Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

Navigon Mobile Navigator iPhone

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Mobile Navigator for iPhone

Mobile Navigator for iPhone

Let’s face it, $69 ($99 after August 15) is a lot to pay for an iPhone app. We are pretty well conditioned to think of a $6.99 app as expensive…when we pay $4.99 we expect something really special, relatively unique, and totally awesome, $2.99 is a bread and butter app, and we really think all apps should be $.99!

And, I have to say, my most expensive app before the Navigon was the $29.99 iBird Explorer Pro…a totally unique, completely awesome, library sized compendium of bird information wedded to super audio-visual field guide and innovative bird id search engine, all compressed into an elegant iPhone interface…that has served (in the Apple TV adds) as a poster child for what is possible on the iPhone/iPod Touch platform. Of course, I am a birder as well as technophile (polite for geek), so for me, price is no object for an app like iBird Explorer.

But then, I am also a traveler. 300,000 air miles a year, traveling to destinations all over North America, and generally having a 1 to 6 hour drive out of the airport (always conveniently located at the center of an urban traffic snarl) to where ever I am actually going (long story and not the place to tell it). I bought my first GPS, a Magellan Crossover, 4 years ago and it simplified and destressed my travel life to such an extent that I would never willingly travel without one again. I even use it on any drive over 2 hours around home…just to have the distance to the next turn and ETA available. Anything, as far as I am concerned, that removes stress from travel is worth owning and using!

The Magellan is still going strong, and the only reason I have been avidly waiting a turn by turn, audible GPS app for the iPhone ever since the possibility was announced with OS 3.0 (and I have been eager) is that I travel 300,000 miles a year by air. The less I have to carry…the fewer gadgets…one less power supply (2 less counting the auto adapter) can make a real difference…not huge…but real, and with that much travel, any difference at all is worth a reasonable price.

So what is reasonable? To put things in perspective, I paid more for my Magellan Crossroads (at employee price through a friend in the company) than I paid for my iPhone (by quite a bit) and I paid more for the last Magellan map update than Navigon is asking for the complete Mobile Navigator app. So even $99 is not looking unreasonable to me.

Of course the GPS market has changed dramatically in the past 4 years too. Today you can buy a GPS at least as good as my Magellan for less than $150, $129 on occasional discounts…even sometimes the most basic models at  $99 on a holiday sale. That is making the Navigon app look expensive again…if…and for me it is a big if…you are willing to carry a second device for navigation. That is, if you remember, how I got here in the first place.

One cravat in what follows. My only GPS reference for comparison to the Navigon app is my 4 year old Magellan, state of the art at the time, but it is quite possible that many of the features that so impressed me in the Navigon are now common place in even an entry level GPS…I wouldn’t know. I am sure some reader will be at pains to tell me if this is so.

And, yes, I am indeed impressed with the Mobile Navigator for the iPhone. Impressed and happy. Tested on an extensive road trip out of a midwestern airport from one city to the far side of  a smaller city 2 hours west and into deep industrial suburbia, it performed flawlessly and delighted me with its many intelligent aids to navigation, ease of use, and accuracy. As far as I am concerned it is worth every penny of the $99, and more.

It has only one quirk that I noticed…it is not as fast in set up as it might be due to operational delays…lags between touching a button and the action called mostly. This is on a 3G iPhone. I suspect that performance is snappier on a 3GS (bound to be, and if someone wants to donate one I will be happy to test it), but this is still a massively complex piece of programing for the tiny iPhone processor to handle, especially while part of its little mind is tending to Apple’s apps that are allowed background operations (mail, SMS, iPod, and now any app that uses Push).

What impressed me?

Options Screen

Options Screen

1) General accuracy. After TomTom’s take on the abilities of the built in iPhone GPS (they will provide an optional booster unit/car mount with their app), I had to wonder if the iPhone was up to the task unaided. It is. No problem. It acquired an initial position faster than my Magellan by far (probably because it cheats and takes a ball-park position from the cell system), and it never lost tract of where it was no matter how dense the city around it. (I have not, you understand, tested it in NYC, LA, Chicago, or Boston…) Turn info was timely and spot on.

2) An intelligent and very usable 3D mode. I never used 3D on the Magellan because it made me a little queasy to watch it, but the Navigon worked fine, perhaps because of the possibility of using the iPhone in Portrait mode with the screen long and thin, giving the 3D effect room to stretch out ahead of the little moving arrow (note: current version does not display street names on the map in 3D. Update with name display, and a few other refinements, promised soon).

Perhaps the best feature of the 3D view is the lane assist at major intersections (especially on interstates). As you approach a junction, the view shifts to a stylized depiction of the actual lane layout, looking from your position down the lanes ahead, with the traffic signs hanging over the lanes just as you see them in real time through the windshield, and bright orange arrows following the lanes showing your flow through the junction. If there are two possible lanes of exit, it shows two arrows: If only one, then only one arrow. It is simple, elegant, and effective. (see the illustration above)

3) Along the same lines, the Navigon both tells and displays multiple turns. When you exit a freeway, for instance, if the exit is to the right and then you have to turn right off the exit, it gives you an audible instruction, and it displays the second turn in a smaller turn box above the first turn box. I hated that about the Magellan. It never told what the next turn was until you completed the first, even when they followed close on each other.

4) Posted speed limit display and audible speeding waring. On any major highway (even on Route 1 through downtown Kennebunk ME (population 20,000)) a little speed sign in the upper right corner of the screen displays the posted speed limit. It is very accurate and changes when the posted limits change. You can set the app to different levels of alert, but a pleasant voice cautions you when you are too far in excess of the limit.

Route Profile

Route Profile

5) The ability to tailor the route profile that builds your route in any number of interesting and useful ways. You want to walk or take a bike?…Navigon has you covered. Do you want to include residential only streets (often the best shortcuts, known only to true locals) or exclude them. Do you want to allow or avoid toll roads, or outlaw them outright? More



6) An excellent POI system that provided accurate lists of local every things…even including, where appropriate, corporate logos (Burger Kings are shown in the list with their logo…MickyDs…Staples stores…WalMarts…etc.) As a stranger in a lot of strange cities with general business (eating, shopping, mailing, parking, auto renting, occasional medical emergencies, etc.) I am really dependent on the POI system. I am sure I am going to discover the limits of the Navigon POIs. As much as I travel I always do, but so far I am impressed.

7) Ease of address entry. Multiple taps and multiple inputs of course, but each tap and each input calls up an indexed list of possible locations, including all major intersections. I have always wondered why GPS apps don’t work like Google maps, and let you type in the whole address and then go find it, but given that failing, the Navigon system works well (again, on the 3G iPhone there can be lags as Navigon builds the lists. Probably better on the 3GS…any donors yet?)

The Navigon app is also integrated with your address book/contacts app on the iPhone, so you can enter the full address there, and then call it up from within the navigation app. Just be careful entering data in your contacts app. I made a simple mistake, and it cost me 15 minutes on the way to an appointment. User error.

8 ) a feature that looks good, but that I have not used yet, is the ability to look for POIs along your route (restaurants, gas stations, rest areas, etc.) while the route is running, and add them to your route. I can see how, on longer trips than 2 hours, this might be very useful.

Along those lines, the next update is supposed to have the ability to route multiple destinations. This is something I have always missed in my Magellan. Sometimes I want to go by way of, but I still want to go, if you know what I mean. I do not want to go to the by the way, and then have to reprogram the GPS for my true destination. And if there is more than one by the way, well…that gets tedious. I don’t know how often I will actually use the multiple destinations feature, but I am eager to see how it works.

So, what about the practical side of using the app on the iPhone. It is after all a phone. And it is, after all, an iPhone. What happens when calls come in. What happens when Pushes interrupt your route? What about iPoding? How do you mount the thing?

Phone and Push seems well integrated. If a phone call comes in, you can answer it using the speaker phone mode and navigation picks up where you are when you finish. If you are anywhere tricky, of course, the best course is to get off the road to talk anyway. Pushes appear in the screen, but have a dismiss button, so that is easy. You can play music using the iPod app while navigation is running, but see the volume concern below.

As for mounting, I am using an inexpensive,l $25 windshield suction mount from Walmart, and it works just fine. It even came with a heater vent adapter for CA cars (no window mounts allowed). I also have a Kensington mount that goes in the lighter socket for cars with sockets appropriately placed. The iPhone is light compared to my Magellan, so it is relatively easy to mount. The suction on my inexpensive windshield mount held for 3 days and showed no signs of coming loose. I used a separate lighter powered power supply, and the phone was well positioned for speaker phone use if needed. Works.

Navigon recommends running your iPhone naked for best GPS reception but I kept mine in its plastic case and it worked fine.

So what is not to like?

My only issue is, as other reviewers have noted, the voice prompts. The voice is pleasant, polite, clear and crisp and unlikely to be  misunderstood…but it is not loud enough, especially if you are listening to music. The coming update will have separate volume controls for music and voice…but unless they also boost the volume of the voice in the navigation app, that just means that you will be turning your music down to hear the navigation better. Not ideal. (With the 3G, she also stutters occasionally…not enough to bother…probably cured in the 3GS…what, still no donors? I really want to test this.)

To be fair, you need to compare the Navigon Mobile Navigator for the iPhone to the AT&T navigation app, and the X-Road apps…and of course the soon to be released TomTom app (the TomTom has been soon to be released for several months now, which is certainly one reason I have the Navigon.)

I don’t want to pay AT&T $9.99 a month to use their app, no matter how good it is, and early reports have not been wildly enthusiastic. Even if map upgrades for the Navigon are expensive, they are not going to $120, and they are not likely to come every year. I prefer an app that has the maps installed. The X-Road apps might be good, but since I am all over NA, I would have to own and install both East and West…not an ideal solution as far as I am concerned, and putting the cost right up there with the Navigon.

And the TomTom? I don’t like the idea of the separate booster…one more thing to carry and power…and, having used the Navigon without a booster, I am not sure it is needed. TomTom would have to have a significant price or feature advantage to make me look at it (unlikely in my opinion). (Of course, if TomTom wants me to review their app, I am always open to that…though I bought the Navigon with my own hard earned $$…you think all that travel is easy on a person?)

For the moment, I am certainly a happy Navigon Mobile Navigator for the iPhone user. Great app. Good use of the iPhone interface. Works well. Eliminates one gadget from my packing. Win win win, and one more win.

I am happy. And I am especially happy to have gotten the Navigon at its introductory price of $69. Go get yours before August 15th and save yourself some cash.


Written by singraham

August 3, 2009 at 5:44 am

5 Responses

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  1. […] Mobile Navigator iPhone « Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights Source: Cloudy Days and Netbook Nights – Monday, 3rd August 2009, 10:43 GMT I suspect that performance is snappier on a 3GS (bound to […]

  2. Great review. I have some questions.

    Smaller screen size. Is the tiny iPhone screen an issue?

    Compare to modern GPS. I’d really like to see Navigon compared to a more uptodate GPS as they have come a long way in 4 years (I can loan you my Magellan which is one year old).

    Battery life. How long will it last when used away from the cars power source?

    Magnetic chip. Does it utilize the magnetic sensor in the 3GS?

    Keep up the excellent work.

    Mitch Waite

    August 3, 2009 at 9:10 am

  3. I did not find the smaller screen size to be an issue, especially in portrait mode. And yes, well, I’d like to compare it to, say, a $150 current unit…that would be interesting. Battery life should be (should be) not much different than playing songs on the iPod app, but if using it on a walk for bike ride I would want to carry a backup battery (doesn’t every iPhone user own at least 3?). Not sure about the magnetic sensor but I think it does. (For off road by the way, I use MotionX GPS.)


    August 3, 2009 at 9:24 am

  4. […] gps app for the iPhone with built in maps for all of North America. My impressions of the app are here, and have only changed for the better with the two updates they have released so […]

  5. […] kind of app. I was happy with Navigon’s Mobile Navigator for iPhone (see Navigon Update and Navigon Review). It worked. It worked well. It still works well. It is just that I read this little piece on the […]

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