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Overview

This summer, the iPhone concept more or less “came of age” with the addition of a compass feature in the iPhone 3GS, which (along with GPS introduced in the iPhone 3G) effectively made turn-by-turn navigation on the iPhone possible. Since then, we’ve seen a few developers take advantage of this new feature set, and turn-by-turn navigation apps have slowly begun to roll into the App Store.

But with the high price tag on most of these navigation apps, you may be the one left needing turn-by-turn directions on which navigation app is worth the price of admission and which ones are destined for App Store mediocrity. Fear not, readers…AppAdvice has you covered.

photo15One turn-by-turn navigation app that has gotten some attention on the App Store is German-based NAVIGON’s MobileNavigator. Reading through App Store reviews for MobileNavigator, it seems clear that most users seem pleased with it, but I was eager to take it out in the real world and get a firsthand look at how it performed. I wouldn’t want to pull any punches, so I even put MobileNavigator head-to-head with a dedicated Garmin GPS unit to get a real sense of how accurate MobileNavigator (and the iPhone itself) can be.

Before I continue, I should state the obvious: most dedicated GPS units have similar basic features like speaking street names, automatically switching to night mode and so forth. For the purposes of this review and in order to not overwhelm readers with endless information, I’m not going to mention every feature of MobileNavigator. I’ll just hit the highlights, because MobileNavigator really is a complex, feature-rich app. If you have specific questions regarding MobileNavigator, please leave a comment and I will answer your questions there.

Suffice it to say that MobileNavigator is a legit turn-by-turn navigation app. The two questions I think most iPhone 3GS owners want to know is 1) “should I buy a stand-alone GPS unit or will MobileNavigator be a worthy and less expensive substitute?” and 2) “should I buy MobileNavigator or another navigation app?” So to avoid being redundant in stating navigation features common among GPS units, for this review I’m going to mainly focus on how well MobileNavigator executes the turn-by-turn concept on the iPhone rather than going into exhaustive detail of many features of the app itself.

Features

photo-141I’ll admit I had my fingers crossed in the hopes that MobileNavigator wasn’t going to be a royal letdown. And for me, the quickest way for MobileNavigator to achieve said “royal letdown” status is to have a gaping chasm where a basic, run-of-the-mill GPS feature set should be. Let’s face it, most users have come to expect certain features from dedicated GPS units such as the afore mentioned spoken street names, next turn info, etc. If MobileNavigator was missing any of these, it would be a credibility problem immediately. So let’s take a look at MobileNavigator’s “basic” feature set:

• Intuitive interface
• Voice announcements (“turn left/right in…”)
• Address entry and POI search
• Day/night mode (switches automatically)
• Accurate maps
• 2D/3D map view
• User-definable POI’s
• “Take me home” function
• Route planning
• Text-to-speech (spoken street names)
• Integrated iPod control (many standalone GPS units double as an mp3 player)

And now for some features that are unique to MobileNavigator or that are unique to a turn-by-turn GPS app on the iPhone platform:

• Useable in both portrait and landscape mode
• Shows a realistic view of roadway interchanges and exits (I explain this later…)
• Speed assistant with audible warnings to warn you if you are speeding
• Direct access to your iPhone’s address book
Seemlessly integrated iPod control
• Location sharing via email
• Includes maps of USA, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and Canada (eh!)

So as far as features go, MobileNavigator is definitely a full-featured attempt at a fancy pants GPS device. That’s one major hurdle cleared for MobileNavigator. Now let’s break ‘er down!

The Breakdown

I grabbed my iPhone loaded with MobileNavigator and my Garmin Nüvi 360 and, with my wife driving (safety first, kids!), I hit the road. We drove around town, on the Interstate and around residential areas and noticed a few things.

The Good

photo-5To my surprise, MobileNavigator has very smooth graphics. As we moved, the arrow indicating our location moved very fluidly compared to the once per second jittery movements of the Nüvi’s arrow indicator. The Nüvi was definitely more accurate as far as immediately showing our EXACT location. Due to the fact that the iPhone relies on a less accurate GPS technology, MobileNavigator seemed less sure that we had just turned or begun moving.

The speed indicator was also less accurate than the Nüvi, but I am still filing this under “The Good” because MobileNavigator was hardly dead wrong or egregiously inaccurate. Rather, it faithfully indicated our position. Considering it was going head-to-head with a hardcore GPS champ like the Garmin Nüvi 360, I was impressed and found its accuracy to be acceptable.

Speaking of smooth graphics, it’s also worth mentioning that MobileNavigator doesn’t require an internet connection like nearly all the other GPS apps on the App Store. All the maps and POI’s are downloaded to your iPhone with the app. The downside to this is that the app weighs in at nearly 1.5GBs, but considering the 16GB and 32GB size of the iPhone 3GS, that’s not not a major problem. When you are lost in the boonies, the last thing you want to worry about is not having enough data signal for your GPS device to download the maps that will get you home. Do you trust AT&T’s coverage that much? [insert rhetorical pause here]

photo-15The iPod controls are integrated seamlessly. An icon stays in the lower right corner of the map view at all times and tapping it takes you right into the integrated iPod UI complete with all the standard controls. I was very impressed with this feature of MobileNavigator, especially since the Nüvi’s mp3 player, even with it’s touchscreen control, is slow and cumbersome and about as useful as a chocolate teapot. So this is one major advantage MobileNavigator and the iPhone have on any dedicated GPS unit.

MobileNavigator also has a very unique feature called “Reality View Pro”. When you are approaching an intersection or exit, the map view changes to show what looks like a computer-generated picture of the upcoming lanes with arrows clearly marking the path you should take. When you are driving at 70+mph and need to be SURE this is your exit, you want this feature.

If you choose to enable the feature, MobileNavigator also displays the local speed limit sign on top of the map view and will even warn you visually and audibly that you are currently exceeding the speed limit. The only problem I saw with this feature was that the speed limit differed from the posted speed limit in a few places. So as with all GPS units, you will want to use this feature as a guide and not a crutch. That said, I’m not aware of this feature being on any dedicated GPS units I have ever used, so that is another big plus for MobileNavigator.

MobileNavigator also displays nearby POI’s using the actual logos of the POI, when possible. For example, if you are near a Starbucks or Walgreens, MobileNavigator shows the Starbucks and Walgreens logo on the map view. This alone won’t sell the app, but it is a cool, common-sense feature.

Lastly, I think it is also worth mentioning that MobileNavigator’s pricing model is a major advantage over some other turn-by-turn navigation pricing models. With MobileNavigator, you buy the app and that’s it. AT&T Navigator, by contrast, costs $9.99/month. Most standalone GPS units also charge a $10-$12 monthly fee to subscribe to traffic alerts.
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The other prominent navigation app that is most similar to MobileNavigator is TomTom. However, the current version of TomTom doesn’t have spoken street names or iPod integration and has a mere 2.5 stars in the App Store. Of course, all that could change with future updates, but for now, MobileNavigator has better features than TomTom and at the same price, MobileNavigator is the navigation app to beat.

NAVIGON announced last month that live traffic data is coming this month for a one-time fee of $24.99 (introductory price: $19.99). So for a mere $110, you can have a full featured turn-by-turn navigation app on your phone, complete with live traffic data. This places MobileNavigator head and shoulders above competing iPhone navigation apps and gives even the best dedicated GPS units a hard run for their money.

The Bad

So I’ve said a lot of great things about MobileNavigator, but there is one important thing to remember: GPS info, including info from MobileNavigator, is not always accurate. Case in point, MobileNavigator thinks my house is on the opposite side of the street. To be fair, the Nüvi knows where my house is, but thinks my office is on the opposite side of the street. So even though that is a typical GPS unit “negative”, MobileNavigator can be updated with a simple App Store update, whereas the Nüvi requires $30 once a year if I want to buy the freshest maps. Advantage: MobileNavigator.
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Another drawback with MobileNavigator is that the GPS signal occasionally seemed less reliable. The Nüvi may take a few minutes to lock onto satellites, but once they are locked in and have an unobstructed view of the sky, it’s good to go. MobileNavigator seemed to come and go at times. Whenever MobileNavigator has a weak GPS signal, the top menu bar turns red.

One major drawback to turn-by-turn navigation on the iPhone is that, in order to constantly show you where you are, your iPhone’s screen has to be on, which also means your phone is guzzling down that precious iPhone battery life. GPS is a big drain on the iPhone’s battery anyway, so unless you have a car charger for your iPhone, you won’t be using MobileNavigator to take you on any long road trips.

Along those lines, while using a navigation app on my iPhone, I realized that I can’t/shouldn’t hold my iPhone and drive. So the question becomes “where do I put this thing?” Dedicated GPS units have a handy suction cup or friction mount holder, but the iPhone doesn’t come with any of those. Tom-Tom has a companion iPhone mount to accompany their iPhone app, but it is pricey (around $120), so the best bet may be to find a third-party mount. Otherwise, car navigation using the iPhone isn’t nearly as practical as a dedicated unit.

The Verdict

MobileNavigator is a highly respectable attempt at turn-by-turn navigation on the iPhone. With MobileNavigator’s up-front, non-subscription pricing model, preloaded maps and its ability to easily be updated, it has a major advantage over other apps in the App Store and even standalone GPS units. If you can comfortably adapt to using GPS on your iPhone as opposed to a dedicated unit, then MobileNavigator is an affordable, feature-rich app that will only get better with future updates.