A big leap in turn-by-turn navigation for the iPhone

A detailed look at Navigon's MobileNavigator uncovers serious innovation and highlights the iPhone 3.0 OS's strengths

Navigation technology vendor TomTom wowed a rapt audience at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June with a prototype of its turn-by-turn navigation solution. TomTom recently released its software, priced at $99, to the App Store. But lesser-known Navigon has a product, MobileNavigator, that costs $70, has already been through several rounds of feedback-based revision on the iPhone, and shows some real innovation. In other words, MobileNavigator deserves a share of the spotlight for reasons other than being first to bring turn-by-turn navigation to the iPhone.

Navigon, like TomTom, designs for pocket PC-class handsets and stand-alone navigation units. Both rely on massive maps databases downloaded with the app and installed in the device's plentiful flash memory. In Navigon's case (I have not yet tested TomTom on iPhone), that makes for an uncommonly lengthy download and install process, long enough that iPhone users might think the process has stalled. Just let it roll. Downloading the map data in advance is a contrast to what I'll call "online navigation" from Google Maps, TeleNav (my reference standard), BlackBerry Maps, AT&T Navigator, Sprint Navigator, and similar products that incrementally download map tiles for your location or your route. These require, or at least work best with, a constant Internet connection throughout your journey.

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Having map data reside on the device means you can interactively view and search maps, and locate points of interest (such as businesses, hospitals, and airports) instantly, even when you have no wireless service. MobileNavigator's value as a combination street atlas/Yellow Pages is considerable. In fact, if Navigon added just one feature -- the ability to manually enter the address of a route -- MobileNavigator would be a worthwhile purchase for iPod Touch and iPhone users whose devices lack GPS. As a plus, MobileNavigator will instantly map your Contacts entries (for this, you must browse Contacts from inside MobileNavigator), although it also maintains a separate, editable database of addresses and a history of prior destinations.

On the road

MobileNavigator's off-road, offline convenience is noteworthy, but most buyers will want to use it for voice-prompted, moving-map navigation. At this, MobileNavigator roughly matches the features and usability of stand-alone navigators in the $200 range.

Like most stand-alone devices, MobileNavigator works immediately after purchase, without incurring a monthly charge. It calculates travel routes internally and very quickly. MobileNavigator does not let you graphically redraw portions of the route as some solutions do, but global route profiles allow you to favor or avoid toll roads, HOV lanes, and residential streets.

You can define any number of intermediate stops along your path, and save your complex, multistop computed routes to load later. Because you can define stops by pointing at the map, you can use this mechanism to override MobileNavigator's default routing. Even though MobileNavigator doesn't track road conditions or traffic patterns, a simple Block function routes you around a closed road, exit, or congested area. Just tell it how much of the calculated route ahead is impassable, and MobileNavigator will find another way. You may need to loosen your route profile for this to work properly.

MobileNavigator's voice prompts refer only to numbered roads; no effort is made to pronounce named streets and highways, and even with numbered thoroughfares Navigon sometimes punts and just says, "Turn right." It doesn't consistently call out exit numbers, but it is fairly good about showing them in Lane Assist (more on that later). The voice is a nice touch, but unlike TeleNav and other products that call out streets and exits by name, MobileNavigator is absolutely useless if you can't see the screen. The iPhone has to be stuck to your windshield, vent, or dash with its backlight on to use MobileNavigator while driving.

MobileNavigator's UI is above average, although the street names on the map are almost unreadable unless you switch to night mode (which I always use). The UI makes equally good use of the iPhone's high-resolution display in portrait and landscape modes by packing in a lot of information: speed, speed limit (when it's known), distance to next turn, direction of the next turn (and the one after that, if the turns are close together), arrival time, and distance to destination. The street or exit name of your next turn is shown in large type, and with a tap on this text you can find out what street you're on.

Missing are the abilities to pan or zoom the navigation view or to view the route as a list. If you touch the map while you're driving, navigation mode is suspended and a full-screen map browsing view is shown. Here you can pan by dragging, zoom with pinch and spread, or tap to set a new destination. I wish that navigation mode maintained the zoom level selected in the map view, but it doesn't. MobileNavigator repeats the last issued voice prompt if you tap on the turn icon, but the spoken orders don't always match the displayed directive.

Street signs

MobileNavigator's offline maps include point-of-interest (POI) data. As is inevitably the case with businesses opening, closing, and relocating all the time, the POI data is sometimes dated or incomplete -- the same is true of Google Maps and other online POI databases. In MobileNavigator, POIs of chain operations are shown with tiny logo balloons, and landmarks such as railroad crossings are marked with traffic signs. The icons provide invaluable visual points of reference for street driving: You can see that your turn is after the Exxon station, but if you pass a McDonald's on the right you've gone too far. MobileNavigator is one of the few tools you could use to give verbal directions to someone.

By default, all POIs are enabled, and in dense areas, the overlapping logos and business names can blot out each other and the map. You can enable and disable POIs by category, and even by individual chain brand, to clear the clutter. MobileNavigator's POIs serve a purpose that Google had in mind with Maps' Street View: the ability to associate the map with the view out your window. The logos make it possible to align the real and rendered views with a glance. That makes all the difference.

MobileNavigator has an overall theme of keeping your map and reality in sync. Whenever the data is in the database, the speed limit is shown on screen in familiar white road-sign form, and you can have MobileNavigator scold you verbally for exceeding it. Nowadays, with revenue raising being a primary duty of the police, MobileNavigator can pay for itself by saving you the price of just one ticket. But I caution you that MobileNavigator's impression of the local speed limit may be out of date, and it doesn't reflect special reduced limits for weather and construction. The speed reminder is just to help. Your current speed is always shown at the top of the screen.

Another real road-view feature is Lane Assist. Picture a six-lane highway that splits in three directions, with street exits left and right just before the split. Navigation software varies as much in its aplomb at putting you in the proper lane in advance of a mess like this as a passenger does.

MobileNavigator cuts through the confusion of "bear left," "stay left," "exit left," "go straight" (in which lane?), and so on by putting up a big drawing of the road with a fat arrow marking the lane you should be in, and it displays realistic overhead road signs that show how the highway divides. I have one gripe with this: Lane Assist is a static image that looks nothing like the map; the moving navigation view isn't restored until after the split. I understand that GPS isn't precise enough to know which lane I'm in, but it's distracting to have my position marker and most of the rest of the UI disappear. Perhaps Navigon could draw a moving horizontal line to show the current position relative to the splits and exits.

Seeing red

Some users report that MobileNavigator loses GPS lock fairly often. This has been blamed on a variety of factors, but I have a fix in two parts. First, users can understand that where they drive, what they drive, and where they mount their device makes a world of difference in their experience with any mobile navigation system. Laid side by side with other phones, the iPhone 3G S loses GPS lock no more often than anything else, which brings me to part two of the fix. During my testing, when GPS signal lock was lost, MobileNavigator was the first product to report it, and the only one to announce it with a screaming red warning banner across the top of the screen.

MobileNavigator needn't treat transient GPS loss as an emergency. Google Maps says nothing about transient GPS signal loss. The screen just stops updating until the lock is restored, and usually you don't notice. MobileNavigator's POI feature suggests a solution: I'd like to tap on a landmark to indicate "I just passed this" during GPS blackouts to advance the map and get an update on my next turn and my arrival time.

A different class of app

MobileNavigator earned such a lengthy write-up for several reasons. Turn-by-turn navigation can be a platform-defining function for professional users. This class of application, which makes the maps, POI database, and route calculation algorithms reside on the device, defines the capability envelope for custom software. In this case, MobileNavigator shows that the iPhone OS 3.0 is at least equal to Windows Mobile 6 for native code programmability. I knew that, but I wasn't sure when a vendor with an application of genuine scale would step up to make the case. Navigon did, and it's doing so while rapidly integrating open feedback from customers into new iterations of product.

How MobileNavigator compares to other navigation solutions is a matter for a proper Test Center review, and I'd like to know if you're interested.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.