When Google released its free turn-by-turn navigation service on the Droid, companies that manufacture stand-alone GPS units saw their shares plummet. While Wall Street’s anxiety might have been at least partially warranted, after testing Navigon’s navigation app for Apple’s iPhone, I’m not entirely sure Google maps will kill the navigation industry.
Navigon was nice enough to outfit me with their North American Mobile Navigator App for the iPhone. It’s a 1.5GB GPS system that resides entirely on the phone. While the $79.99 price tag might be off-putting to some, it’s a competitive option for any iPhone user seriously considering a GPS unit. If you think you’ll be using the app mainly in your local area, you can buy regional versions of the app for $29.99 that cover limited sections of North America. There are also versions available for different parts of Europe.
The UI of the app is almost identical to other standard-issue navigation units on the market. Users can enter an address, search for a point of interest, save favorite destinations and locate restaurants, businesses and lodging. Navigon’s rather natural voice guidance even alerts you with a “caution” when you’re exceeding the posted speed limit.
The obvious benefit of a system like this is it doesn’t need a cellular connection to work. Google’s solution only works when you have a connection, and let’s be honest, most of the times when you really need navigation is when we’re out in the middle of nowhere where cell reception is the worst. Navigon’s solution works regardless of a connection. I went almost 200 miles north of Madison, Wis., this past weekend and was led directly to my destination—a small farm buried in a valley where cell reception was non-existent.
Navigon’s in-app purchases are nice enhancements to the basic app. Traffic Live ($24.95) and Panorama View 3D ($9.95) are great additions to what is already an impressive system. Panorama View 3D offers users complete 3D rendering of the landscape, which makes it easier to understand the route ahead. Traffic Live offers real-time traffic updates and figures this information into route planning.
The one drawback of a navigation unit on the iPhone is you can’t listen to streaming radio like Pandora or Slacker while you’re driving. However, that problem should be remedied with the rollout of iPhone OS 4.0, which will allow third-party app multitasking. For now, users can still run music through the iPod portion of their iPhone while using Navigon.
I was recently browsing the navigation units at a retail store and found prices that range anywhere from $90 to $200 for a stand-alone unit. Granted, not everyone has a smartphone and those who do pay plenty for the privilege, regardless of whether they use it as a navigation unit or not.
Still, the benefits of using a third-party app like Navigon far outweigh the monetary costs, as well as the 1.5 GB of precious storage. I’ve tried stand-alone units, as well as Google’s turn-by-turn, and this is as good as the technology gets. The only other option you have is paying for a navigation subscription through your carrier, which on average runs about $10 a month.
After talking to Bernd Hahn, Navigon’s head of product management, I’m convinced that those companies with navigation expertise can meld what they know with the smartphone’s capabilities in ways we haven’t yet imagined. Even as one of the most expensive applications at the App Store, Navigon’s solution is competitively priced when considering comparable alternatives.