App

From navigation aids to eyes-free dashboards, these are the best car apps for iPhone

If you’ve a shiny new car, it may well support CarPlay, which integrates your iPhone with your car’s built-in display and control options. You can, for example, activate Siri using a button on a steering wheel, or use knobs and dials to control various aspects of the interface.

CarPlay: shiny.

CarPlay: shiny.

But just an iPhone can do plenty in any car. In this round-up, we explore maps, dashboards and beyond, to give you a list of the very best in-car apps for your iPhone. We should note that if you do use these apps, road safety remains of paramount importance. You need to be interacting with and looking at your phone as little as possible.

This means doing two things. First, where possible you should set apps up before you start moving — activate your maps app and then start driving. Secondly, don’t have your iPhone in your lap or held in a hand. Get yourself a secure mount system that positions the iPhone somewhere you can glance at but that is not a distraction.

Specific mounts are outside of the scope of this round-up, but we’d recommend one that fixes securely to your car’s dashboard, allows your iPhone to be rotated 90 degrees, and that has a holder that works with smartphones of different sizes. You should also, where possible, power your iPhone using your car, because navigation apps in particular tend to suck the battery dry alarmingly rapidly.

Better car journeys with Siri and Apple Maps

It’s important to remember Apple provides two products that are hugely useful in the car: Siri and Apple Maps. Siri can be used as an eyes-free system, providing you with access to all manner of information on your iPhone. For it to work best, your iPhone should be powered and Hey Siri activated in Settings > General > Siri. If you’ve not turned this feature on before, you’ll need to run through a brief set-up process, so your iPhone can figure out and remember exactly how you say “Hey Siri”.

Setting up Hey Siri, ready for eyes-free and hands-free voice control!

Setting up Hey Siri, ready for eyes-free and hands-free voice control!

Once you’ve done this, and you’re in the car with your iPhone plugged in, you can say “Hey Siri” and give your iPhone voice commands. You can ask Siri to play a particular album, send a message to someone, or get directions. If you’re in the middle of nowhere and low on fuel, you can ask, “Where is the nearest petrol/gas station?” Siri will find a location and when you confirm, provide directions.

Apple Maps — now actually pretty good.

Apple Maps — now actually pretty good.

Apple Maps was on launch widely slammed for its ignorance regarding points of interest and tendency to send people to random locations. But the system has since dramatically improved, and although it’s still inferior to Google Maps in some ways, we find the driving side of things often provides greater clarity. When it comes to the on-screen display and voice directions in particular, Apple Maps is a winner; and, of course, it’s the map app that your iPhone’s going to pull up if you ask Siri for help regarding where to go!

The best third-party iPhone map apps

There are reasons for going third-party with map apps, though. Google Maps (free), Waze (free) and TomTom (from free) all have great features that can speed up commutes, or help you when driving under specific circumstances. This makes them worth installing even if you mostly use Apple Maps.

Google Maps saves chunks of maps for offline use.

Google Maps saves chunks of maps for offline use.

Google Maps, for example, enables you to download maps offline. Bring up the sidebar, tap Offline areas, press the +, focus the map on the area you want to download, and click Download. If you’re on Wi-Fi, the map will be on your iPhone in seconds. In use, it of course won’t be able to access things like current traffic data when driving without internet connectivity, but it means when you’re on holiday overseas, you won’t need to chew through expensive roaming data to get around. (Google Maps turn-by-turn directions also happen to be impressive — faster than Apple’s for finding points of interest, and loading up a handy Street View of your final destination when you arrive.)

Waze takes mapping in a distinctly social direction. The idea is that a whole bunch of people contribute real-time traffic information, including active reports. These are then fed back to everyone in the local area. If you need to get somewhere for a specific time, avoiding closures and accidents, it’s a good bet.

Waze crowdsources traffic problems.

Waze crowdsources traffic problems.

TomTom continues to figure out what’s next after the years of dominating navigation hardware. Its app is impressive and includes offline navigation, real-time traffic information, camera alerts, and 3D buildings and landmarks in the map display. For free, you can download maps from all over the world, but are limited to 50 miles per month. If you want more, you’ll ned to buy an annual plan ($19.99/£14.99).

Eyes-free iPhone dashboards

Fiddling around with an iPhone when you’re on the go is stupid and, in many countries, illegal. However, that doesn’t stop people prodding an iPhone when zooming along. Ideally, interactions should happen by way of Siri, as outlined earlier, but this isn’t always possible. During occasions where you do need to tap the screen to perform certain actions, your best bet is therefore to use some kind of heavily optimized car-oriented interface — all big-buttons, single-tap, and the kind of thing you can use without really looking.

iCarMode ($1.99/£1.49) and Open Road ($11.99/£8.99) offer broadly similar systems of this kind, with a grid of configurable on-screen buttons used to house important actions. Of the two apps, Open Road is the swishest, looking very smart indeed, and having the more flexible set-up.

OpenRoad's rather lovely interface.

Open Road’s rather lovely interface.

For any of the eight slots across its three pages, you can define a shortcut for an app, location, contact, or some music. When music starts, you can control playback using gestural input. There’s also a modicum of voice input for defined shortcuts, although not to the level of Siri. The app could do with defaults for contacts, though, rather than bringing up a menu to choose between calling, texting or using FaceTime. Elsewhere, the app earns its keep through a drive recorder, potentially transforming your iPhone into a dash cam, in case of accidents.

iCarMode has a simpler layout, with eight buttons across two pages, which can be reordered but not added to; and its music player lacks gestural input. However, the app succeeds elsewhere, such as in being able to set a specific number for each contact, and with its parking meter and ‘where did I park?’ features.

iCarMode's huge on-screen buttons.

iCarMode’s huge on-screen buttons.

The ‘best of the rest’ car apps for iPhone

Maps and content access are the main areas of concern when driving, but there are other apps worth downloading. LeechTunes ($1.99/£1.49) is an eyes-free music player, ideal for people who know where they’re going (and so don’t need a map), and enjoy playing music in their car, but want a safe, efficient way of controlling it. Start some music playing and LeechTunes turns your entire iPhone display into a tap and swipe gestural controller for skipping tracks, adjusting volume, and more. These controls are all customisable within the app’s settings.

Gestural controls in LeechTunes.

Gestural controls in LeechTunes.

Although not best used when driving, Parkopedia (free) is handy when you’re in a new town, sitting in a lay-by, and wondering where you can dump your car for the day, without your wallet feeling like it’s been mugged. The app tracks over 38 million parking spaces across 52 countries, lists capacities (and availability when possible), and will point you in the direction of your selection by way of Apple Maps, Google Maps or Waze.

Find somewhere to park in Parkopedia.

Find somewhere to park in Parkopedia.

Finally, Auto Upkeep is an app you should have handy but hope you’ll never have to actually use. It lists common car problems, and outlines how to perform maintenance and repairs. If you already know your way around a car, the app might be superfluous; but when you’re on a deserted road, in the dark and stressed out, it’s smart to have a straightforward guide to changing a flat tyre!