With nearly all smartphones, and a number of other mobile devices carrying built-in GPS chips, there are more options than ever for obtaining location-based services and turn-by-turn navigation. Some companies are even offering free GPS turn-by-turn navigation.
Here are your options for getting free GPS:
Google Maps Navigation
Every major carrier, including T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, offers smartphone models that run on the Google Android operating system. Everyone using these smartphones and their required monthly data plans ($30 to $40), may download and use the free Google Maps Navigation GPS turn-by-turn software. While still technically in beta, Google Maps Navigation includes many of the most desirable features of good-quality turn-by-turn GPS, including text-to-speech directions, traffic detection and avoidance, and points-of-interest database search (drawn from Google itself). Features that stand out above the norm include built-in access to Google's Street View photos, and search-by-voice input.
A couple of limitations: The software is available only for the U.S. Also, Google Maps Navigation downloads maps and other needed data on-the-fly, so it becomes ineffective when you drive in remote areas that are out of cell phone service.
For the iPhone
There are several good options for free GPS on the iPhone. One of the most popular is MapQuest 4 Mobile, offered by online mapping giant MapQuest. New version updates cured some of the early bugs, and I actually prefer the user interface of this relatively new app to those of some of the paid navigation apps. For example, MapQuest 4 Mobile has a nice route step-through feature that lets you preview each turn and accompanying map image of your route. It also lets you view maps and do points-of-interest searches while making it easy to return to your route navigation.
Skobbler is a free turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPhone. The app is completely free by the way, not a "trial" version or a sneaky in-app purchase demo. The latest Skobbler is iOS4-compatible, navigates in the background of other apps (including music), has improved speed and stability, and Google Local Search. Skobbler relies on free OpenStreetMap (OpenStreetMap is sort of a Wikipedia of maps) for its surprisingly accurate and comprehensive street data.
If you're more interested in free GPS for outdoor recreation and sports, consider the MotionX GPS Lite iPhone app. With the free MotionX GPS Lite, you can see your current position and record tracks, cache maps for use when you're out of cell tower range, save waypoints, and access and control your iPod music. MotionX offers its Lite version to help entice you to upgrade to the paid MotionX version that includes goodies such as photo geotagging, but many will find the Lite version to be satisfactory.
Google's My Tracks for Android is another excellent free option for outdoor sports.
If traffic detection and avoidance is important to you, the free GPS Inrix Traffic! app provides not just color-keyed, real-time traffic backup maps, but traffic reports on stored routes, fastest-route options, and real-time access to traffic cameras.
Nokia's Free Ovi Maps GPS Navigation and In-car Mounts
The world's biggest cell phone maker, Nokia, didn't like being left out of the smartphone navigation party, so it introduced free Ovi Maps Navigation turn-by-turn directions software. There are eight Nokia phone models, including the color touchscreen N97 and X6 models, that run Ovi Maps Navigation. The free Ovi Maps Navigation includes turn-by-turn directions, free-for-life map access and map updates for 70 nations, event guides, Lonely Planet guides and free Michelin guides. Select Nokia phones even come with free in-car mounts with chargers. One downside, the software does not yet offer text-to-speech.
Dedicated GPS Devices
There are no free dedicated in-car or handheld GPS devices (how could there be?) but there's still an important trend toward free services and software for these devices. For example, Garmin shook up the golf GPS world with the introduction of free lifetime golf course maps for its G5 and G3 models. Garmin also offers a lifetime map update subscription for a one-time fee (compared to the more typical annual map update fee). TomTom offers free map updates and traffic service updates with select models. Magellan's latest models come with free lifetime traffic tracking.
In the future, we are likely to see more free GPS navigation software and services, and perhaps more free services that are supported by location-based advertising. Here's to free!