokia continued to develop the app for both iOS and Android, along with a Tizen version for certain Samsung devices, until finally selling the application in late 2015 to Audi, BMW, and Mercedes to implement in their car navigation systems. That hasn’t stopped development from continuing for other platforms though, and indeed, Intel also invested in the company in early 2017, now owning about fifteen percent of the company. Though the app is no longer officially known as Here Maps (the name was changed to HERE WeGo in 2016), it’s still unofficially referred to as such in certain online development communities.
HERE’s big claim to fame is its offline maps mode, but we’ll get to that in a moment. It’s important to look at everything HERE has to offer to its users, just as we did above with Google Maps. Once you’ve installed the app from the Play Store and opened it on your device, you’ll have to accept a prompt to allow HERE to use your location in order to pinpoint your location. The main display in HERE Maps is near-identical to what we’ve seen from Google Maps, albeit with a flatter appearance and with a focus on dark-theme color elements. If we’re being honest, the general appearance of the app isn’t quite up to Google’s own design qualities, but it’s by no means an ugly application either. The top of the page has a search box allowing you to enter an address or the name of a business, as well as a quick shortcut to launch directly into navigation. The majority of the display beneath the search box is taken up with the map interface, and its only at the bottom of your screen that you’ll find Google-like results for areas around you. Finally, in addition to the location and layers icons, you’ll find a Nearby icon that allows you to search for restaurants, bars, gas stations, parking lots, and more.
To the left of the screen, you’ll find a sliding menu that uses HERE’s standard font and some custom icons. The app has three default options: Map, Drive, and Collections, the first two of which you’ll find most useful. Map is the standard display described above, but Drive is more closely aligned with the feature of the same name in Google Maps. It automatically opens up a navigation field that allows you to start driving anywhere, or to automatically begin directions without using the shortcut built into the application. HERE seemed to have difficulty locking into a GPS signal when not moving, however, but for the most part, seemed to do an alright job keeping things locked down once your car began moving. Though the Drive interface isn’t nearly as good-looking as what we’ve seen from Maps. For example, instead of a compass icon, you’ll find a letter representing the direction you’re heading (ie, S for South, NW for northwest, etc). If there’s one major advantage HERE has over its Google counterpart, it’s the speedometer built into the app. Though you should trust your car’s speedometer over HERE’s, listing the speed limit on the road you’re driving on—and alerting you when you’re speeding—is one of the best additions over Google Maps.
Below these options, you’ll find an offline toggle, the option to download your maps, and the settings menu. The settings menu here doesn’t have a ton of options and toggles to be changed, but you can download alternate voices and languages. By default, HERE is set to a female English (UK) voice, but you’ll also find male voices for both UK and US English, as well as “small file” voices that sound less natural than your typical choice. Voice packs are fairly small in size however, only measuring in a few megabytes, and you shouldn’t run into too much trouble downloading them onto your device. You can also disable the voice navigation inside this menu, though it’s worth noting that HERE uses only on or off options—there’s no “traffic updates only.” Speed alerts are both customizable and able to be disabled in this menu, making it easy to select your preferences by both over and under 50mph. Finally, HERE offers users both a Day Only and Night Only mode for the user interface; by default, it’s set to auto switch.
Nearby is nearly as useful as Google’s own results, but you have to know what you’re doing with the utility to use it properly. Nearby will search whatever is on your screen at any given time, but this means that you’ll need to position your map properly to use the feature. Searching the immediate area around your house, for example, won’t return anything if you happen to live in a rural area. If you’re trying to look up restaurants or other services in a nearby city, you’ll need to properly position the map first. Results seem to take a bit longer to load than Google, and don’t have the same amount of information about a specific location as Google. Looking up restaurants inside of HERE won’t immediately return with results about specific places, though if you select a location, photos from the area are viewable and average reviews from TripAdvisor can be pulled from listing. Still, you won’t find hours or the average duration of time spent, and helpful tools like parking access or live waiting times are a no-go with HERE Maps.
Some people won’t care about that though, and considering that HERE allows users to look up establishments and still gain access to the majority of information regarding the restaurant, gas station and more, the app will probably work for you without much difficulty. Below the Nearby tab is a tab labeled “Getting around,” which you can use to navigate public transportation to easily move around the city you’re visiting or living in. Opening the tab to the left of your map will reveal the Collections option, which requires a HERE Maps account to use. You can login with your Facebook account, or you can use a specific Nokia account to sign in. Collections allows you to add stops to your To-Do List, your favorite neighborhood stops, and any “All-Time Favs” you might be interested in saving. Outside of these sources however, it’s important to note that the featureset it relatively limited inside of HERE WeGo. This is very much a navigation-first application. You can’t share your location with friends, or track the areas you’ve visited throughout a specific day. If you’re looking for some social-influenced features in your application, you’ll likely be disappointed in what’s offered by the app. For everyone else? Well, let’s take a look.
Generally speaking, no one does navigation quite as well as Google—their maps are simply unbeatable, as is their traffic updates and notifications for road closings—but HERE manages to do an excellent job nonetheless. As we mentioned above, the app is a bit barebones compared to what you might be looking for from an application like HERE, but it’s usable, clean, includes voice navigation, turn-by-turn directions, and a day and night mode. We mentioned the ability to track your miles per hour and the speed limit on any specific road, and while you should always make sure you’re following the law and not just relying on what your app states for the speed limit, it’s still a great utility missing from Google’s application. Though HERE is missing the ability to use Google Assistant, or any voice search option, for that matter, it’s still easy to set your destination to guide you to anywhere in the world.
All of this said, it should be clear what the major feature is for HERE: its offline maps mode. Offline GPS navigation can be incredibly important when planning a trip, and not just to help save you data along the way. Whether you’re planning a cross-country trip, or driving into a country like Canada or Mexico, you’re likely going to find that you either won’t receive data in parts of the world where your cellular provider isn’t covering the map, or you’ll be forced onto a roaming network that could potentially cost you hundreds of dollars while keeping your phone connected to the internet. There’s a huge market for offline GPS navigation for this very reason, but no one does it better than HERE WeGo. While Google forces you to save bits and pieces of maps within a predetermined area spread, HERE allows you to download entire regions in one swoop, so long as you have the storage space on either your phone or the SD card in your device (if applicable), you’ll be able to download maps.
HERE will suggest places for you to download, typically by state or region, along with the full size of the download. You can download anywhere in the world though, including full continents like North and Central America or Europe. These are big downloads, however—8GB and 13GB, respectively—so keep that in mind before downloading major regions. Luckily, you don’t have to download entire continents if you don’t want to, since HERE allows you to get pretty specific with your offline maps. North and Central America leads to a full list of all countries, including Canada, Mexico, and the United States. By itself, the entire US is almost 6 gigabytes, and Canada is nearly 2.5GB. Selecting these regions allows you to choose provinces or states to download instead of being forced to download extra map information you don’t need.
Each state can be downloaded independently, but unfortunately, the download options don’t get any more granular, so for anyone looking to save, say, only the New York City area, you’ll have to keep the whole state in your storage. The good news for offline users, however, is that all major locations, restaurants, and more can be searched in the app data, and can even be used to bring up phone numbers for reservations. That alone puts it several steps above what we’ve come to expect from a navigation app. One final note on offline access: while you can search through locations nearby, if the app and your phone is placed in offline mode, you won’t be able to load traffic information into HERE, leaving you without updates on delays, road closings, and anything else that may prevent you from getting to your destination. HERE can reroute you in offline mode, though, which means detours won’t stand a chance.
HERE WeGo doesn’t replace everything Google Maps can do. It’s hard to find any navigation app that can replace every feature inside of Maps, consider it’s so jam-packed with options, features, and other settings that allow you to use your location. What HERE does do, though, is focus in on what makes a good navigation app great, and hits nearly every single check bullet point you could want from your GPS application. The interface looks clean, if a bit basic, and added features like speeding warnings are welcome additions to fill in gaps not covered by Google Maps. But when it comes to HERE, offline is where it shines. If you ever need to use your phone in offline GPS mode, there’s absolutely no reason to rely on a basic downloader like the one included in Maps. HERE WeGo nails all the important parts of being a great GPS app, even if it doesn’t quite hit the highs of Google Maps, but when it comes to offline access, it’s unparalleled, and a great reason to keep both apps on your smartphone.
Mapquest has long been one of the most popular suppliers for online maps, directions and navigations, dating back to the early 2000s before the rise of Google Maps. While you’d be hardpressed to find anyone who still relies on Mapquest over a newer application like Google Maps or HERE WeGo, the company has done an excellent job in upgrading and updating their application with accurate mapping data and turn-by-turn navigation. Though Mapquest only supplies turn-by-turn and voice-navigated directions in the United States and Canada, that doesn’t stop the app from being a pretty great navigator. The user interface isn’t quite as good-looking as Google Maps, but it’s easy to use, includes dark and light modes for staying easy on the eyes while driving, and has added features like a speed limit display and a timeline showing when you’ll reach your next destination. One of our favorite aspects of this application is the ability to choose alternate routes while on the go, which makes it easy to avoid accidents or crowded highways The lack of offline options is a bit of a bummer, but if you want to use an alternative to Google Maps, turning to Mapquest is a great option. Worth noting: unlike both Google Maps and HERE WeGo, Mapquest contains in-app purchases.
While the majority of smartphone users throughout North America might live in areas that typically require to commute to your destination by using a car, tens of millions of people throughout the country use public transportation everyday in cities big to small, navigating to their destination by relying on subways, buses, and other forms of cheap transportation that can take you from one location to the next without having to worry about the high costs of Uber or relying on standard taxi fare. Transit helps you navigate the public transit system in your area, featuring information for over 125 cities in North America and Europe, including New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Washington DC, and many more. The interface has a clean look to it that takes from Google Maps’ green-themed design without copying, and the ability to view different transit options on a timeline puts it over the more basic transit options we’ve seen from Google’s offering. Transit also includes push notifications to help warn you when a specific ride is approaching or when service disruptions are going to interrupt the schedule, and generally, we found the app to be easy to use and light on resources. Transit isn’t for everyone, but if you live in a major metro area (the full list of cities is in the description of the app on Google Play), you’ll likely find this app is indispensable.
Waze is a fan-favorite navigation application that happens to be Google’s secondary navigation app, after having bought the app from its original Israeli developers. Unlike Google Maps, Waze uses publically-sourced information from its user base to update you on live traffic reports, slowdowns, accidents, closed routes, and even speed and police traps when navigating through your city. All of this information, reported anonymously through the application, is reported back to Waze’s servers and appears on your device while using turn-by-turn navigation. Similar to HERE and some of the other applications on the list, Waze also features a built-in speedometer that tracks how fast you’re moving, along with a built-in gas finder that selects the cheapest gas station along your route. The app isn’t perfect; the amount of icons on your display at any given time can be overwhelming and even distracting while driving, and despite the app sending information anonymously, some users feel uncertain about sending information about their driving habits to Google. The interface is solid, if a bit cartoonish, and generally works well, but as a final note, we should add that it’s important to not add information to the app when you’re driving, as using your phone while operating a motor vehicle is illegal throughout the US and Canada.
TomTom and Garmin were the GPS brands in the mid-to-late 2000s, prior to the public moving solely to smartphones for their navigation needs, and both brands have made moves to join the smartphone market in the decade since the launch of the original iPhone. But where Garmin has pivoted to offering smartwatches and activity trackers, TomTom has stayed focused on offering navigation systems, and overall, they’ve done a pretty good job moving their navigation experience to Android. TomTom GPS Navigation is an app that offers a simplified layout, real-time traffic alerts while moving through your area, a favorites section that allows for setting places like Home, Work, and more, and a 3D-style navigation screen that reminds us of the dedicated GPS devices we used to carry in our car, TomTom is, for many, the full package. There’s two major complaints about TomTom that keep us from ranking it higher on the list: first, the app requires you to download map data before you can use it, and the maps are several times larger than HERE’s own content. Second, you can only drive 46 miles (75km) per month before TomTom requires you to subscribe to their service, and with the abundance of free offers both on this list and in the Play Store, it’s tough to sign up for a monthly or annual subscription for features you can find elsewhere.
If you’re looking to set off on a hike through a nearby nature reserve, or travel to some previously-unknown destination to conquer the wilderness set before you, Polaris is the GPS app for you. Despite the dated interface, Polaris still routinely sees updates to the application, adding bug fixes and still supporting older Android 4.x phones in the process. This is an all-in-one navigation system, with access to data from Google Maps, MapQuest, OpenStreetMap (an open-source Google Maps alternative), and even Cycle Route Maps for bicyclers, making this a great utility if you can accept the dated, mid-2000s-style interface. With dedicated options for trails, sunrise and sunset times, a built-in compass, and the option to download full maps to your phone for taking your device off the grid, Polaris is a great option for anyone looking to replace their older dedicated handheld GPS systems used by hikers, campers, and hunters to find their way through the woods. There are some paid upgrades necessary to get the full experience out of the app, as well as included advertisements, but for a specific crowd of outdoor experts who need an app they can rely on to get them in and out of a forest, desert, or other extreme climate experience in one piece, you won’t find a better app on the Play Store than Polaris GPS.