Edmunds Tech Test: Verizon Droid With Google Maps Navigation (Beta) App

Google's Free Smartphone Navigation App Gets It Right


Just days before our test of seven iPhone navigation applications ("nav apps") went live on Edmunds.com, Verizon released a new smartphone billed as an "iPhone killer," the Droid. So named because it runs on Google's Android 2.0 operating system, the Droid's significance to drivers is because it's the first phone to include the Google Maps Navigation (Beta) app. And in keeping with Google's marketing M.O. — and in contrast to other smartphone nav apps — it's free.

Design
The Google nav app is now available for any phone with the Android 1.6 OS and higher, but the app on the Verizon Droid (which costs $199 with a two-year contract) has the full complement of features. And while the app is free, a dedicated car cradle that automatically switches the screen to nav mode is $30. That's still much less expensive than the dedicated car docks from TomTom and Magellan that each retail for well over $100, although they have features such as an amplified speaker for voice commands and onboard charging that the Droid dock doesn't.

Installation
The Droid comes with the Google Navigation app already installed, but you can download it for free from the Android Marketplace for use with any Android phone with a 1.6 OS and higher. We spent several weeks testing the full version on the Droid in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, comparing it to the iPhone apps we evaluated. While the app has its shortfalls and quirks, we came away thoroughly impressed.

On the Road
Like the iPhone nav apps we tested, Google Maps for mobile can't quite compete with dedicated in-dash systems due to the Droid's small screen and controls, but the Google nav app brings to the road innovative features that make it a great companion in the car.

One of the most useful of these is Search by Voice. This isn't groundbreaking, since many navigation systems from automakers, the aftermarket and even some phones use voice activation to find destinations. The difference is that the feature on the Google nav app works almost every time and doesn't require a rigid set of commands; instead it understands what Google calls "plain English."

When leaving the Los Angeles auto show in downtown L.A. and heading to a Jaguar event in Hollywood, for example, all I had to say was "Navigate to Milk Studios in Los Angeles." Within a few seconds the app found the location and asked if I wanted to navigate to it. No punching in a city, street name or number; just hit the voice-search icon, speak the name of a location and let the app find it. I tried this in many different situations and it worked with all but the most difficult names.

(Click here for a Google video on how Search by Voice works and here for one we created while testing the app.)

Another advantage is that the app uses Google's satellite view. Again, nothing new here since the Gokivo app for the iPhone also has a satellite-view option. The big difference is that the Google nav app adds the company's exclusive Street View feature.

All nav systems give you visual cues while en route for turns and other maneuvers, but you still have to search for street signs along the way in an unfamiliar area or find a house or building number once you reach a destination. Google Street View gives you realistic snapshots of maneuvers along the route and shows exactly what to look for when you reach your destination.

Like other nav systems and apps, the Google app allows you to search for and overlay points of interest (POIs) such as gas stations, restaurants, ATMs and banks on a map, and within the Layers menu it offers a traffic-view mode, Google's Latitude friend finder and other "layers." It also allows public transportation routes to be overlaid on the map, and the app offers the choice between navigating by car, public transportation or while walking.

There's even the ability to overlay Wikipedia entries on the map in the satellite view, which can be tapped to get info on an area or POI from the online encyclopedia. It also allows you to sync contacts from a Gmail account to navigate to them from the app's home screen. And while the screen is small, the user interface is intuitive, and haptic feedback, which provides a pulse when you hit an onscreen icon, is helpful in confirming commands.

But like all navigation systems — and smartphone nav apps in particular — the Droid's Google navigation app has definite downsides. Map data for the app resides on Google's network ("in the cloud") instead of on the phone. While this means that mapping and POI data is constantly updated, it's also subject to the whims of the cellular network that delivers it. So if you're in an area without coverage or where the cell signal is weak, you lose guidance and the ability to route to a destination or get other info.

While Google's Satellite View is one of the best nav maps available, the graphic guidance screen is generic. And the app's real-time traffic info — which uses an icon in the lower left corner that turns green, yellow or red to indicate traffic flow along a route and similar color-coded lines on the map — is rudimentary compared to nav systems that show specific icons and text alerts to tell you what's slowing the traffic ahead.

While not in Street View mode, the Google navigation app doesn't have detailed lane guidance like some other apps, portables and in-dash systems. It also lacks such basic nav features as the ability to choose a route based on the shortest or fastest method or avoiding highway and toll roads, and it only shows time to a destination and not estimated arrival time. As with most smartphone apps, the onscreen icons to pan in and out are too small. Plus, the text-to-speech voice guidance uses a very robotic voice that's hard to understand in a moving car.

But the most annoying aspect of using the Google app on the Verizon Droid was that the map would often not follow us while en route or would suddenly shift so our position was no longer visible. This required panning out to find our position, using a finger to scroll our location to the center of the screen and then panning in again. This happened repeatedly during testing.

Why You Want It
Even with these disadvantages, the Google Maps Navigation (Beta) app is still one of the best smartphone apps we've tested. It's relatively easy to use even for technophobes like my sister-in-law, who borrowed it while running errands around Portland and — even though she also has a portable nav system — came home ready to buy a Verizon Droid based on the nav app alone. And it has features like Search by Voice and Street View that you miss when using other systems and apps. And did we mention that it's free?

Others To Consider: CoPilot Live, Navigon Mobile Navigator

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this product for the purposes of evaluation.

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