Navigon iPhone Satellite Navigation App Review

Navigon LogoApple have made quite a big deal regarding the sheer number of iPhone applications available. A figure of 50,000 was touted at WWDC.  That’s not insignificant, and Apple can be quite proud that they’ve created an atmosphere in which App developers want to publish (despite little hiccups along the way).  However, there’s been one glaring omission, a true navigation app.  But with the release of iPhone OS 3.0, and the exposure of an api call allowing direction to be detected (as well as the release of the iPhone 3GS with a built in magnetometer), the release of one became a matter of “when”, and not “if”.  This was confirmed by TomTom announcing an iPhone app at the WWDC keynote.

With the non-appearance of the TomTom app along with iPhone OS 3.0, it is with delight that users welcomed a true satellite navigation app into the iTunes App Store.  And to sweeten the deal, it comes from a well regarded satellite navigation manufacturer, Navigon.  So how does it handle?

Navigon iPhone App in Use

The Stage

I should point out, before I go any further, that I’ve been using a 32Gb iPhone 3GS (see my review of the iPhone 3GS here) to test the app.  In the car, I’m using an iLuv car cradle, which includes an FM transmitter, Bluetooth Speaker and charger.  The app I tested was the UK and Ireland version, rather than the EU version which is also available.  I’d recommend using this with a capacious iPhone, as the app alone takes up over 250Mb.  MMy in-car setup can be seen above.

The Basics

Navigon MenuThis app does a lot of things right.  The directions are easy to see, and it very usefully stacks them if there’s a number coming up in quick succession.  It’s also very fast to start and route.  The ability to navigate to contacts in your address book is a welcome feature, and the app maintains a list of destinations you’ve used previously as well as a list of favourites.

Another great move is the ability to use the app in either portrait or landscape modes.  If you’ve got a car mount that supports it, you can swivel the iPhone around and the nav app will orientate appropriately.  It’s very handy, and certainly makes it easier to use.  You also have the option to switch between 2D and 3D views.  If you’re in 3D view, then tapping anywhere on the screen switches to 2D (top down), but if you’re in 2D view tapping on the screen doesn’t revert back to 3D, which is confusing and unexpected.  Especially if you accidentally switched to 2D and want to quickly switch back.

Navigon MapThe audible navigation instructions are clear, but not loud enough for my liking.  Even on the maximum volume and when being piped through the car’s speakers via my dock’s FM transmitter.  It also doesn’t interrupt music that’s playing through the iPhone iPod app.  A nice dimming of the, similar to what happens when a call comes in, would be most welcome.  If you’re like me, you’ll probably end up leaving music off just so you can hear the directions when travelling through areas with numerous turns.

One basic that isn’t accommodated is the ability to do a full postcode search.  It falls short of the 7 possible digits, enforcing you to enter additional details.  Sometimes, this simply isn’t possible, which means in rural areas you can end up quite a way from your intended destination because of the lack of full postcode support. To compound matters, the POI (Points of Interest) search appears to be out of date and missing many entries you would expect to be there.  In fact, the entering of your intended destination is probably the weakest aspect of this application.

Added Bonuses

As Navigon are pretty old hat in this arena, they bring some of their trademark features to the iPhone App.  The most notable are Lane Assist Pro and Reality View Pro.  They effectively do the same thing by displaying a view of the road that’s more realistic than the classic 2D or 3D view.  You can see it in action in the image at the top of this post.  In use, the two features really help.  Not only do they allow you to quickly identify which lane you need to be in (this is my biggest issue with other navigation solutions) but they make complicated junctions much easier to navigate. The fancy graphics are probably a little over the top to be honest, but it doesn’t slow the phone down so it’s not something I’m going to complain about.  i do like the display of fairly realistic street signs at motorway junctions through, again reassuring you that you’re heading the right way.

A handy feature is the ability to run through a demonstration of the route at an arbitrary pace.  The app automatically does this if you try and navigate from a point and don’t have a strong GPS signal.  When you start the demo, the app proudly announces that it will pick you up when it receives a GPS signal.  This is a fantastic idea, and would be great if it worked.  However, when I tried it (initially navigating out of a multi-storey car park where I had no GPS reception) the app never picked up a GPS signal.  If I quit the navigation (not the app, just the navigation) and started the route again, it picked up a GPS signal straight away.  You can also list all POIs along your route, which would be fantastic if the POI list was better (see below).

There are options to trigger audible speed alerts, but I couldn’t get these to work reliably in practice. However, I suspect I just need to spend some more time with it.

Room for Improvement

Navigon OptionsThere are a few areas where this app could quite easily improve. The user interface during a route can be confusing, and they drip feed information where, in reality, there’s plenty of room on the screen to display it.  In total, I’ve seen estimated arrival time, duration, speed, current road’s speed limit and all manner of other bits of information displayed on screen.  Yet I can’t seem to reliably get any of these to display, which makes me feel like I’m not in control.  It’s great that it’s there, but please let me access it and control it.

Another welcome feature would be the ability to load my own POIs, as the current list feels off the mark and out dated (a major new shopping mall that opened here almost a year ago is completely missing, for example) and I’d obviously love the ability to enter full post codes.

As I touched on earlier, the volume could do with increasing and a fade-in fade-out would be very handy.  I understand the reason for not doing this (i.e. that navigation instructions come frequently, meaning that music would be in a constant state of fading), but at least give the option (if the api allows it).  And in a perfect world, I’d love to see some proper Google Maps integration.

Summary

Considering this is the first real navigation app to hit the iPhone app store, it can;t be considered anything other than a success.  Yes, there are niggles, and at times it can be slow to update with the direction your heading in (I suspect this is an issue with the magnetometer rather than the app as it’s evident in Google Maps as well), but in general, it’s very sleak, very smooth and well implemented.

I should note that I’ve heard complaints of this app allowing the phone to go to sleep during operation.  Using a powered dock prevents this, and is highly recommended when using GPS on the iPhone to prevent contracting a terminal case of dead battery.  Some people have also complained of slow loading times, on the 3GS the app is launched within 3 seconds, although it does launch to an annoying warning screen every single time.

MobileNavigator British Isles is currently available in the App Store for £37.99, although that price increases to £59.99 on June 30th.