Adventure Nomad

Adventure Nomad

Friday, February 1, 2013

MotionX GPS vs. Gaia GPS

Ever since the iPhone came out with GPS, there have been GPS apps to take advantage of the GPS hardware built into the iPhone.  GPS apps like MotionX and Gaia are able to download and store free maps, so that they can used 'offline' - which means no costly data connection is required.

How does it work?  Your iPhone (3g and up) has basically three antennas:  The cellular antenna, where you get your phone calls and 3g data over a cellular network; the WiFi antenna, which connects to the internet for data from your home or WiFi hotspot; and the GPS antenna, which searches the skies for satellites and can pinpoint your position by triangulation.

It's free to use the GPS antenna on your iPhone, however, you need some maps on your iPhone to be able to make sense of the data.  You get those maps by preloading, or downloading the maps into your iPhone.  This is best done by WiFi, which is fast and (can be) free.  Be sure to turn off Mobile Data and Data Roaming when using these apps to prevent streaming live maps and additional costs.

Ok, on to the review.  Below is a head to head review on two popular GPS apps: MotionX GPS and Gaia GPS.

        MotionX GPS (v 20.0)                          Gaia GPS (v 7.2)
Gaia GPS navigation screen on iPhone 4s

MotionX navigation screen on iPhone 4s

I've been a long time user of MotionX GPS. At $0.99, it's a steal, however, your map download choices are limited to OpenStreetMap (OSM) and OpenCycleMap (which are OSM maps with terrain contours and bolder trail markings).  MotionX relabels these maps as MotionX Road and MotionX Terrain.  OSM maps are user developed, and require volunteer input to improve the maps.  OSM maps tend to be rather hit or miss, and it's hard to determine where they might hit or miss.  That's why I prefer a GPS app with other map choices.

A reader has brought to my attention that MotionX GPS now offers downloadable maps from custom URLs, including USGS Maps for an additional $4.99. 

This is a MotionX screenshot of a section of the popular Annapurna Circuit trekking route in Nepal.  Here, OpenCycleMap is the best choice.
This is a Gaia GPS screenshot of part of Luang Prabang in Laos.  The purple line is a track I've created using RideWithGPS and downloaded to the Gaia GPS app.  The brown and blue square icons are POIs.  In Laos, Google Road Map was the best map choice for me. 
Gaia GPS costs $19.99, and offers a staggering number of downloadable maps, including OSM, OpenCycleMap, USGS Topo and Google Road maps.  The inclusion of USGS Topo and Google Road maps is a huge plus over MotionX.   If you're backpacking or biking in the backcountry anywhere in the USA, you will absolutely want the USGS Topo maps.  USGS paper maps are $15 each, so the app more than pays for itself if you need more than one USGS map!  For travels into third world countries, I've also found Google Road maps to be extremely useful as OSM data is often incomplete.  Gaia GPS is the only app I've found that has downloadable Google Road Maps.  Having the ability to preview a few maps and then download the best one that suits your needs is Gaia's strength.  See more examples below.

USGS Topo Map on Gaia GPS (full screen view mode).  I need the Colorado Trail which heads up north of Little Molas Lake.

 OpenCycleMap of the of the same area above.  Colorado Trail?  Err... What trail?

When I head out somewhere with a route in mind, I like to map it out.  I'll use software like MapMyRide or RideWithGPS to draw out a track, and then transfer the track to either MotionX or Gaia.  This track then shows up as a colored line on the map that you have downloaded onto your iphone, You can then monitor your progress on the track with your GPS position, which is indicated by the blue (MotionX) or orange (Gaia) arrowhead on the display.

Gaia GPS can display POIs (Points of Interest) which are downloadable, and are displayed on the map with a little clickable icon.  The name of the POI is available offline, and these are places of interest.  They could be your destination, or places to eat or sleep.  I find them useful when using street maps, like Google Road maps, or when planning.  I can click on a POI and leave it open while I scroll around the map.  The open POI allows me to find it again easily.  I find POIs clutter up the screen when using topo maps.  When you don't find POIs useful, you have the option choose which POIs to display or turn them entirely. 

For 99 cents, there's a lot of functionality built into MotionX.  You can monitor your heart rate (requires a compatible heart rate sensor), you can choose it's behavior for the app running in the background to save battery while monitoring your track.  As a result of all this functionality, the interface tends to look complicated.  Gaia GPS doesn't do heart rate, but otherwise most of the other functions, like tracking, are there, with a simpler user interface.

MotionX Search Screenshot
MotionX menu screenshot

Downloading maps in MotionX is a process of using a circular tool or elliptical tool to select the area you want to download.  The circular tool lets you draw a circle around an area, like a city.  To download the map for a planned track, you'll need to use the elliptical tool to draw out an area around your track, then select the scale (I use 1-16, which is the maximum for MotionX Terrain), then download it.  The process is painstaking in both effort required to use the tool and time required to download.  For a long track, like my upcoming bike tour of Vietnam and Laos, will take over a week of nightly downloads (I leave the download running all night because it takes hours).
Using the MotionX tool to download the map around a track.  You got to get this just right.  Too little, and you risk chopping off useful sections of map.  Too much and you'll spend time downloading excess data.

Downloading maps with Gaia is fast and easy.  For tracks, simply choose the track, then select 'Download Map for Track'.  Unlike MotionX, there is nothing to select.  Gaia GPS automatically downloads a five map tile width along the length of your track at maximum resolution.  Downloading the map of an area, like a city, is similar to MotionX.  You need to use a rectangular tool to select the area, select a scale, then download.  Download speeds are much faster than MotionX and typically takes me minutes instead of hours.
Gaia GPS downloading map around a track in progress.  No tools, just click 'download'. 
If I have any criticism of Gaia GPS, it's that the navigation screen is too cluttered.  Compare the two side-by-side screenshots at the top of the page.  MotionX makes better use of screen space.  Screen navigation buttons are pop-up and disappear after a couple of seconds.  Touch the screen anywhere to make those buttons pop-up.  Touch the double arrow icon on the right of the screen to make the menu buttons appear.  Gaia's screen is a little more cluttered.  The only way to make the menu bar disappear is to turn your iphone sideways, which then gives you a full screen view.  If you cannot rotate your iphone (eg, if your iphone is in holder on your bike handlebar), or you simply prefer to hold your iphone upright, then there's no way to make the menu at the bottom of the screen disappear, and it's taking up valuable screen space.  Also, note the arrows at the bottom left, and top left and right of the screen.  The top buttons slide out the search function and menu.  The two bottom buttons are user configurable.  Nice, but those buttons can get in the way when scrolling the map.

Note that Gaia GPS is a universal app designed for both iPad and iPhone, and is also available for Android.  MotionX is an iPhone app.  The iPad version, MotionX HD, is available for $1.99.

For adventure and travel, I'd go with Gaia GPS.  The additional maps on Gaia GPS gives users a lot more versatility and accuracy; plus the ease and speed of map downloads over MotionX wins me over.