Motorbike Satnavs

It's often said that a standalone satnav is far superior than a smartphone app, often for a multitude of reasons that are demonstrably wrong ("offline maps", "better signal", "better routing"). Here, I aim to compile all my related arguments on the topic :)

Relatedly, I did give in and buy a Garmin, and I'm documenting my finding out what I've been missing separately.

(Android) Apps

There's no technical reason for apps to be less good at the important bits than a normal satnav - smartphones have plenty of storage space for maps, use the same or similar GPS and GLONASS chips and are at least as likely to be able to use GSM and WiFi to get better/faster fixes. There's some obvious benefits, too (drawbacks are listed further down): a smartphone is more of a general-purpose computer so you're less dependent on the way the satnav happens to implement podcasts or music, and can just use whatever app you prefer. You're not tied to any particular route-transfer options since you can just email them to yourself, and you can use the web browser to look up addresses not already in the device. Get your calendaring and route planning right and you can turn up to ferry terminals with the booking reference appearing on your screen as a notification. You can even use multiple satnav apps - mid-route I'll often switch to a different one to find a petrol station or lunch stop, for example, and I use different ones for road and off-road riding. Finally, the hardware's generally better - the maps render faster, the screen resolution is much better so looking at maps when looking at an overview of the route, or modifying it, is a much more pleasant task.

I've used some of them recently (all on Android):

  • Google Maps is generally regarded by anyone who has tried anything else as the least-good option, but it's catching up and is workable if you're not interested in plotting a route (and instead just want to go to your destination). Annoyingly it's also everyone's first impression of using their phone as a satnav and tends to be off-putting. Its points-of-interest are its real feature; I keep it around to use when I'm already in a town and want to find a restaurant or something, but I'd hate to have to use it to do anything substantial. It can now do offline maps, but only of areas/regions rather than whole countries, and insists on a re-download every month or so. It recently gained support for multiple waypoints, but if you cause it to recalculate for any reason (by going off-route) it'll recalculate directly to the destination rather than considering all your waypoints.
  • I think CoPilot's the best for plotting routes with several waypoints, though they've recently 'upgraded' it and removed the drag-and-drop route planning. The UI used to be an acquired taste, and by the sounds of things it's still rather odd (I'm quite used to it, though, so a bit biased). One of the big features for me is that you can set 'Routing Profiles' where you can adjust the priority/cost of using each road category, and save a series of profiles - I have a 'rideout' one that generally sticks to good roads, a 'Dirt Bike' one that sticks to shit roads, a 'No Motorways' one that does what you'd expect, and a 'Normal' one that's like all the other satnavs. The other is the "POI Alerts" (which are confusingly in the "Safety Alerts & Warnings" menu); you choose a series of POI categories and a range, and a little icon appears on the map display when a matching POI is in range and on- or near-route. You can tap on the icon to scroll-through them, and there' s a button on each to set it as the next waypoint on the current route. As to downsides, the traffic service is largely useless (though the display is good) and the 'cloud backup' doesn't work. I think it's about £35 to get CoPilot premium and the UK maps. You get a few days free as a trial, during which there's no voices for navigation (but still icons on the screen) and no automatic recalculation - you have to hit a button on the screen. (CoPilot removed the Routing Profiles feature in ~Dec 2018)
  • Here Maps, is excellent as a take-me-to-a-postcode app; it's now my default for simple routes. It can't do multiple-waypoint routing, but it much simpler and clearer than TomTom, with decent traffic estimates (when you've got data on) and speed camera warnings, and it's all free. You can download the maps or use them online, and it's completely free in either case.
  • Locus Maps somewhat uniquely can do turn-by-turn GPS off-road and over an Ordnance Survey Map, because it can use OpenCycleMap mapping (which does mean you need to be careful about your routing, to make sure you're not automatically-routed down bridleways or other routes bicycles may go down but motorbikes may not). It's got a very capable GPX viewer/editor and is pretty good for categorising routes and POIs (even if you just export them to other things). I'm not sure which features are in the pay-for app but not the free one because I was rather hasty with buying it.
  • OSMAnd really is map first and satnav second; it can do turn-by-turn navigation, but it really feels like an afterthought. What it's *really* good for is storing and managing loads of points of interest of your own. Using an online map it's also fantastic for 'normal' points of interest. It's largely replaced Google Maps for me now for the "Where can I get breakfast nearby?" type of problem. It did take several goes at turn-by-turn for me to get the settings 'right' for me.
  • The TomTom app's fine; it's like the modern TomToms (not the Rider V1/2, but the 300 series); the UI is really modern feeling, but a bit surprising and oddly lacking in features. I've not yet managed to plan the route I actually want to do in it, and while it's got this neat 'timeline' down the right hand side of the screen to tell you where on your route any roadworks and petrol stations are it doesn't give you any information about them (like how far away they are). It does have a really handy thing that keeps track of your average speed in average speed camera zones, though. It feels polished rather than finished, really. It's £30/year, but you get 50miles per month indefinitely as a free trial (maps are free). Aside from the average-speed zone handling and familiarity with the TomTom interface there's no great reason to get this over Here, to my mind.
  • Navmii's completely free, but the user interface is pretty surprising. I know people who've got used to it, though, and now don't mind it. You get one country's map free with the install and it's actually pretty good at points of interest, but it doesn't do anything exceptionally well - I can't think of a reason to use it over Here Maps.
  • Navigon is Garmin's app. It's long been famed for being atrocious, I'm amazed it's still on the play store.
  • Waze is now a Google product, but it's actually good :) For a long time its main feature was the community - it's all about showing you user-reported cameras, accidents, and traffic. Surprisingly, it still works for that, and despite being Google underneath it seems a pretty reasonable satnav, though I've not used it for a couple of years.

Standalone units

Weirdly, when this argument comes up on forums and suchlike, the people arguing in favour of standalone satnavs seem to generally cite features that are commonly available in all the apps (like offline mapping) as if they're comparing with a quick glance they took at Google Maps. The things that make standalone satnavs better are those that come from the 'standalone' bit, and they're almost all to do with the hardware.

If you were to design a standalone satnav for a motorbike, you'd have a bracket you can clip the satnav in with one hand, and make it such that as the satnav's put in some sort of robust, waterproof power connection is engaged so that the thing is always charging. You'd use a screen with something to prevent glare, which works well with gloved hands (perhaps resistive, and a UI that doesn't demand multitouch?)  and you'd probably have a series of hardware buttons in addition to whatever's on the screen.

When using a phone, you'll generally use a pouch or a Ram X-Grip which is only complicatedly one-handed and often obscures buttons or bits of the screen, and you'll need separately to plug in your relatively fragile, not-waterproof USB micro lead (which has until now just been dangling about) as a second step to just mounting the device. Android's glove mode doesn't really work and "touch-screen compatible " gloves rarely are and that really bright and vivid screen that's great for looking at photos (and maps) isn't great for glare (and a case is only going to compound that). Iphones only have one physical button, and of Android's three, one's famously unpredictable.

I don't know many people who have started using a dedicated satnav in the past four or five years. I know lots of people who last used one four or five years ago (in the days of the Rider 2 and the Zumo 550) and have been put off them for life (I'm in that camp). Everyone I know who uses one now, though, used one back then.

It's really hard to get a decent go on a dedicated satnav, though - none of the people selling them seem to think that offering test rides is particularly worthwhile - so I don't really know much about the options hardware-wise any more, and I've been told that extrapolating anything from my use of a Rider v2 and a Zumo 550 would be incredibly unfair.

What I do

I don't think what I do is necessarily universally right, but it works for me. I almost exclusively use my phone as a satnav - I've a Cat S60 and a Ram X-Grip. I also now have a Garmin Zumo 349 which I'm trying to force myself to use more, but I tend to default to my phones.

If I'm doing any off road riding I use Viewranger to check the OS maps and plan the route (because I happen to have bought the whole of the UK in that now), and Locus Maps for navigating. If I'm doing all-road I'll just use CoPilot for planned routes or Here Maps if I just want to get to an address.