Ever wasted time wandering aimlessly around a parking lot, pressing your alarm-remote button and trying to listen for the sound of your ride's horn or spy the parking lights flash? With an iPhone 3GS or 4 and Car Finder, an "augmented reality" vehicle-location app, you can spend 99 cents and save yourself some time and embarrassment.
While there are probably more car-finder apps available than any other category in automotive -- and many are free -- what makes Car Finder unique is it uses the iPhone's camera viewfinder and compass to track down a parked car. Testing the app, we found that while it would be very useful at a mega-mall or some other place that's a parking nightmare, the app's ability to accurately direct us back to our vehicle could be inconsistent.
Operating Car Finder is simple enough. Launch the app and tap the "I'm Parked Here" icon. Up pops a screen that allows you to name the spot ("Overpriced Lot in Downtown LA," for example), set a parking-meter timer and activate an alert to notify you if the meter expires before you open the app again. When you're ready to head back to you car, an arrow points the way and the app tells you how far away you are from your ride. And like a lot of other apps, the latest 2.0 version of Car Finder also provides a satellite-map view.
The app worked pretty well overall. But on one trip to a grocery store, instead of directing us to our car, the app pointed us back into the store. And we hadn't forgotten to buy milk either. But by tapping the map view it had better luck hitting the target. The app can have a margin of error of up to 100 meters, which is pretty significant, although in our testing it was typically in the 10- to 20-meter range. Another downside of the app is it needs a clear view to the sky to get a GPS signal, so it may not work in covered and underground parking garages.
Bottom line: In the time it took to mark a spot using Car Finder, we could've just as easily relied on the low-tech method of pen and paper, or just jotted down the location using the native Notes app on an iPhone. And while the app's parking-meter timer is cool and could possibly justify the cost if it means missing a parking ticket, the timer function of an iPhone's clock easily serves the same purpose.
Now, if you could only get the Car Finder app to add more time to a parking meter, we'd really be impressed.
Gretchen McFarlan, Contributor