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Appiphilia: Finding your way through turn-by-turn nav apps for iPhone

August 18, 2009 |  4:44 pm

La traffic
Traffic along the southbound 110 freeway, seen from Elysian Park in the late morning. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times 

This summer, iPhones got the ability to tell you where to go and how to get there with voice-guided navigation apps.

As of Monday, TomTom joined the small group of apps available with voice-guided turn-by-turn directions. Sygic and Navigon both had apps available earlier this summer for iPhone and now other smart phones. The offerings from Sygic, Navigon and TomTom all have features in common and a little something that distinguishes them from one another. For a community of buyers accustomed to apps under $1, these are fairly pricey. That said, they're still less expensive than the average in-car nav device.

All of the apps are slightly limited by the device itself. Unlike a dedicated automotive navigational device, which typically uses a highly sensitive GPS receiver, most smartphones, like the iPhone, use "assisted GPS."

What they all have:

- Day and night display mode

- 2D and 3D viewing options

- Portrait and landscape viewing

- Multiple language options

- Onboard maps and points of interest

- On-screen speed, distance and projected arrival time

- Simulations of the turn-by-turn directions for when you lose GPS signal -- and it will happen

- The ability to play music and receive calls while using the app, though the app has to relaunch after the call ends

What they all need:

- Car mount (imperative!)

- More GPS power -- in the shadow of tall trees or tall buildings, the phone's little GPS that could just can't. (When the signal isn't strong, though, Google Maps seems to still work just fine.)

- Text-to-speech, so that street names can be announced (so far, none has this feature)

Check out how they stack up after the break...

Sygic Sygic Mobile Maps US ($39.99, 1.43 GB)

Graphics: The app offers 3D, 2D flat and 2D north-up viewing options. The font, however, isn't that kind to the eyes. It doesn't appear to be optimized for the small screen size. The signage on the calendars have a more international look than an American one. Speed limits appear in a red-bordered circle instead of a black-lined rectangle. It's not a knock, but the look just feels more foreign than familiar. 

Reliability: Sygic uses maps from Tele Atlas and WhereIs. When used in Seattle to get from airport to hotel in comparison with a dedicated navigational device, the directions matched. However, in Los Angeles, instead of directing me to 3rd Street near Beverly Hills automatically when an address in the 8000 block was typed in, the app didn't automatically add the "west" and directed me instead to 3900 Spring St. -- the opposite direction.

Sygic-nav Features: The app boasts 30 language options, including both British and American English. That said, there's only one voice option for each, both male. Lucien is the name of the American voice.

It also includes some extras -- a world clock, calculator, unit converter and country information. Not altogether necessary, but nice. The volume appears to be controlled by the device's main control, which isn't always ideal if you're on a call or listening to music at the same time.

Also, as you can see from the screen grab, while there's a bar indicator for phone reception, there's no indication of battery life. And iPhone owners know that's something you have to keep close track of with workhorse applications such as these.

Every time the app is launched, including after a phone call ends while using the app, the disclaimer loads -- a nice reminder to use safe driving practices -- and it's quite annoying. This apparently will go away with an upcoming upgrade.

Sygic also announced that its upgrade will include text-to-speech voice guidance, address book integration and improved scrolling and GPS lock.

Bottom line: This app is the cheapest but fattest, weighing in at 1.43 gigabytes. (It's currently "on sale"; earlier this summer, it went for $79.99.) But it needs to give better, more accurate street directions based on street number. Though the app costs less, wrong directions can cost precious time and lead to driver frustration.

Navigon2 MobileNavigator North America ($69.99, 1.29 GB)

Graphics: The visuals take into account the size of the screen in both portrait and landscape modes. The font is easy on the eye, even at dashboard distance.

Reliability: Navigon uses NAVTEQ maps. For the most part, directions were consistently spot-on. However, one time while guiding me from Glendale to West Hollywood along Sunset Boulevard, the voice said, "When you can, make a U-turn." Meanwhile, I was still miles from the destination with no need for a U-turn. It did adjust and continue with perfect directions when no turn was made.


Features: It boasts "intelligent address entry," meaning when an address is typed in, the app recognizes recently entered cities. For instance, if you had typed in "Los Angeles" earlier, that comes up as the first option the next time you type "L" for city.

The app automatically selects the language to match the language set on the iPhone. The American English voice sounds a bit grandmotherly -- certainly non-offensive and non-threatening, soothing even. For some reason, with every announcement I was left jonesing for oatmeal raisin cookies. That auto language selection is helpful, but somewhat restrictive. It's kind of fun to play with the different languages without altering the language settings for the entire phone.

The app does let you adjust its volume separately from the device from the "options" tab. The directions are given without interrupting audio from the device such as music.

The "real signpost display" (pictured) and lane assistant are more useful than I had expected. I used the app on a recent trip to Washington state and found that seeing something familiar and getting specific direction on when to move on unfamiliar roadways helped calm a nervous driver in high traffic.

When there's a weak GPS signal, the app immediately offers to launch a simulation of turn-by-turn directions. Live navigation kicks in once a signal becomes available.

Bottom line: The app, also currently on sale, is to cost $99.99 after Aug. 31. It's slightly more user-friendly than Sygic's offering, with iPhone-intuitive and slick features that make it easier to use in a real driving situation. The sale price makes it a robust mid-range nav app. Going forward, it would be nice to have different voice options.

TomtomTomTom U.S. & Canada ($99.99, 1.21 GB)

Graphics: The map details included are easy to read at a glance. They look the same as on the TomTom car navigation devices.

Reliability: TomTom also uses Tele Atlas maps. Of the apps tested, TomTom's gave the most dependable directions. No misdirection, random U-turns or misunderstandings. 

Tomtom-nav2 Features: Although a number of the cooler features of the standalone devices are not (yet?) included, the app does have IQ Routes. With IQ Routes switched on, the app will calculate the fastest route based on data culled over the years from other TomTom users. You can also set up a route according to the date and time of day you plan to travel, and TomTom will determine the best route -- which isn't always the most theoretically direct.

By far, this app has the largest offering of languages and voice. For English alone, there are 11 options -- from the UK, US, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand. I have New Zealander Paul guiding me. 

Although you can play music in the background, the voice guidance interrupts audio functions -- the sound stops and you actually see the play button at the top disappear for the time the voice speaks.That was a bit annoying, but, if I recall correctly, that's similar to how it works with music playing through its standalone devices.

A company spokesman said today that the car kit is to be launched "closer to the end of the summer," with no details on pricing. It was unclear whether that means before school terms begin (early September) or around the autumnal equinox (Sept. 22-23). And no word yet on whether there are plans to offer text-to-speech functionality.

Bottom line: The lack of Map Share, custom voices and text-to-speech are noticeable for those who know TomTom products. The app has user-friendly features, including volume control at a tap across the bottom, and visually pleasing maps. The IQ Routes is a useful inclusion, particularly in traffic-dense Los Angeles. Many users are waiting (hoping) to see whether TomTom will incorporate features such as traffic and fuel prices in later versions.


Overall: While all of them are serviceable options for the iPhone, for reliability and accuracy, TomTom was at the top. However, for price at this time, Navigon's app is a good buy -- at least until Aug. 31.

Our hope is to try all three of these apps again using TomTom's car kit when it becomes available to see whether it makes a difference.

-- Michelle Maltais

Are you using these apps? Share what you think of them in the comments below.

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