Back on the road with CoPilot

ALK’s CoPilot is back on Windows Phone. Was it worth the wait?

A while back I noted the promised return of ALK’s CoPilot GPS software to Windows Phone, one of its original platforms, and how much I was looking forward to using it on my phone. I’ve now been running the final release software for a week, so it’s time to capture my impressions of using it to navigate my way around Silicon Valley, a Londoner on the wrong side of the road needing to get to meetings in unfamiliar places — and to get to them on time.

It was way back when, that I first used an early HTC Windows Mobile phone and a Bluetooth GPS dongle to first find my way on American roads. So it was apt that I was using an HTC Windows Phone 8X for this return to my navigational roots (if not an actual return to CoPilot, as I’ve been using it on an iPhone 4 for the last few years). The setup is a lot simpler now, as smartphones have built in GPS, magnetic field sensors, and accelerometers — making them a complete navigation sensing platform.

It's definitely CoPilot, but with Windows Phone-style design and menus.

CoPilot on Windows Phone is, unsurprisingly, the CoPilot you’ll find on iOS and on Android. The menus and icons have a Windows Phone look and feel, but the maps and the underlying application remain much the same. While some might feel that that undervalues the Windows Phone platforms differentiators, it’s clear that this approach puts the three platforms on a par with each other. And while some have said that the console-like view in navigator mode could be more Windows Phone-like, it’s actually a direct descendant of the original Windows Mobile look-and-feel.

Navigating with CoPilot is easy. You’ll first need to download maps — which can be large, so use wi-fi. The free version gives you 2D navigation in one geography, with additional features including text-to-speech available after an in-app upgrade to the full CoPilot Live Premium — though if you have an existing CoPilot Live account you can transfer your existing maps licenses to Windows Phone. You’ll also need an upgrade to get 3D views and lane indicators.

There are plenty of in-app upgrade options.

The underlying navigation engine will be familiar to users of CoPilot Live on other platforms. It’ll navigate you to addresses, favourite places and points of interest, as well as using your address book or the GPS coordinates attached to a photo on your phone. You can choose alternate routes (and if you have the traffic service, get advice on which will be quickest in current traffic conditions), and even drag routes on a map if you fancy adding in scenic diversions.

Pick and choose between alternate routes.

Of course, the big advantage of a smartphone GPS app like CoPilot is access to live traffic data. My CoPilot Live licenses synced across from the iPhone (thanks to the delights of cloud-hosted services), and I was able to use my US SIM card to get access to up to date traffic information. That came in handy when trying to get up to San Francisco for a meeting, when both freeways into the city had come to a complete standstill. CoPilot’s automatic re-routing tools identified an hour delay on a route that should have taken 20 minutes at most, and sent me on surface streets straight to my destination. Sure, I was 15 minutes late — but that was better than being an hour late and missing my meeting entirely.

The familiar CoPilot UI returns to Windows Phone - and live traffic helps you plan around slow downs.

You can get a snapshot view of the traffic conditions ahead thanks to a traffic bar on the right of the screen. Colour-coded green, yellow, and red (with black reserved for road closures) it shows the relative locations of possible traffic hotspots ahead. The bar refreshes every five minutes or so, using data from the Inrix traffic service, and if you want an interim update you can get your passenger to tap the top the bar to refresh the traffic data.

If you’ve used CoPilot, you’re going to like its Windows Phone reincarnation. It’s fast, powerful, and when upgraded to the full CoPilot Live platform, it’s more than a match for its Android and iOS siblings — and for Nokia’s own Windows Phone Here Drive+. Getting a good third-party navigation app on Windows Phone is important for the platform; while Nokia’s tools are well worth using, there’s a certain vested interest in the platform.

When the app comes from a third party that had left Windows Mobile for iOS and Android, then that return is a significant event and worth remarking on. And when that return is with a navigation app that’s as good as this, then it’s also worth celebrating.