”’Apple iTunes Link:”’ skobbler UK/Ireland Lite
Most things about the iPhone cost a premium – the hardware is just the beginning. Where Android phones now have Google Maps Navigation, and Nokia phones can call on Ovi Maps, if you wanted turn-by-turn navigation on the iPhone you would have to fork out a fairly hefty sum for ALK CoPilot Live 8, TomTom for iPhone or Navigon MobileNavigator for iPhone. Enter skobbler, which used to cost a couple of quid but can now be had for nothing, although if you want speed camera warnings, you’ll need the version that costs the princely sum of £1.19. Whereas other iPhone sat-nav apps rely on licensed data from third parties, skobbler uses OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced alternative. Since its UK launch three weeks ago, the new free Skobbler has already been downloaded an impressive 72,000 times.
When you load skobbler, the initial screen asks you to log in. You can skip this and still retain the majority of functionality. But logging in will give you an extra feature that works in tandem with the skobbler website. You need to set up an account here first, which you can then link to via your mobile app. But more of this later in the review.
Skobbler offers all the usual address-finding options. You can input city, street and house number to pinpoint your destination. It’s also possible to use a postcode, but not the full seven digits. So you will still need to know the street name and house number.
Another important omission is a points of interest database, so you can’t search for nearby restaurants or petrol stations at all. The maps are supposed to show these locations as you travel, but in practice we didn’t see any. On a more positive note, although OpenStreetMap is ostensibly user generated, which could lead to a distinct lack of data in infrequently traversed rural regions, we found our destinations in every location we tried.
To save time finding frequently used destinations, you can also save a home location and a list of favourites. One of the potential benefits of smartphone-based sat-nav software is that you can potentially link into your phone’s contacts database, too. Skobbler offers this feature, and we found it accurate with properly completed contacts.
The most interesting capability, however, comes from the linkage to the skobbler website, as mentioned earlier. The website is able to connect into the OpenStreet Map database, so you can search for destinations on a desktop system, then save your results. These will then magically appear within your iPhone’s skobbler app, ready for you to navigate towards. This could be very useful if you’re planning a long trip with multiple destinations, and the more comfortable desktop operating system interface will make finding a series of locations a far quicker process.
Unfortunately, this brings us to skobbler’s biggest weakness. Like Google Maps Navigation, skobbler requires an active data connection to operate. This isn’t necessary all the time, but it’s an absolute requirement when you first set up your route or diverge from the chosen path, requiring recalculation. We found that if we left the route in an area of no data coverage, there would come a point where the map disappeared and we ended up travelling through what looked like open space. Under similar circumstances, Google Maps Navigation appeared at least to have a low-resolution backup available, so we had a vague idea of the roads we were on.
In transit, with adequate data connectivity, skobbler shows the now-ubiquitous quasi-three dimensional map view, and its handling of horizons is fairly well executed. You get a clear idea of the forthcoming road systems. However, it doesn’t have a landscape mode, so won’t flip if you rotate your iPhone into this orientation, and there’s no manual way of enabling this either.
An icon on the bottom left of the map illustrates the next turning, and a segmented bar next to this counts down as the turning approaches, so you know when to expect it. Along the bottom is the street name or road number to look out for at your next turning, and beneath this on the left is the distance to your destination, with the remaining time on the far right and estimated arrival time in the middle.
In keeping with its user-generated background, skobbler also provides a full toolset for reporting back when the real world differs from the map data. A bug icon to the bottom right of the map screen calls up a list of possible reports you can make, or you can send a custom message if none of them fit. These will then be investigated and incorporated into the maps. The reports will come in handy as we did find occasional aberrations in the road maps. For example, on more than one occasion we were told to make a right turn at a junction where this had not been legal for as long as we could remember. These errors were noticeably more frequent than with the latest commercial mapping data, although not enough to ruin the utility of the software.
Beneath the bug icon is a plus sign. This calls up the options submenu, which provides facilities to turn on night mode and turn off audio. You can also operate your iPhone’s iPod functionality without leaving skobbler, which is handy because if you do switch to another app, skobbler will forget your destination and you’ll need to start again from scratch. A final option calls up a more detailed data screen than can be found along the bottom of the map view.
Other than this, the range of features is modest. We’ve mentioned that there’s no speed camera data unless you pay £1.19, but skobbler also doesn’t tell you how fast you’re going or whether you’re exceeding the current limit.
For the time being, skobbler does fill a gap in the iPhone’s app selection. However, its reliance on mobile data connectivity limits its dependability quite considerably, even if it does mean mapping will always be the latest version. When the host iPhone has a reasonably reliable connection, skobbler works as expected. It doesn’t offer routing enhanced by live traffic information or historic average road speed data like TomTom’s IQ Routes, but it can get you from A to B. Should you find yourself in a poor coverage area, however, it becomes entirely useless. So whilst you might as well give it a try – it is free, after all – you’re better off paying for software with local mapping if you want something dependable.
Unlike other sites, we thoroughly test every product we review. We use industry standard tests in order to compare features properly. We’ll always tell you what we find. We never, ever accept money to review a product. Tell us what you think - send your emails to the Editor.