GPS — up until recently, shorthand for “maps with turn-by-turn driving directions” — unquestionably has the potential to be a killer app for Apple’s iPhones, with further potential if the company ever adds true GPS hardware to iPod touches. For years, the premise of iPhone or iPod as a GPS unit has just made sense: provide a way to mount the device in a car, use it most of the time for music playback, and then activate a mapping feature whenever you need guidance to a destination. Unfortunately, what seemed so simple has proved to be a huge challenge: the first iPhone shipped with awesome maps but no GPS, the second iPhone shipped with awesome maps and a GPS chip but no ability to determine its own direction, and the third iPhone included maps, a GPS chip, and a compass, but no software that could actually use the GPS and compass to guide you automatically to a destination. With every device release, the goal of using Google’s Maps for turn-by-turn directions has stayed just beyond reach, and Apple seems more interested in collecting App Store revenues from third-party mapping solutions than flipping the switch to let its own Maps app fulfill its destiny.
Thus, a little more than a year after Apple added GPS hardware to the iPhone 3G, we have Navigon’s MobileNavigator North America (introductory price $70, $100 thereafter), the latest in a string of third-party applications that are attempting to offer pricey alternatives to just hitting the “next” button on the iPhone’s Maps application. What Navigon brings to the table is “the latest map material from the market leader NAVTEQ,” stored in a 1.3 Gigabyte database that does not require an Internet connection at any point during navigation, plus a user interface that rotates to portrait or landscape orientations, and a search engine to help you find addresses, intersections, and places of interest. Maps are displayed in either overhead 2-D or faux 3-D perspectives, generally consuming the entire screen, and voice prompts tell you shortly and immediately before turns are required. Once the initial price is paid, there is no need to pay further fees to continue using the app—assuming of course that Navigon continues to keep it up to date with various future iterations of the iPhone OS.
The good news: in tech industry parlance, MobileNavigator “doesn’t suck” as turn-by-turn driving direction software, at least when it’s used under the right conditions. First, you need to have your iPhone 3G or 3GS mounted or held continuously near a window in your car, or be lucky enough to have a vehicle with a roof that doesn’t impede the device’s access to GPS satellites. Second, you’ll probably want to connect the device up to a car charger of some sort, because running the app and the GPS will eat up your iPhone 3G or 3GS battery. And third, you’ll want to make sure you can locate the physical address of the place you’re planning to visit, just in case. More on that in a moment.
If you fulfill all three of these conditions—and sometimes even if you can only achieve two of the three—what you can expect is a properly if not optimally mapped ride from point A to point B within the United States or Canada, complete with a voice that will tell you when to turn either by using your car’s speakers or the iPhone’s integrated bottom speaker. Street names and more detailed directions are not part of the package, but “turn left,” “turn right,” and similarly simple guidance is offered and easy to hear. In our testing, the phrases weren’t always spoken quickly enough, sometimes coming with less than a mile’s notice to hit a right-hand exit on a highway after being told to “keep left” only minutes before, but if you carefully monitor both the voice and the on-screen guidance, you’ll generally be in fine shape.
There are exceptions, such as if the phone isn’t close to the window, at which point the screen will go partially red and indicate with the letters “GPS” that there isn’t a working GPS signal. Similarly, if you can’t find your point of interest in the database—a sadly common enough occurrence in our testing—you’ll need to find the address through the iPhone’s Maps or Safari apps, a maddening little extra step. And during curvy or quick sequential turns, the app doesn’t always provide complete verbal guidance, relying instead on an on-screen curved arrow that generally shows where you’re supposed to have turned. If you attempted to rely solely on the app’s audio cues, you’d unquestionably make mistakes.
Thankfully, the app does a fine, though not fantastic job with its on-screen displays. Absent are the split-screen cues found in many in-car GPS solutions, replaced here with a full-screen interface that can be tapped on to switch between 3-D and scrollable 2-D views, while both the animation and detail level of the maps is antiquated at best. There are manually triggered day and night versions of the interface, which in-car GPS systems typically toggle when you turn the headlights on or off, and street names can be activated on your maps, with some flickering and pop-in, and very small icons for certain businesses. Highways often have representative signage that matches up with what’s actually on the roads, though MobileNavigator has an annoying tendency to tell users over and over again that they need to keep to one side of a highway while they’re driving—basically, twice at every potential fork. Better-designed GPS software presumes that you’re going to keep going straight on the highway unless guided to do otherwise, rather than telling you ad nauseum to keep to the left. It’s enough to make voice prompting aggravating rather than useful when you’re on a highway.
From our perspective, however, MobileNavigator’s real issues are ones that some GPS providers seem not to have noticed that competitors—including Apple and Google—have already solved. Start with the substantially incomplete points-of-interest database, which puts you through the exercise of entering a state—once—then a city, then a category, and then the destination name before telling you that it can or can’t locate the place you’re trying to reach. For an address, it’s city, then street, then street number, though there are separate buttons for previously stored contacts, favorites, and recents once you learn to use them. If you don’t have data pre-stored, you’ll find that there’s a lot of clicking by comparison with the nearly effortless POI searches of the iPhone’s Maps application, which starts with the destination name and provides plausible proximate options to tap on.
It’s even worse given how often the POI searches fail to turn up businesses in a given area. We tried historic and recent destinations, finding that the app did better with older ones than year- or two-year-old ones, but not finding it anywhere near as reliable for business names as the iPhone’s own Maps application. Google’s free service does far better than this paid app at either accurately locating or guesstimating places, and Navigon doesn’t even attempt to harness the iPhone’s integrated features to try and find places that aren’t in its database. That leaves users to find less convenient workarounds on their own.
We were less than impressed by the system’s route optimization algorithms, as well. Using it side-by-side with an integrated in-car GPS, we found that it created routes that were needlessly longer by a considerable factor, and came up with travel time estimates that were next to uselessly implausible—most likely because of default settings that made unrealistic presumptions about vehicle speeds. On one occasion, a 35-minute drive was extended to 55 minutes because of a bad routing decision—taking side streets rather than highways, even though highways were allowed and an “optimum” route was requested—and the time estimate came up as roughly 2 hours and 30 minutes, seemingly due to odd speed limit settings in the app. This was despite Navigon’s inclusion of more or less accurate Speed Limit signage within the app during highway and major intersection driving.
The last topic is Navigon’s performance within the iPhone multi-function environment, which obviously is as constrained by Apple’s one-app-at-a-time limitations as anything else. MobileNavigator allows you to continue to listen to iPod music in the background while you’re using the application—a positive—and does not require you to manually relaunch the application when a phone call comes in. That said, phone calls do interrupt navigation completely, and the application manually restarts itself when the call has ended. Restarts from the iPhone’s home screen or a phone call can take a number of seconds, and sometimes result in an initially messed up set of directions as the GPS hardware resumes communication with the software. On one occasion, MobileNavigator resumed and told us to turn left twice, quickly, when we were supposed to just keep going straight on the same street we’d been traveling on before the interruption. Another occasion found it unable to make a GPS lock for several seconds.
Given that complete car-ready dedicated GPS units can be had for $150 or less these days, and that App Store prices for software generally hover in the sub-$5 category, there’s clearly a challenge ahead for GPS app developers in finding the right combination of pricing and performance to appeal to iPhone users. We continue to believe that an Apple-developed turn-by-turn solution would be the ideal way to thrill iPhone users, and that none of the previously proposed alternatives—$1/minute, $10/month, or $100/app software—is ultimately going to yield full satisfaction for either users or developers. At its current price of $70, MobileNavigator North America is an okay solution that will get users to their destinations, albeit less efficiently and impressively than they’d expect from an iPhone 3G or 3GS; at its proposed regular $100 price, we’d sooner buy a standalone GPS and forget using the iPhone for anything but our most casual mapping needs. In the absence of an Apple-developed solution, our strong belief is that lower prices and superior functionality will be needed before third parties will have a shot at fulfilling GPS’s killer app potential on this platform.
Company and Price
Model: MobileNavigator North America
Compatible: iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS