Review: ALK Technologies CoPilot Live 8 North America
For the first year of its life, the iPhone 3G's GPS feature proved handy, but not spectacular, providing features such as photo geotagging and more reliable walking directions rather than the full-fledged turn-by-turn driving guidance many users had expected. Apple passed on offering the turn-by-turn feature, leaving third-party developers to spend the next year developing both iPhone-ready GPS map applications and business models to try and sell them. In June, Apple spotlighted the work of leading GPS developer TomTom, which this week released four separate, expensive iPhone applications, leading us to become interested in testing ALK Technologies' more affordable competitor, CoPilot Live 8 North America ($35), which is also offered in a $43 version for the United Kingdom. It joins our earlier reviews of Navigon's MobileNavigator, Sygic's Mobile Maps US, and TomTom U.S. & Canada all of which include map and point of interest databases for the United States, and most with maps of Canada, as well. In short, iPhone users now have no shortage of GPS mapping options, but they're all fairly similar to each other in major limitations -- GPS reliability and integration with other iPhone functionality -- while differing largely in interface and pricing.
Before we dive into the meat of our CoPilot Live review, we need to mention one thing up front that is a potential point of aggravation for some users, justified in part by a killer addition for others. Unlike its competitors, ALK starts the experience of using its application somewhat poorly, forcing you to register your e-mail address and a password in a screen that’s both mandatory and poorly designed, using a non-standard keyboard and an interface that twice crashed on us when we hadn’t filled out the form to its satisfaction. We hate registration schemes for iPhone applications, especially when they act like this one, and generally are unwilling to offer our recommendation to apps that put users through hassles like this.
That said, there’s a reason for registration: unlike its competitors, CoPilot Live includes “LiveLink,” a feature that gives the otherwise independent app the ability to interact with certain Internet-based services, only two of which really require an account, registration for which should really be optional. The best of the Internet services doesn’t benefit from an account at all: it’s called “Live Local Search” and is for some reason hidden as a tiny Wi-Fi and magnifying glass icon on the first screen, instead of being accessible from the same menu as the rest of the Live features. Live Local Search uses the iPhone’s Internet connection to search for points of interest that aren’t in the database, which enabled us to find a restaurant that couldn’t be located in CoPilot’s built-in database, then use it as a destination point or for telephone calling—a very welcome feature. It would only be better if it was integrated with the standard POI search feature, and didn’t require its own separate set of screens for access.
Additionally, the current version of CoPilot Live includes “Live Friends,” a feature that lets you see locations and messages from other friends using CoPilot—e-mail addresses are required for this—and “Live Weather,” which pulls up a very simplified, not-quite-Weather App-quality AccuWeather.com five-day forecast for your current location, or whichever other city you specify. A more interesting feature, “Live Traffic,” will be added in an upcoming update as an optional “premium extra” to let you see more or less realtime traffic data while you drive, another feature that the iPhone OS includes already in its own Maps application. You can decide for yourself whether any of these Internet-based features is worthwhile; the three latter ones are iffy for us, but the first is a major differentiator from apps that rely solely on annual data, and get delivered on day one with outdated POI databases.
LiveLink is the only Internet-dependent functionality of CoPilot Live; like all of the iPhone GPS solutions we’ve tested save for the subscription-based Gokivo, which downloads its map data as needed from the Internet, CoPilot Live North America requires a lengthy initial download and installation process with iTunes, but—unless you want an update—needn’t be re-installed with iTunes in the future. CoPilot Live North America requires 1.13GB of space, a little less than the 1.21GB TomTom, 1.29GB Navigon and 1.43GB Sygic apps we’ve previously tested. It’s worth noting that there are some questions about the quality of the map and POI data found in CoPilot Live, which led us to issue a more cautious rating than we would have otherwise offered. ALK doesn’t advertise the map or POI database providers for the program, but makes reference to NAVTEQ on an About page within the app, and in June publicized an agreement with competitor Tele Atlas to use its competing databases, so what exactly is inside CoPilot Live is somewhat of a question mark. We had no problem finding most of the places we wanted to locate in Western New York using the built-in map and database system—it had similar but not identical hits and misses relative to the TomTom U.S. & Canada app—but there appear to be some omissions and errors in the app’s databases in some states and cities, much as there are with other GPS software solutions. Our limited recommendation is based more on questions as to the app’s database quality than any other issue it has.
From a menu and interface standpoint, CoPilot Live makes different choices from TomTom and the other apps, some positive, some not. Rather than using swipe gestures consistently throughout the UI, some of the menus are accessed with arrow buttons, one of several small signs that TomTom’s app was designed to provide a slightly more iPhone-like user experience. It generally provides six large button-style icons on screen to choose from, or five plus scrolling arrows, all with white accompanying text on a gray background that looks nice enough. Like TomTom, you get access to your iPhone Contacts database, complete with addresses; unlike TomTom, the app currently doesn’t have a Dial-through feature for either contacts or POIs, but ALK plans to add this in its next version, and does include phone numbers for display purposes in the current application. Other notable features include two total voices for turn prompting—one male, one female—separate settings for car, bike, or walking modes, as well as multiple day and night color schemes for its maps, and the ability to automatically shift between day and night display modes rather than requiring a manual button press.
CoPilot Live also offers some map display customization options that TomTom lacks. For instance, it provides five different screen views, including one 3-D and two 2-D modes, plus a “Driver Safety” mode that removes the dynamic moving maps in favor of text and big arrows, and a list mode. It also enables you to customize its bottom-of-screen Info Bar to display either the named destination, the current road, the nearest town, or a combination of ETA and distance, ETA and time remaining, or speed and distance, with additional dual-bar options in a customization menu; the bar can also be shifted through two positions to take up more or less of the screen’s bottom, changing the size and position of upcoming turn arrows.
Even though CoPilot Live delivers a fine rather than a great overall mapping experience, this fact is a lot easier to accept for its $35 price point than in more expensive competitors. Regardless of the map view chosen, and like the other GPS mapping applications we’ve tested, CoPilot’s 2-D and 3-D maps chug along slowly as you move, making chunky little perspective adjustments as your arrow-shaped vehicle moves up a street and turns corners. Whether you’re in wide or tall orientation—CoPilot resizes its maps and interface elements for either—the screen doesn’t automatically split into panes to indicate upcoming turns, so you need to pay attention to relatively small turning indicators or very simple voice prompts to know when to turn. In these regards, using CoPilot is much the same as other iPhone and dedicated small GPS competitors we’ve tested, but below the standards of integrated in-car GPS systems.
That said, CoPilot’s maps are actually more detailed, colorful, and interesting than TomTom’s. The maps still display on the iPhone screen as substantially flat-shaded artificial 3-D or overhead 2-D scrolling images, but CoPilot Live’s graphics are a little smoother, and you have the ability to scroll around on even the 3-D map with finger gestures, and optionally click on point of interest icons as you drive. Similarly, CoPilot’s voice guidance is just as limited as TomTom’s, providing turn guidance at two miles, one mile, 3/10 mile, and “just ahead” marks, without naming streets; you can customize how many seconds before a turn the “just ahead” prompt comes, and whether you want any or all of the other voices to appear.
As with the other iPhone GPS apps we’ve tested, the accuracy of the app’s guidance depends in part on the device’s location in your car, since the GPS signal can be lost when the iPhone’s antenna loses contact with a GPS satellite; it was no better or worse in this regard than any of the other apps we’ve tried. But there was one thing that really threw CoPilot off: on exit, or after a phone call, CoPilot literally always lost the route in progress and required us to re-select the prior destination from a list of recent choices, an annoying little flaw. CoPilot Live’s App Store page says that this will be fixed in a free future update, and it really needs to be, though calling up the recents list, making a detour or “Quick Stop,” or deleting stops is generally pretty easy given the button-based menu interface, as is the process of creating a multi-stop itinerary, which can be saved and loaded within the app to avoid hiccups. Multi-destination travel is entirely missing from TomTom, and had yet to be added to one of the other GPS apps when we reviewed it, as well.
There are numerous other features buried in CoPilot Live’s settings that might be of use to different people: a mode that records and displays breadcrumbs while you’re in walking mode, fast forward and rewind buttons when you’re having it demonstrate a route, special settings for motorcycle and RV mapping, scenic routes, ferry and propane-restricted tunnels, and much more. The only thing conspicuously missing is an on-screen clock, which is included in TomTom by virtue of its retention of the iPhone’s own signal strength and status bar; ALK has its own GPS, battery, Internet and motion indicators, instead. We were a little concerned about another buried settings menu, titled Licensing, which includes a list of checkmarks, X marks, and buttons marked “Upgrade” and “Deactivate.” It’s too early to say for sure, but it looks like this screen might be the start of an attempt to sell numerous In-App upgrades in the forms of “POI Premium Images,” “Landmarks,” and other features, which if managed improperly could turn an otherwise good-looking app into an annoying little penny pincher. We hope that ALK doesn’t mess up a potentially good thing by playing with this app’s pricing.
All in all, CoPilot Live may start out on a somewhat low note because of its registration “feature,” and it might not have the big brand name that TomTom possesses, but it’s quickly apparent that this low-priced GPS app is currently a much stronger value and a generally better use of the iPhone 3G or 3GS hardware, apart from a few non-trivial issues. To the extent that it can leverage live Internet-based data to assist you with directions, display better-looking maps, and do multi-destination planning, it’s both an aesthetically pleasing and more functional piece of software. The clickable on-map POIs and settings menus give GPS fans a lot to play with, and even more to enjoy while on the road. However, the question marks as to its map database are significant, and as with all of the iPhone GPS apps out there, smoother animation, more detailed maps, and a better POI database wouldn’t hurt at all. ALK gets somewhat of a pass on most of these issues because of its asking price, but our advice for the time being would be to hold off until some of its bugs are fixed and some clarity is provided on the nature of its map database. Given its $35 pricing and the features it offers relative to its competitors, it would otherwise be instantly recommendable; its future success is truly a question of how wisely ALK handles the necessary upgrades.