The price of GPS navigation has been steadily dropping for years--this holiday season you can pick up a TomTom device for just 59 bucks--but we didn't see this coming: Google has released free turn-by-turn navigation for Android phones (version 1.6 and 2.0). That's quite the bargain when you consider navigation on most other smart phones costs anywhere from $10 per month for a subscription to a $99 one-time fee. This Google app has some serious rough edges, but people will put up with a lot when the price is right.
Setup and Interface
We tested the beta of Google Maps Navigation on the Motorola Droid, which runs version 2.0 of the Android operating system; since our initial tests, Google has also made Maps Navigation compatible with smart phones running Android version 1.6 as a download from the Android Market.
To start the app, you simply tap the Maps icon on the Android start screen. Users running Android 2.0 can opt to tap the microphone icon and say "Navigate to.." followed by your destination. Hitting the Maps icon calls up a basic local map; from there you can access navigation features by tapping the Menu button below the screen (or to the right of the screen, if you're in landscape mode). The menu bar lets you search for a destination, get directions, use map layers, find your current location, and join Latitude (a social feature).
Experienced GPS navigation users will have some difficulties with Google Maps Navigation. It often doesn't work like standard navigators; there's no points-of-interest (POI) database, for example--with a live Google search over a data connection, you get every destination that can be searched--nor a settings menu. Absent are default shortcut buttons for going home or finding a nearby gas station or parking lot. The software also doesn't let you program a multipoint route.
We definitely recommend checking out the introductory video for this app before attempting to use it. Search "Google Maps Navigation (Beta)" on YouTube or visit www.google.com/mobile/navigation. You'll learn about features that are anything but obvious.
With no POI list, you'll need to search for most of your destinations. Google's voice search is excellent, although getting to it can be tricky. Click the Search button from the Menu toolbar, and then tap the microphone button in the search box. However, you can instead go to the Android start page or long-press the phone's physical search button below the screen. We usually found the voice results to be accurate in our testing.
Maps and Navigation
Click to enlargeOnce you've got a destination and have asked the software to create a route, the screen will quickly display the time and distance of your trip, although the navigation view only shows the time remaining. One subtle feature is a colored dot in the lower left corner that shows the traffic conditions on your route. Yes, Google's app even gets live traffic for free. (Premium Live Services, which include live traffic, gas price information, and integrated local Internet search costs an extra $19.99 per year with ALK Technologies CoPilot Live v8.) If the dot is yellow or red, tap it to view an overview of your entire route and choose an alternative path.
One novel feature--and another that you might not figure out right away--is the use of layers. You can search for a favorite destination (such as a preferred coffee shop), and then activate a layer with that search. As you drive, you'll see those locations flagged when nearby. We found it convenient once we got the hang of it. An option for a satellite view of your route is also buried under the Layers menu. The app drained our Droid's battery in a little under three hours of continuous driving.
Driving with Google was mostly simple, with quick four-second rerouting after missed turns--the same as ALK's premium CoPilot Live app--but there were a few hiccups. The one text-to-speech voice is highly computerized. Also, maps weren't as accurate as we'd expect; the app located a nearby Chase Bank and Target, for example, blocks from their actual locations. It also didn't know that one Jersey City, NJ street has been closed to traffic for two years. The photo street views that we thought looked cool in the preview aren't much help for navigation. Simple tasks, such as switching between 2D and 3D views, were unnecessarily challenging.
Google vs. ALK CoPilot
ALK's CoPilot Live v8 goes for a reasonable one-time fee of $34.99 in the Android Market, iPhone App Store, and for Windows Mobile phones at www.copilotlive.com, and it offers a much more accessible navigation experience. The start menu lets you choose or enter a destination, select a favorite place, customize the many settings, or change modes (such as car or pedestrian). We like that CoPilot has quick select options for finding a gas station, hotel, repair shop, or restaurant, although the POI directory is especially slim at 1.5 million-plus entries. We couldn't find a local Chase Bank that's been around for more than a year, for example, and got few results for local bars.
Changing your view is simple with CoPilot, and it's easy to plan a multipoint route (neither of which is true for Google). We also preferred the CoPilot map layout, which displays the time remaining for your trip, the distance remaining, and the name of the next street. The only thing missing was the name of the current street, which is often left off applications that use smaller screens.
Once again, Google has gone and turned an industry on its head. By offering free GPS on Android 1.6 and 2.0 devices, it gives consumers another reason to choose this burgeoning platform. However, Google Maps Navigation, like other Google beta products, needs refinement. If ALK's CoPilot cost as much as some iPhone navigation apps (such as Navigon's, which goes for $69.99), we'd say stick with Google. As it is, though, CoPilot is affordable and will be easier to use for many. If you're not especially tech-minded and simply want the easiest way to reach your destination, choose CoPilot. If you're frugal, however, Google Maps Navigation will get the job done.