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Smartphone GPS apps

10 October 2017

The march towards alternative, mostly app-based navigation, particularly in urban areas, is on the increase. Although traditional GPS or portable navigation devices (PND) have certain benefits – such as not draining your phone battery – the writing seems to be on the wall.

Interestingly, in his latest Voetspore diary Johan Badenhorst shares that until recently, every step of the team’s journeys was planned, mapped and recorded on a GPS. “Yet now, after completing the Indian Expedition” says Johan, “I believe that we are witnessing the death of the GPS as we know it.” Industry giants like Garmin and TomTom are aware of the shifting GPS landscape and both companies have developed GPS navigation apps (along with other applications for sport and fitness). Garmin’s first foray into this space with the Navigator App for both iOS and Android failed and so it rewrote the entire GPS application. It now offers Garmin StreetPilot Onboard, exclusively for iOS. TomTom has had more success with TomTom Go Mobile which, like more and more the navigation apps today, allows you to save maps for offline navigation, so you’ll be able to find your way as long as the phone can pick up the satellites. Still the space keeps evolving, with interesting developments like those from What3Words…


then.personalities.gusts. A little confused perhaps? The three words above are not the result of random artistic licence or an inebriated journalist working late into the wee hours. No, ‘then.personalities.gusts’ denotes a very specific location via the free What3Words app that can be converted to the GPS co-ordinates -33.93242,18.495759. That’s where you’ll find one of our journalist’s desks at the Leisure Wheels Cape Town office. If, using more traditional methods, you search for the RamsayMedia (Leisure Wheels) office on Google Maps, you will be given the following co-ordinates: -33.931776, 18.496059, which will help you find the building at 36 Old Mill Road, but no more specific than that. You see, What3Words has divided the world into a grid of 3m × 3m squares (57 trillion of them) and assigned each one a unique three-word address. This means that anyone can accurately pinpoint any location and share it more easily and with less ambiguity than with traditional GPS addresses.

Available in multiple languages, What3Words shouldn’t be thought of as more or less accurate than GPS, as it relies on GPS to return the three word addresses, but the aim is to make location sharing more human-friendly. Think about it. You write or type up a GPS location for a lekker camping spot in Botswana for your buddy, except that after driving all day he discovers that you made a mistake. (That’s one way to cut a friendship short.) Instead, pinpoint the location with What3Words and share the three words. We looked up the Devil’s Cataract viewpoint at Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls and it can be found at folders.establish.useful’ and the viewpoint just south of it can be found at ‘steers.cuddling.hidden’. Land Rover’s ARDHI off-roading app has already adopted this technology, allowing drivers to input these three-word addresses to plan off-road routes with three-word waypoints. It will be interesting to see if other vehicle manufacturers begin to incorporate this app into their navigation offerings.

Google Maps

Google Maps needs no introduction and is one of the most popular mobile navigation applications that seamlessly integrates with search and other Google services. After marking your current position, the free app gives you various route options to your chosen destination, with estimated travelling times and live traffic updates factored into the equation. Voice navigation eliminates the need to look at your screen and you can also save frequently used addresses under shortcuts such as ‘work’ and ‘home’. Although Google Maps relies on you having an internet connection for real-time streaming, it allows you to save and store large map areas to use for navigation even when your phone loses signal. In an unfamiliar area, Google Maps is a gem; however, if you are using the real-time streaming of maps frequently, expect it to make a dent in your data allocation.


Waze describes its app as ‘the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app’ with Waze users continually updating information. We gave it a try to compare with the more familiar Google Maps. Initially, the graphics struck us as a bit cutesy and features like location sharing with friends on social media seemed to be aimed at young drivers. There is the option to remain ‘invisible’ so that you can’t be found or disturbed while driving, which seems like a far more prudent option to us. What we did like is that you can pre-select a destination and the time that you’d like to arrive there and save it for later. Based on the traffic, Waze will alert you that ‘it’s time to go’ in order for you to reach your port of call by that time.

Like Google Maps, Waze directs you via the fastest route to avoid traffic and the two seem very comparable. Waze also has features like the ‘Gas Station’ icon that shows the filling stations in the area that you’re in, together with the price of petrol and diesel. There is an option that allows you to change the voice giving you directions from the default ‘Jane’ to among others ‘Boy Band’. We highly discourage you from trying the boy band, it is cringeworthy to the nth degree, with the sound of a male voice sing-song speaking, definitely not singing. For us the jury is still out between Google Maps and Waze but we are leaning towards the former.


Tracks4Africa differentiates itself from the above-mentioned apps by specialising in remote places in Africa, with no street-by-street address look-up in South Africa. The app supplies overland travellers with essential route information and offers offline navigation right across Africa for both Android and Apple (iPhone and iPad) users. It costs R799.99 The maps indicate campsites and other accommodation, as well as fuel stops, ATMs, shops, restaurants and emergency services (like embassies, police stations and hospitals). It also highlights attractions like national parks with coverage of viewpoints and waterholes. You need to provide an external power source when used for prolonged periods as the GPS together with the screen will drain your battery in no time. Besides the app, Tracks4Africa offers downloadable maps on an SD card that can be used with a traditional Garmin portable GPS system.

Text: Elise Kirsten