- It’s free!
- Lots of map regions available
- Google Local Search
- Quirky POI system
- No address keyword search
- No traffic updates
- Extensive world maps
- Points of Interest system
- Google Local Search
- Facebook and Twitter location sharing
- Optional safety cameras
The standalone sat-nav was born from peripheral attachments to the now obsolete PDA. But it’s under increasing pressure from the same competitor that killed off the PDA – the smartphone. This is particularly the case when you can get functional satellite navigation for free, such as the Navigation facility in Google Maps on Android phones, or Drive on Nokia’s Windows Phones. But iPhones have not had anything so potent available gratis. Enter Navmii’s Navfree, which promises premium-grade sat-nav functions for the princely sum of nothing.
This isn’t the first free iPhone satellite navigation app. Waze has been going from strength to strength, and it’s not alone. But these are still very much community projects. Whilst Navfree relies on mapping data from OpenStreetMap, this has been converted to its own format, and the app provides an interface with many of the features of software normally found in smartphone software costing £20 or more. Navmii has made this possible by serving ads within the app, although you can pay £1.49 to remove these.
You also pay £1.99 for each additional map you install within the app, although curiously you can avoid this by installing multiple versions of the app, one for each country. You then have to load different apps for different countries, so travelling across Europe would be annoying, but this still means you can navigate large portions of the world for free. Aside from Europe, versions are available for South Africa, North America, and even India. Best of all, the maps are stored locally, so you don’t need a data connection to access them.
The icon-driven menu makes the majority of features very easy to find. Navfree offers the usual ways of entering a destination. You can drill down from city, to street, to house number, although there is no keyword option for finding a street without knowing which town it’s in. You can also search for a full UK postcode. It’s possible to search for an address from your iPhone contacts, but Navfree isn’t entirely reliable here. Some contacts work fine. But if there’s no country defined, and sometimes even if there is, Navfree will say there isn’t and refuse to find your destination.
Aside from navigating to an address, there’s a standard category-based Points of Interest (POI) system available. Well, it’s standard in format, but not in operation. For a start, the actual database is online, so a mobile data connection of some sort is required for it to work. There are also some very clear holes in its coverage. Whilst searching for local cafes and bars returned a very respectable list of nearby feeding and watering establishments, our quest for a local bank was met with suggestions of financial institutions over 3,000 miles away in North America, which won’t be particularly convenient if you’re just after the odd tenner.
Fortunately, Google Local Search is also available. So you can search for “bank” with this instead, and the list of suggestions is very respectable indeed. Although there’s no standalone option to search for POIs or use Google Local Search near another location than your current one, this can be achieved via a slightly circuitous alternative route. Once you have found a destination, its Options include searching for nearby POIs and Google Local Search. This isn’t as intuitive as the usual direct methods provided by sat-nav apps and devices, but it does the same job.
The navigational experience is pretty similar to mainstream sat-navs. You can use a 2D or a 3D map, a night option is available that switches automatically, and there’s a decent level of information available onscreen. The top line illustrates your next turning and the road name to look out for, whilst the current road is named along the bottom. A slightly small box on the bottom left shows the distance to your destination and the estimated time of arrival. Above that a marginally clearer box illustrates your current speed.
Clear voice commands are provided. A wide variety of languages are available for the verbal directions, and for £2.99 you can even have Snoop Dogg direct you, which is rendered even more bizarre by the fact this is the only premium celebrity option. Routing settings include a comprehensive selection of vehicle types, such as car, motorcycle, bicycle, and three types of truck. There’s also a walking mode, and you can opt to avoid toll roads and motorways.
The mapping data isn’t perfect, though, for example suggesting during our testing that we make a right turn where this has been illegal for years. But you can tidy this up using the map feedback tool. This can be accessed either via the main menu or a button within the map screen. You can then report a missing street, a wrong street name, turning restrictions, and so on. These will be fed back to the OpenStreetMap project, improving the map data for all users.
Although these aren’t included as standard, safety camera locations can be added as an optional extra, and they cost just £1.99. The safety camera information is provided by KeeWee, but although the price is very reasonable the database on offer in our test app was from 24th June 2011, so not as fresh as the dynamically updated services such as TomTom’s LIVE provide. There’s also no traffic update option currently available, unlike the Waze app, so you won’t be given routes around congestion.
Navfree follows the latest trends with its location-sharing facilities, though. You can enter details of your Facebook and Twitter accounts in the settings, and then share your current location or any other one you find on either service. You can also share via email and SMS. In each case, your recipients get a link that will load Navfree with your location, so they can find their way there or come to meet you.
There are definitely some holes in Navfree’s features, with the bizarre POI system a particular weakness, and if you’re hoping to rely on it for regular travel you may find premium software more effective. But Navfree does surprisingly well for the occasional journey. If you don’t currently have navigation software on your iPhone, it’s well worth downloading. After all, you can’t argue with free, for those times when it’s not worth paying too much for quality.
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