Can you imagine driving anywhere without your phone anymore? Perish the thought! Our phones have become such a fixture in our cars that it's hard to believe we ever survived without them. And now that smartphones are the norm, it's not just about calls, texts, and emails on the go; we've got mobile apps, too. Not surprisingly, many of these apps are aimed at making our daily driving activities ever easier and more efficient.
But which ones are actually worth getting? For every legitimately helpful app, it seems like there are ten cheesy imitations which just waste precious megabytes To that end, we went on a downloading binge and compared the features of practically every mobile app we could find. Five apps were left standing at the end, and we've got the lowdown on all of them below. (Note that while there are some crossover features between the apps, our primary interest is in what each app does best.)
Sales Pitch: Never forget to fill another parking meter – and never lose your car in a parking lot, either.
Pro: Great graphics, fun and effective parking-meter timer, accurate GPS tracking.
Con: It costs money?!
Both attractive and functional, Honk is one of the slickest apps we tested. The main interface features a richly rendered parking meter that you activate by dragging the timer portion at the top until it matches the time left on the actual meter. An alarm will sound at a user-selected number of minutes before the meter expires. It's brilliant. And when you've found a spot in the mall parking lot, just hit the circular map button at the base of the parking meter; Honk records the GPS coordinates of your car and guides you back if you forget where you parked.
Platforms: Android, iOS
Sales Pitch: Find the cheapest gas prices near your location.
Pro: Search couldn't be simpler, prices sortable by fuel type and grade, easy-to-read results.
Con: Banner ads.
Numerous apps include a gas-price function (including Waze, below), but there's something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. Just press the big "Find Gas Near Me" button to get a list of local stations sorted by either price per gallon (the default) or distance. That's it. The prices are as legible on the phone as they are on the station sign, and you can even sort by fuel type (gas or diesel) and grade (regular, midgrade or premium). It's a no-brainer download.
Platforms: Android, iOS, Windows Phone, BlackBerry
Sales Pitch: Get optimized turn-by-turn navigation based on real-time updates from fellow motorists.
Pro: Most detailed source for local traffic conditions, fun cartoon-like graphics.
Con: Dynamic map screen can get cluttered, event icons aren't always current.
We should mention right off the bat that Google found Waze compelling enough to acquire it for nearly a billion dollars, so there's clearly something special here. Waze's magic is in its ability to crowd source the flow of traffic by relying on drivers who are actually on the scene, which means if you need to find the quickest way through downtown, say, Waze can be a serious time-saver. Having said that, we noticed some out-of-date reports in our Los Angeles-based testing, including a "Complete standstill" as of "6.5 hours ago." This makes us less inclined to rely on Waze as an all-in-one solution. As a complementary app, however, it's a winner on the strength of its robust community activity.
Platforms: Android, iOS
Sales Pitch: User-generated alerts on nearby speed traps and traffic cameras.
Pro: Great-looking interface, deep user base, focused mission.
Trapster's strength, like GasBuddy's, is its laser-like focus on one thing. As the tutorial puts it, "Drivers report traps," i.e. traffic cameras and speed traps, and "You receive an alert." Pretty straightforward. Accordingly, the Trapster community is fixated on a particular kind of road hazard – the kind that can put expensive tickets on your record – as opposed to the Waze community, which reports willy-nilly on a range of events. Trapster also tells you the current speed limit at your location, and it's got a speedometer at the base of the screen so you always know how fast you're going. With over 20 million downloads as of this writing, Trapster has plenty of depth in its community, too.
Platforms: Android, iOs, Windows Phone, BlackBerry
Sales Pitch: It's Google Maps!
Pro: Awesome 3D driving map, accurate estimated driving times, natural-sounding voice guidance.
Con: Lacks user interaction.
Google Maps is still our default choice for getting from point A to point B. Just hook up your phone via Bluetooth and let Google handle the rest. The driving times are generally spot-on, the voice sounds more like a human's than just about any digitized voice on the market, and the 3D map charts your progress in real time without any unnecessary clutter. It may not be "Web 2.0" or what have you, but for a navigation solution that really works, there's Google, and then there's everyone else.
Platforms: Android, iOS