iPhone Offline Maps Review Revisited
Back in September of 2010, I did a blog post on a few iPhone offline maps. It became actually one of my most read blog posts. I realized I have struck a nerve with many of my fellow travelers. The iPhone Maps app is great. It can direct you through a city with very little difficulty. The problem is it needs a data stream to work. But let’s face it, most of us don’t want to pay for international roaming so we can’t use the Maps app on the iPhone. This is precisely why “offline maps” have become so popular with travelers. Many people don’t realize that an iPhone can use it’s GPS with or without a cell signal. Granted, it is more accurate when the GPS is assisted by the cell (GSM) signal, but it isn’t dependent on that signal to work. By either caching maps in the iPhone or iPad’s memory or actually downloading maps onto the phone’s drive the maps can be accessed offline. This saves a huge amount of money in roaming charges and frankly is a lot more efficient and speedy.
There are two basic types of offline map applications. There are those that cache the map in the phones memory and apps that download map files. I’m not a big fan of apps that cache the map in the memory. I find it taxing, time-consuming and almost always frustrating. To cache the map you have to view the area you will be traveling and then zoom in and out to get every possible option you might want to view later. I find it nearly impossible to know exactly where I will be when I am traveling so this option is a bit of guess work. Plus some apps that cache the maps put time limits of how long the app keeps the cached information before it clear it. On the other hand, downloading maps can be a pain as many map files are huge. I mean big. A map of Paris, (France not Texas) might be as big as 150 megs or more. Thankfully several offline map apps are now offering maps in a vector format. Vector map apps download only the raw geographical information (vector data) about an area to render or draw the maps itself. For example, a street would be a collection of many latitude/longitude coordinates along with some metadata that describes the name and kind of street it is. A vector map app can then draw the map using this information, styling it according to a style sheet. This approach results in significantly smaller downloads, less storage space on the device, and the ability to change the map style and what data is shown on the map. This reduces the map’s size from 150 mg down to around 50mg.
It’s been a couple of years since we last visited this subject of offline maps, so I thought I’d revisit the three maps that I reviewed last time plus add a few new ones. I also found a new app that took my “Editor’s Choice” award, read on to find out which app grabbed it. Just clock the name or the icon to visit any of these apps in iTunes.
Full version: $1.99
Lets first look at City Maps 2Go. This used to be one of only a few offline map applications that actually downloaded complete map sets to your phone instead of caching the information in the memory. Some other apps let you only download designated section of the map. As such I prefer applications like City Maps 2Go that actually allow users to download the complete city map at all levels of detail and store them. When I reviewed City Maps 2Go last time it had a list of around 2000 cities available for download. Now the number is closer to 7,800 maps worldwide. The folks at Ulmon, the people that produce City Maps 2Go, are always easy to work with and readily available to upload new maps to their server so that even the most obscure location can be accessed. I have asked them on several occasions to create a map for an upcoming trip and within 24 hours the map is posted and I am able to download it. I have never had a problem with the maps being incorrect or outdated. This is because like most of these map applications City Maps 2Go uses the open-source map OpenStreetMap. For the most part these maps are adequate. However at times I have found them to be a bit too simple and lacking some detail that I wish they might have had. For instance, my home street is not listed on their map. Apparently I live in a field.
When I first reviewed this app their maps could be quite large, often in access of 100 meg for a small city. This could be a problem if you wanted several maps stored on your phone at once. Plus it took forever to download. But within the last year or so they changed to a vector map and now the average map is 0.5 meg to at the most 50 meg (at the largest!) and very quick to download (and their getting smaller all the time), making it easy to store many maps on your iPhone. But you don’t have to. You can always go back and add the map again. The maps often contain hundreds, if not more, of Points of Interest aka POI, such as hotels, transpiration stops, restaurants and more, all searchable through the application. I have used this feature to find hotels and other places of interest on many occasions. The POIs are embedded into the map. So if you see something near by on the map you can click it’s icon or name and a popup appears with it’s basic information, i.e. it’s name, description, and location. With City Maps 2Go these are not numerous and seem to be limited to places like hospitals and places of worship. City Maps 2Go has something they call “Wiki Plus”, it is an optional In App Purchase for $2.99. Wiki Plus is wiki article that are linked to the map’s POIs offline. So it is like traveling with a pocket guide. The Wiki Plus is not expensive, but I wish they were included in the application’s price. Like most of these applications I can easily drop a pen on the map and mark where I am staying so that I always know where my hotel is in case I get lost.
The one thing that City Maps 2Go does not offer is any routing. It will show you where you are and it will show you where you want to go, but it does not tell you how to get there. Like most of these apps, City Maps 2Go shows your location as a blue dot, just like the native iPhone map application does. The app is simple and to the point. It does one thing and it’s does it well. It has high-resolution maps offline and finds and keep your location. That’s it.
Full version: $2.99
The next app is a new one. It is called BestTravel. This app is very similar to City Maps 2Go in that you download your maps from a list of cities on a server. What is different is that these maps are large in size. Other vector maps of Kuala Lumpur range around 2.6 meg as opposed to Best Travel’s at 18 meg. Granted, there does seem to be a few more streets on their maps, but not 16 meg worth. Best Travel does have POIs build linked into their app. The thing that struck me first was how clean and well laid out this app is. I like it a lot. Where City Maps 2Go has Wiki Plus, BestTravel has a handy phrase book of 5 or 6 common languages. I could see how this might be handy. Though, this last trip when I needed to find a phrase in Bahasa Indonesia I simply used the Google Translate app. I would rather Ravi, the author of this app, put more time into developing more navigational tools like turn by turn navigation or some Wiki linked POIs rather than a phrase book. Just as Ulmon, the makers of City Maps 2Go will add maps on demand, so will Ravi. In fact within minutes. BestTravel is very simple. No bells and whistles. In the end for $2.99 you get unlimited, albeit large maps of any city, a comprehensive list of Point Of interest and a GPS location of your current position and that is it, all for $2.99. Not bad, but not the best value on this page.
Offline Map Import: $1.99
GPS Track Recording: $1.99
Next we look at a long time player in offline maps, Galileo Offline Maps. Galileo gives you two ways to save maps. The first and easiest is by caching the map. In Galileo, caching is always on. So wherever you brows the app caches that map. Galileo also works with a desktop app called Mobile Atlas Creator or MOBAC. A few years ago when I used this MOBAC it was slow and frustrating. This time around it is not as frustrating, but it is still slow. I tried to make a map of Aceh, Indonesia with a good amount of detail and it took me over three hours to create. Crazy! and in the end, the map file size is huge! Great idea but not for me. In order to import these maps you have to make a $1.99 InApp purchase. With Galileo it is much quicker to just find the city you need and capture it in the cache by zooming in and out. The app does give you several map sources to choose from: Several CloudMade Maps, Mapquest and OpenStreet map and of course whatever map you make with MOBAC and upload to the app. Galileo doesn’t offer any routing or turn by turn directions. It does offer you the ability to record your GPS tracks for another $1.99 InApp purchase. This could come in handy if you are geotagging and need the track to sync with your geotagging software. But this is not something I would pay for. Basically, this is a handy app that lets you cache maps and use them offline. That is about it. No bells or whistles here folks. But to do anything you need to make InApp purchases and by the time you are done you’ve spent from $2.00 to $6.00. It’s a handy app and the GUI is clean and easy to use, but I hate all the InApp purchases.
Full version: $2.99
Another app that has withstood the test of time and still survives is OpenMaps. OpenMaps interface is similar to Galileo’s but is cleaner and easier to use. This is another app where you cache the maps or download them. As is common in many of the apps that let you download maps, you choose the depth of the detail and see ahead of time how big the maps will be. The download times have sped up from when I last used it sometime back. Not sure if that is because the maps are smaller or my bandwidth is just faster. One of the really nice features of this app is that it can route you to a destination. Simply put the name of a location in the seach field and it looks for the closest match. At least in theory. I used the example they use on their website, “Cafe” and when I hit enter – it zoomed out to the global map view and gave me cafes all over the world… except in Penang. Even when I put in a specific name of a business like, “Starbucks” or “Tesco” it went global and missed all the locations in Penang. They say you can touch on a POI on the map and information pops up. Several of the maps reviewed here do this. But I find that smaller, less popular travel destinations like the state of Penang, Malaysia don’t seem to have as much information stored in the maps. Frankly I got very few POIs to work on the map for Penang. OpenMaps does offer the ability to rout you to a destination. But the free apt is limited in what you can do with the routing. They hobble it so you can only use it with limited abilities. In the full version of this app you’re supposed to be able to route to destination, swipe across the app with your fingers and the app changes to a list of turn by turn directions. In the full version you also can add transit points along the route. Open maps really does have a lot of possibility. The main drawback for me is having to go in and find the maps I want and make sure that I am downloading the correct depth and portions of the map I need. What would put this app over the top for me would be if it allowed you to download vector maps of the areas I’m interested in. Even still, this is one of the few off-line maps that I’ve seen that actually gives you the ability to route a trip. And this is impressive.
Full version: $4.99
One of the newest maps available for the mobile market is called MapsWithMe. As the new kid on the block MapsWithMe has the advantage of learning from everyone else. And apparently they’ve learned a few things. MapsWithMe uses vector maps and provides them for free, even for their lite version. This is a plus. But there is a catch. The lite version does nothing more than show you your location. That’s it. For some travelers that maybe be all you need. But for most of us that’s not enough. For me, the very least I need from an offline map is for it to tell me my location and then the ability to drop a pin in that location so I can return to it later. MapsWithMe does not offer this in the lite version. The full version is not much better. The full version allows users to search by popular categories such as Food, Sights, Shops, Transport etc.. So if you are looking for a restaurant – tap the Food category icon and get the list of the restaurants sorted by distance and with direction to each. When I did this it listed for restaurants around me and then about another dozen in Kuala Lumpur and even a few in the United States and Canada. Granted, not many of the map apps have a lot of details for connecting. Even with this ability to search this application is very limited. You can’t drop a pin at any location you want. The only thing the full version gives you is the ability to search it’s list of POI. If it has it in it’s list it will drop a pin at that location. This is a pretty rudimentary function that most map apps give you and for free. So, for $4.99 you can have access to vector maps of the world, which is nice. It also gives you the ability to find your location on a map, which is handy and the ability to search for a few points of interest on a map. In my opinion it’s not worth five dollars. If it was free or at the most $2 I could see the value. The developers promise more features to come. Depending on what features they plan on having I think this map has potential, so I’ll keep my eye on it.
Full version: $2.99
MapPocket Is yet another cache based map solution. Very simple, clean and easy to use. They use Google map, Bing, MapQuest and OpenStreetMap where all the other offline map apps only use open source maps like OpenStreetMaps or Cloud Maps. Not sure how they get around the licensing issues. Because MapPocket captures and caches the Google and Bing maps it is very actuate and detailed. You set the depth of the capture and record, then move your map around to capture everything. Again, that is what I don’t like in the cached map apps. I don’t want to spend10 mins looking for places I might go. Just give me all the levels for a given area and let me choose if I want it or not. This app is one of the simplest I have listed here. It allows for you to set a home location and drop other location markers and that’s about it. No POI other than what you make. This app is $2.99. For what it does, I would prefer MapsWithMe Lite for free.
Full version: $5.99 Right now 50% off! Only $2.99
Lite: Free (coming soon)
Until recently my go-to map app was City Maps 2Go. But not any more. There is a new King of the Hill. Enter PocketEarth. PocketEarth is produced by GeoMagik and they definitely have some magic going on. They claim their map data is roughly 50% the size of any of their competitors. This allows PocketEarth user to download entire countries, not just cities and their maps display much faster. They tell me it is because they use high performance and high quality rendering engine using OpenGL ES, the same technology that enables video games. To give you a quick comparison, as I said above Paris would be about 70-150 meg with a traditional tiled image based map app. In all of the other vector map apps available it’s around 57 meg. In PocketEarth it is only 27 meg, and yet includes a larger area (suburbs) and all zoom levels. The quality of the maps seems to be the same as City Maps 2Go. In fact it is the same map, just rendered differently.
But the magic is not just in their map rendering. They offer everything you could want in a map app for travelers. They offer routing and turn-by-turn direction. It is not true GPS navigation like you would find in a car’s Tom Tom or Magellan GPS unit. It is more what I would call a “Smart Map” It sort of walks you through where you want to go and how to get there. It won’t say, “Turn up ahead in 250 meter.” It does inform you of the distance between each turn. You can add way points along the route (to be fare, so can OpenMaps after the InApp purchase). Another nice feature is you can save the routing for use offline. Lets say you are in your hotel room and have wifi. You can connect, make your route and save it. Then once you leave the hotel PocketEarth will route you using offline maps and your phone’s GPS. PocketEarth provides an info bar with speed, altitude, and heading. You can export a GPX file for recorded GPS tracks, listings, pins, and routes, again useful for Geotagging photos or sharing routes. Their POI are numerous and many linked to WikI articles. And speaking of Wikipedia, it also offers you more than 100,000 Wiki articles in each of 4 supported languages. PocketEarth also provides detailed travel guides on tens of thousands of places! There is a handy “quick Info” tab that you touch and can give you information on your current location.
PocketEarth is the clear winner here. It isn’t the cheapest but it is the most complete and well thought out of all the map apps. Abe Heckenbach and his partner have put years of work into this app before it ever was release and it shows.
There were other offline maps made for the traveler. But I could not include every app in this review. I’ll list some here in case you want to check them out. All of these were good in some ways and bad in others. For whatever reason I felt they just were not what I was looking for. Most were too complicated and confusing. Note: The following app’s descriptions are from their own websites.
“Online map navigation system, that transforms iPhone into a navigation device, being very handy in many situations.”
Global Navigator Pro: $3.99
“Play offline/online world navigation like a pro. Voice/turn-by-turn guides. World coverage of offline maps can be created by yourself.”
MapQuest 4: Free. Great idea for the US. It didn’t work for Asia.
“MapQuest is the #1 provider of FREE voice-guided, turn-by-turn, GPS navigation for iPhone. Your phone speaks to you, telling you when to make a turn. Easily search with a single click while on the go. Stay on schedule by checking live traffic en route. If you take a wrong turn, MapQuest re-routes you automatically. Download the FREE app today!”
True Maps 2: $4.99
“True Offline Maps 2.0 provides you with offline maps for any city (and more) in the world with features such as search and routing without the need of an internet connection, a collaborative poi editor and more…”
“Turn your iPhone or iPad into an outdoor or marine GPS. The app includes access to all the NOAA raster marine charts for the entire US.”
World Maps Offline: $1.99
“World Maps Offline lets you select map areas and save them to your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad for browsing without an internet connection.”
General Outdoor Options
There are other map apps that work offline, but really don’t fit into the category of an offline map made for travel. I have downloaded many of them and they are more suited to biking, hiking and general outdoor exportation, but not travel They are very complicated and not in the least easy to use. Don’t get me wrong, they are very good at what they do. I just don’t need to plot points and headings and figure out declinations. I need to know where I am, where I am going and some point of interest around me. But to be fair let me mention several map apps that I did not review but you might find useful none the less.
Gaia GPS: $9.99
“Gaia GPS is the ultimate app for backcountry, off-grid, and off-trail adventures. Painstakingly crafted since 2009 by a pair of backpackers, Gaia offers the full functionality of a handheld, backcountry GPS unit, with topo maps of the whole world.”
“Imagine a GPS app designed for all outdoor activities – the perfect companion for skiing, biking, hiking and riding. With geocaching built in and the option to plan, record and share your rides or routes. And imagine that this app doesn’t depict mountains and valleys as flat spots on a map, but in 3D.”
GPS Kit: $9.99
“GPS Kit is a full-featured GPS system for the iPhone that combines all the functionality of expensive handheld units with the power of wireless technology. Using advanced technology optimized for the iPhone, GPS Kit offers a superbly easy-to-use system that puts data from a wide range of sensors at your fingertips.”