Why use your iPhone as Motorcycle GPS?
- It’s cheap! Regular Motorcycle GPS units will set you back as much as $500.
- It saves you carrying around a second device.
- It’s easier to find and load motorcycle tracks & routes.
These are very prominent advantages. Having said that, you’ll need to consider some things when choosing to use your Phone as Motorcycle Navigation. You can go the cheap way and put the phone in your pocket, but if you want to mount your device there are some more things to consider.
UPDATE Aug 2, 2016
My new app Scenic was released in the App Store just last week. It has full turn-by-turn and voice guidance, you can make any GPX navigable, create your own routes and track and documents your rides. Feedback of users has been awesome so far. Give it a try if you want. It’s free to download. https://itunes.apple.com/app/id1089668246 and here is a video of the app in action: https://youtu.be/rKavcXRm4P0
iPhone as Motorcycle GPS – 8 things to consider
First choice you have to make: Will you carry it in your pocket or attach it in a place where you can see (and possibly touch) the screen.
Carrying your phone in your pocket is the cheapest and safest choice. You will not be tempted to look at (or touch) the screen. The disadvantage is that the use of your phone is very limited. Every time you want to look at your device you’ll have to find a safe place to stop, actually stop, take of your gloves, open your pocket, take out your phone and vice versa when you’re done. When the phone is in your pocket you can use Scenic to record your rides and add pictures and notes to them when you stop for a break. That way you’ll be able to keep a history of all your riding adventures and share it with friends. Because you can’t see the screen you will not be able to use Scenic as motorcycle navigation and follow a track.
Seeing the screen has a distinct advantage. You don’t have to stop every time you want to see the screen. Because you can see your screen you can have helpfull apps open during your ride. For example Google Maps, Apple Maps or of course Scenic.
If you can see your Phone you can use Scenic maximum potential. In addition to recording your rides you can look at the map, select tracks, navigate them and easily control your music playback through the specialized “Glove” music controls.
2. Weather Protection
If you want to see (and touch) the screen of your phone you’ll have to attach it to your motorcycle somehow.
The most simple solution is putting your phone in your tank bag’s (see through) map holder. Disadvantages of this option is that most likely your touch screen will not work through the plastic of your tank bag. Furthermore your phone might move around in there and you’ll have to look down quite a bit to see what’s on the screen. Depending on where you live you might want weather protection for your Phone. Your phone in the tank bag map holder might not offer sufficient protection against heavy rain.
Nowadays more and more weather proof cases are out there. Most of them protect your phone from the elements while keeping the touch functionality. Some of them offer a range of mounts that enable you to put your Phone in a safe and visible place on your motorcycle like for example the handle bars. I’ve always been very happy with my lifeproof case and the also offer mounts.
For MotoMap it is best to have your Phone in a visible position. That way you can use it’s functionality to navigate tracks on the map.
For sound there are many options out there, varying in price and usability. Easiest option is to have no sound. For some this is the most pure way of motorcycle riding.
Other people wear their phone’s default in-ear headset under their helmet. There are even people who put the cable remote in their mouth, operating it with their teeth or lips to control volume, answer calls, play and pause music, etc. This might work well for you. Also this is a relatively safe option because you don’t have to use your hands. The disadvantage of this option is that you still have a cable running from your phone to your ears. If your phone is in your jacket pocket this is not such a big deal, but if your phone is attached to your motorcycle make sure to disconnect the cable before you get of your motorcycle! Some people might find earplugs uncomfortable under a helmet for a longer period of time.
On the other side are the (relatively expensive) Bluetooth enabled motorcycle headsets. There are many out there varying in price and quality. Some even have basic control buttons much like the cable remote on your in-ear headphones. You’ll probably have to use your hands though.
Your phone’s screen can not be operated with standard (motorcycle) gloves. This is because it operates through the change in electrical current that occurs when a finger touches the screen. Materials that cannot conduct electricity, like used in motorcycle gloves, prevent the transmission of electricity to the screen.
There are some manufacturers out there that offer special motorcycle gloves enabling the operation of touch screens. It’s also possible to “convert” your current gloves to enable touch operation of your phone. This requires a bit of conductive wire and some rough sowing techniques. For more information on this see this site.
Scenic is especially designed for use on your motorcycle, with gloves! The optional zoom buttons are extra large and there is an easy way to control your music with your left index finger only. It does require converting your gloves for touch operation.
UPDATE: There’s also a new product out there that lets you convert your normal gloves to touch enabled gloves.
5. Battery Consumption
Apps that use your phone’s GPS receiver use a lot of battery. Scenic is no exception. That’s why it’s recommended to have your phone connected to a charger.
You can use any kind of car charger for this, but there are also motorcycle specific solutions out there. Some motorcycles have a “cigarette lighter” outlet by default. If your motorcycle doesn’t have one it’s relatively easy to install a (universal) one afterwards. These universal cigarette lighter outlets are readily available from online stores. Make sure you choose one that offers sufficient weather protection. Also you can choose to install a USB Socket where you can plug in your phone’s regular USB cable. These are also available from many on-line stores.
When you have to buy a charger and socket, it is recommended to buy one that can provide 2 amps of current to your device. Especially the newer phones (from iPhone 5 onwards) use a lot of power. 1 amp chargers will work, but because your phone is probably using GPS and full brightness continuously it needs a lot of power. I also HIGHLY RECOMMEND to buy an Apple Approved charger. I’ve had several Scenic users now reporting a drop in battery charge, while connected to a charger. It turned out they were using cheap ‘chinese’ chargers and when they replaced it with a good one the problem was gone.
6. Screen visibility
Sunny weather is nice for riding, however the visibility of your screen can be limited because of it.
When positioning your device on your motorcycle make sure that the sun and daylight is not reflected from the screen into your eyes. With a lot of sun you might want to set the brightness of your screen to full, although your phone will probably do that automatically already.
7. Overheating & Vibrations
When using your iPhone intensively, in direct sunlight, without sufficient airflow to get rid of the heat, it is possible that your iPhone overheats. This results in a warning message on your screen and your open apps to stop until your iPhone is cooled, effectively rendering your iPhone useless for a period that usually lasts about 15 minutes.
This happened to me only once, when the iPhone was in the plastic cover of my tank bag with full sun and running two GPS apps in the background. Typically the tank bag see trough plastic ‘map holder’ covers are notorious for this. There is not airflow and the plastic acts as a small ‘oven’ when in full sun. (Compare it to sitting in a parked car in full sun with all windows closed).
As for vibrations. I’ve had some questions about this. To be short, I’ve never had any problems with it, nor did I receive any reports about an iPhone being damaged because of vibrations on the motorcycle.
An important factor for overheating (and possible vibration) will be the case that you use. The casing should allow enough cooling and be “ruggedized” (which most weather proof cases are). With my lifeproof case I never had any problems.
8. Motorcycle GPS App
Finally, when you have the hardware figured out, you’re gonna need a GPS Navigation app that’s usable for Motorcycle Riding. Some are more suited than others so it’s important to choose the right one for you. I wrote 2 review and comparison articles on Motorcycle/Navigation apps. The first one focusses on mainstream navigation apps and their use for MC riding, while the 2nd one focusses on apps specifically developed for Motorcycle Riding.
Even with the costs of a phone mount, weather proof case and power supply you’ll still be out a lot cheaper compared to the motorcycle navigation devices out there. On top of that, you’ll have an enormous range of Motorcycle Apps and mainstream navigation apps to choose from and you can change between them without having to buy a new device. So, for me, this is a no brainer.
The above considerations have been compiled based on the experience of motorcycle friends and my own experience. I tried many different options discussed here (even owned a Garmin Zumo for a while) and in the end chose to sell it off. I now found the perfect setup for me, of course yours might be different.