Satnavs: TomTom vs Google Maps vs Nokia Drive+ vs Apple Maps

Over a cup of tea in Jon’s cluttered kitchen, we ran through the rules for the day.

We had four fully fuelled cars, four satnav apps loaded onto four smartphones, and four intrepid drivers who had agreed to follow the instructions to whatever disastrous conclusion. If that sounds overly dramatic now, it didn’t feel like it at the time: we knew one poor soul would be at the mercy of Apple Maps.

The six destinations we’d be given varied in their detail. Some contained little more than a landmark name, others the salvation of a full address and postcode.

Four intrepid drivers had agreed to follow the instructions to whatever disastrous conclusion

In each case, the clock would start, we’d search for our destination using only the app we’d been assigned, and then make our way there as rapidly as (legally) possible. As a safety net, we set one more rule: if all reasonable in-app searches failed, we were permitted to perform a basic Google search for more information. We hoped it wouldn’t be needed. We were wrong.

Finally, the all-important draw was met by three ecstatic cheers and one predictable groan. TomTom on the iPhone 5 (UK edition: £39.99), our “control” sample if you like, went to delighted managing editor Priti Patel.

She was followed outside by reviews editor Jon Bray waving a Motorola Razr i loaded with the free Google Maps Navigation. Senior staff writer Mike Jennings bounded after them, ready to test another free app, Nokia Drive+ (now renamed Here Drive+) on his Lumia 920 (with a dash mount made of Velcro stickers).

This left the shortest straw for the shortest man: features editor David Bayon trudged out to his hire car wondering where Essex would be in Apple’s vision of England (Apple Maps; free).

As it turned out, he needn’t have feared the worst. Over the next six hours, our drivers went bird-watching and plane spotting, sought out a country pub and a Waitrose car park, and found holes in supposedly good apps and surprising strengths in others. Yes, even Apple Maps.

Fairlop Waters Golf Club (Forest Road, Barkingside, Ilford)

A short warm-up to get things running: the name of a nearby golf club, plus the street and the town – but no postcode. Just typing the first few letters brought results, so one by one our four cars pulled away from Jon’s house in both directions.

We got our first look at the four driving interfaces, each with its own take on the best way to give directions. We all arrived at the golf course in quick succession.

Alas, not the same part of the golf course. Google Maps took Jon straight to the main car park to the north of the course, where he had time for some twitching – he spotted a woodpecker, he excitedly told us all afterwards.

Jon was followed two minutes later by Mike, who’d had to pull a U-turn in Forest Road after Nokia Drive+ gave him a rather late instruction to turn into the poorly signposted golf club.

Nokia Lumia

At around this time, David also found the golf course – although somewhere near the 13th fairway, in a dead end leading only to Redbridge Football Club.

“You have reached your destination,” announced Apple Maps, with a little note to say that actually getting to it may require walking. Given his car was sitting at the furthest possible point from the main entrance, that’s an interesting interpretation of “reached”.

Typing the first few letters again, he noticed a second golf club entry came up, identical but for a few lower-case letters. Selecting that, the app sent him back the way he came and round to the correct finishing point.

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