I'm happy to report that the leading car navigation apps for the iPhone work surprisingly well. Not only that, but for the next week, there's a clear choice for best app.
Until August 31st, Navigon MobileNavigator will cost $70. In my testing, it competed neck and neck with the $100 TomTom, so for the next eight days, it's the best value among the top contenders. But when they're both selling for $100, that TomTom is going to look a lot more tempting. The third app I tested is TeleNav's AT&T Navigator. It's certainly worthy, and has some connected capability that the other two apps here don't, but in the end, the economics are wrong: At $10 per month, it could become frightfully expensive, with no significant added value.
These three navigators are the most reputable in the app store (hence their heightened cost). They're all based on software I've used in the past too, either in other phones or in portable navigators. Because of the familiarity, I knew I could spot anything amiss in the iPhone edition, but I was surprised to discover that, if anything, these iPhone apps are better designed than anything their companies made before—and run great on my iPhone 3GS. It's a relief to know that GPS navigation with an iPhone is, finally, a really real reality.
Navigon and TomTom are completely contained apps that hog upwards of 1.2 GB a piece; TeleNav is a small app that relies on the phone's net connection. Nevertheless, they all work more or less the same. They give turn-by-turn directions on an animated map, just like portable navigators. While they're doing it, you can play music from the iPhone's iPod, and if a call comes in, you see it pop up on the screen. GPS performance on the 3GS was better than I had hoped for—hiccupy at times but never completely gone, even when messing around indoors.
Every app also has direct access to Contacts—this isn't just good for people for whom you've added addresses, it's brilliant for quickly navigating to stuff you've found in Google Maps—you just whatever it is to Contacts with a single tap, open your navi app and it's there.
No matter which app you're using, the GPS runs constantly and the screen generally stays on, which means utter battery drainage: You will need to keep your iPhone plugged into the car's lighter jack. You will also need a dashboard mount, which range from $10 to $30.
Here's how the apps did against each other, followed by some deeper impressions:
Unlike the other two, TeleNav is very much a connected app. It downloads a fresh map of your surroundings wherever you are, and it checks for traffic and POIs in much the same way. TeleNav's servers are always being updated, so you're never out of date. The trouble is that a) this costs $10 per month forever and ever, b) with the exception of searching for gas by price and the occasional useful traffic alert, the connectedness is hard to appreciate, and c) downloading maps and routes means that if you have poor phone reception, you might not have navigation.
TeleNav distributes its app "free" in the app store, but to get turn-by-turn navigation (the only reason you'd want the app), you have to sign up and commit to paying $10 a month on your AT&T bill. It's a deal for the first 10 months or so, especially since you can cancel it at any time, so maybe you'll only need it on trips. But if you intend to keep it and use it for more than that, you'll kick yourself for not having paid up front for Navigon or TomTom—when you add up all those Hamiltons, the $100 apps are ultimately cheaper.
I had some trouble with the software, too. Version 1.1 of the "free" client app crashed a lot, and it didn't automatically update to the more stable version 1.2i. I had to remove the app from my iPhone, and then add it again. The good news is, it worked and I haven't experienced a crash since.
Though I was pretty pleased with TeleNav's overall usability, but the connectedness did get annoying sometimes. The best example is the map section: TeleNav has very pretty maps, but they take a 21st century eternity to download (we're talking 5-10 seconds here), and the whole screen has to reload when you pan or zoom. Also, when you're in the map, you can't tap on a destination and route there, a fact that seemed to render the maps useless.
The B- I give the program is a combination of the shortcomings, albeit minor, and the problematic economics for anyone intending to use this regularly for a year or more.
Navigon portable navigators had just started to get good when the company closed shop in the US. I can't say I miss them, really, but what's nice is that most or all of the great features of the portable product have arrived intact in the iPhone app. It really is startling to see how well both TomTom and Navigon have overlaid their core features to the iPhone.
Navigon comes with 1.29 GB of maps and POI data, good because, like TomTom, it's not "connected." There's no live traffic, no online search, nothing like that. I can't say I miss it. The app runs almost exactly like the last Navigon portables, with such nice touches as lane guidance (those screens that pop up saying which lanes you should—and definitely should not—be in). It lays out well in both landscape and portrait modes, and the driving interface, with its customization options, looks the best.
Navigon has always had some trouble with its POI interface—in this case, you can can easily search for something in the wrong place. If you don't know the specific city a POI is in, just putting in the nearest big city is not enough. I recommend sitting down with it and familiarizing yourself with the POI search flow, because once you get the hang of it, you will be better at knowing where to look for stuff.
The biggest glaring omission of this app was the route view, what I used to call MapQuest view back when people remembered what MapQuest was: You get a full rundown of your turns, so you can see where the hell this thing is trying to take you. For the price, it's still reasonable, and Navigon has already updated its software—for free—a few times since launch, so who's to say that a good route summary isn't up next?
I gave it an A- until August 31, when the price goes from $70 to $100. After that, it's probably a B+ or B. On the level it can't really beat the TomTom, but when it's $30 cheaper, it most certainly does.
I know some of you probably recall my negative sentiments about a recent TomTom portable navigator, and indeed, the whole family of TomTom navigators. I am happy to report that, by leaving hardware design in the hands of Apple, and by making at least a bit of effort to streamline the TomTom interface when bringing it to the iPhone, most of my complaints are rendered moot. There's still the matter of taking four taps to cancel a route (it takes just two on the other two apps). There's also the matter of POIs lacking coherent capitalization and punctuation, rendering them barely recognizable in English, and other hints of one-platform-for-all international scaling. But in general, it's a damn worthwhile, even powerful app.