Best Mobile Sat-Nav Application(/centre)
When it moved from being an add-on for a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) to become a standalone device, satellite navigation finally went mainstream. But not everyone wants a separate gadget for every function, even if that makes each one perform its specific task better. If you already have a powerful smartphone you always carry with you, and don’t need satellite navigation very often, a simple app may be all that’s required.
After a slew of capable sat-nav apps for the iPhone, including TomTom for iPhone, ALK CoPilot Live 8, and Navigon MobileNavigator, Google reckons it can go one better. Now, for the princely sum of no pounds and no pence, you can have satellite navigation on your Android phone.
It’s called Google Navigation, and it comes as part of Google Maps. If you have an Android phone, it may already be installed, as it’s included with the version 2.0 firmware release. However, you only require version 1.6 firmware to run it, and to upgrade to version 3.2 of Google Maps from the Android Store. You will also need to install a separate Text-to-Speech patch if you want verbal commands as you navigate.
Once you have all the necessary software, the navigation process begins as normal with Google Maps. You search for a location by name, address, or postcode. But now, alongside the ability to Get Directions is the option to Navigate to the destination. This loads Google Maps Navigation, which then calculates the route. It should be pointed out at this stage that, like Google Maps itself, Google Maps Navigation requires a data connection to download its routes and mapping data. So if you don’t have this at the time you plan your route, you will not be able to use the service. If you veer off the route and recalculation is required, a data connection will also be needed. Without it, navigational instructions will cease.
Once the route has been calculated, a map screen appears with a temporary inlay telling you the distance and time to the destination, and the most major road the route will be using. The initial map is merely two-dimensional, like the basic Google Maps, but once navigation begins this switches to the quasi three dimensions now familiar with most satellite navigation systems. A bar at the top of the screen provides details of the next turning, including its direction and distance, plus the name of the road. A smaller symbol beneath and to the right tells you the direction of the next turning after that, but provides no further information beyond this.
There is no fancy lane guidance graphic to tell you which carriageway to be in at complex junctions, but the top bar does at least tell you the motorway junction to look out for and which motorways will be signposted. The roundabout graphic also leaves a lot to be desired, as it doesn’t illustrate which exit to take, instead just showing the turning as you get to it. Having missed numerous roundabout exits with other sat-navs that didn’t update their map screens quickly enough, we suspect Google Maps Navigation will occasionally have you circumnavigating roundabouts a couple of times to ensure you get the right turning.
Along the bottom, your current road is shown on the right with the estimated journey time on the left. Clicking the latter calls up a map overview showing the whole journey. This will also display any traffic information along the way. However, this screen won’t let you navigate around jams. For that, you will need to use your phone’s menu button to call up Route Info. This displays the same graphic, but with some extra buttons for various functions. You can choose to avoid main roads or tolls. But there’s also a button to calculate alternative routes. This provides two more options, which are ranged along the top of the map, with details of their length in terms of distance and duration. You can then click on the one you like the most, and then return to the turn-by-turn map screen to use the new route. However, as with the map data itself, traffic information comes via a mobile data link, so this needs to be operational on your phone to receive the information.
The map view will work in portrait or landscape modes, but only if your phone has an accelerometer. The G1 we were using for testing would only switch to landscape with the keyboard revealed, which is clearly not going to be compatible with a mobile phone screen mount, and there’s no way of manually switching to landscape. It’s also possible to call up a text-based list of the different turns, if you prefer that mode of navigation.
Perhaps the most sophisticated feature of Google Maps Navigation is its layering ability. The Layers menu option lets you display parking, petrol stations and cash machines on the map. You can also toggle traffic views, as well as switching the map to a satellite picture. However, the latter slows map updates and requires further mobile data downloads, so is not recommended.
Google has also harnessed its Street View data to provide a junction illustration, which doesn’t just show you a realistic graphic, but a street-level panoramic photo view of the actual road. An arrow illustrating the turning is overlaid on top. However, the arrow doesn’t always line up with the photo, sometimes giving the curious suggestion that you should drive into a nearby building.
And that’s about it for features. There’s no built-in Points of Interest database organised by category, and no safety camera information either. There are no speed limit warnings, and traffic information doesn’t automatically recalculate your route. But considering that this is a free sat-nav app, all the basics are provided.
Google Maps Navigation is far from perfect, and you’re unlikely to want to rely on it if you’re a regular traveller. The necessity of a mobile data connection makes it much more limited than software that comes with maps and route calculation abilities preinstalled, even if the dynamic maps are always going to be the most up-to-date. But it’s perfectly functional for the occasional journey, and the fact that it’s free means you might as well try it anyway.
The question is, with Google Maps Navigation available for nothing, does this mean the beginning of the end for standalone software? It’s certainly true that you might not consider a standalone device if you’re only likely to use it a few times a year. But we found performance on our G1 occasionally frustrating. For now, at least, even a standalone smartphone app will be more dependable. Still, we’ll be keeping our eyes on Google Maps Navigation, because like so many things Google does, it’s still in beta and is likely to improve.
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