Not the nav app you’re looking for
Google Maps Navigation (referred to hereafter as GMN) is a free navigation app for Android version 1.6+ phones in the U.S. I bought the Motorola Droid recently (which I absolutely love BTW), so I thought I’d share my experiences with this much discussed free navigation app.
One important thing to be aware of — this is a beta application. Google has been known to keep their products in beta for a long time, but this one is pretty new and the beta label definitely applies.
The first part of my review is basically a tutorial, walking you through the interface, and offering useful tips. For my overall take, head on down to the conclusion.
Car home and dock
I sprung for the car dock (which I use attached to a universal friction mount, rather than the windshield, as seen below). When docked, the unit automatically displays a simplified Car Home screen, with options for Voice Search, Navigation, View Maps, Contacts, Search and Home. The latter takes you out of Car Home and returns you to your regular Home screen. The mount allows you to swivel the unit to either portrait or landscape orientation, a feature I really love that isn’t available on personal navigation devices (PNDs). I find that I tend to leave it in portrait orientation. Okay, now that we have it mounted, lets navigate!
Selecting a destination
There are multiple ways to go about selecting a destination; there is no consolidated “Where to?” option on the phone. Listed below are some of the ways you can do it, along with comments on how well they work:
Google search (voice) – Found on both the Home screen and Car Home on my Droid. The voice search is great. It doesn’t always work, but it gets the query right most of the time. If you don’t like the result, hit Cancel and you’ll get a list of alternative results (“Did you mean?”).
Otherwise, get results, tap the address and you’ll be presented with a screen asking if you want to complete the action using your Browser (WTF?) or Maps. Check the box to make this the default and choose Maps. You’re then presented with an options screen, seen at left, that will allow you to choose auto, pedestrian or mass transit options. Click Go and you’re off. When it works, it’s one of the easiest ways to enter a destination. Here’s a tip though. Be sure to preface your voice search with “Navigate to.” Otherwise you’re likely to end up with Web results.
You may find it helpful to fine tune your query. When I searched for a local grocery chain (“Navigate to Ingles”), I got the town of Ingles, VA. Once I changed my query to “navigate to Ingles, Asheville, NC,” it nailed it.
Contacts – Open the Contacts app, select a contact, select View Address, tap the bubble on the map, and tap Navigate (five steps). You will then get the screen shown at right, which gives you an opportunity to preview the directions in a turn-by-turn list or on the map.
Typing an address – From Car Home, tap Navigation (faster). Or open the Google Maps application, hit the Menu button and select Directions (slower). Now tap the End Point field and start typing. A pain in the butt on a small keypad.
Shortcuts – Unfortunately you can’t set a contact as a favorite, so this is the best alternative, though since it takes up home screen space you may want to limit it to home and work (you could put them in a folder but then they are another tap away). Also note that you have to leave car home to take advantage of this method.
From a home screen, long press and select Shortcuts, then Directions. One word of warning. Once you do this, verify that it is routing you to the right address. I set up a shortcut for addresses for a hotel and another destination for a trip to Charlotte, only to find out that it couldn’t route me to either once on the road (I got “did you mean…”).
So now that we have our destination plugged in, we’re off and running. In the screenshot below, at left, notice the info block which appears briefly, giving you the main road you’ll be following, distance and estimated time to destination, and the location you are navigating to.
Once this goes away, you’ll see the screen on the right, above. Lets take a quick tour of it:
- At the bottom left you’ll see the time remaining, and a dot that will be green, red or yellow if traffic info is available; tap this field to go into traffic view (shown at left below)
- The lower right field shows the road you are currently on
- The compass arrow at the top left of the map points north and lets you toggle between north up and track up
- The green field at the top shows your next turn; tap it and you’ll get the next turn preview screen shown below at right
On the turn preview screen, you’ll see several new options:
- The lower left arrow takes you back to real-time navigation; this option appears at the same location in other situations as well
- The zoom icons are self-explanatory
- The person icon gives you Street View for the turn
- The menu icon gives you a text / list view of turn-by-turn directions
Once you arrive at your destination, a Street View image appears (if available).
Your Android phone’s menu button brings up the following options when navigating, shown at right:
- Search – Functions the same as the hardware search button, searching along route (more on this below)
- Route Info – Zooms to an overview of the entire route (with traffic info), and provides options for a turn-by-turn list and route alternatives
- Layers – Allows you to add the following layers: Traffic view, satellite, parking, gas stations, ATM & banks, and restaurants
- Exit Navigation
- More – This gives you four options: Directions list, Choose destination, Help, Terms, privacy & notices
There are a few other odds and ends on the negative side that I should mention:
- There is no nighttime view, and it’s just too bright to use at night; I manually switched to the darker satellite view because of this, but that eats into your data plan
- I really wish the map showed estimated time of arrival (ETA) rather than time to destination
- GMN does not display your current speed or speed limits; nice features for lead-foot types
Some ofthe worst quality text-to-speech I’ve ever heard
Search along route
As mentioned above, GMN allows you to search along your route. You can access this via the hardware search button on the Droid or via the GMN menu option. Either way brings up voice search. Nice!
At left you can see search results for McDonalds. The left and right arrows move along the route, while the menu icon provides a list view that shows addresses, but (unfortunately) does not provide distance to the selected location or distance from route.
Google dumped Tele Atlas as their data provider just before unleashing Google Maps Navigation on the world, and much has been written about the poor quality of their road data. For the record, these are the worst problems I encountered:
- Being routed the wrong way down a one way street!
- Directing me to turn left at a no left turn intersection
- The app would let me create a shortcut for an address but when I tried to use it, I discovered that it wasn’t able to route me there
- A few instances of really horrible routing
- Trying to route me down dead end roads that probably used to connect, but haven’t for many years
Other than those problems, which I grant, are major, GMN did pretty well. Recalculating of routes was quick. I did experience loss of satellite lock a couple of times, including once in a fairly open area. GPS performance definitely wasn’t comparable to PNDs, but wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be, either.
Nav, Maps and Labs
A bit of disambiguation is called for here. GMN is tightly integrated with the Google Maps Android app, but they are not synonymous. One example is the Labs feature, which is available in Google Maps, but not in GMN. Labs will give you the ability to view terrain maps, put a layers button on the map (both seen at right) and more. If you enjoy using GPS and maps, these features are worth checking out, but they aren’t part of GMN.
Also worth noting; if you aren’t navigating anywhere, but want the map showing your position, you’ll need to use the Google Maps app. From there, you can quickly switch to GMN with Menu > Directions.
Google Maps Navigation Pros
- Voice search works very well
- Strong integration with Google contacts
- Maps are clean and detailed
- POI database and maps are continually updated
- Ability to view in portrait mode
- Very clean interface
- Search along route
- Satellite imagery
Google Maps Navigation Cons
- No nighttime view, which makes the app glaring and unsafe to use at night
- No options to save favorite destinations or view recent destinations (recent searches do show up when you search though) EDIT: I highly recommend the app Nav Launcher for solving this; thanks eYe
- Does not display ETA
- Maps are not on-board, so if you lose cell reception and leave your cached route, you’re screwed
- Traffic view can only be accessed on route overview screen, and isn’t available on main navigation screen
- Exceptionally poor quality text-to-speech
- Loses satellite lock easier than a PND
- Does not display speed limits or current speed
- Can’t do vias or multi-destination routing
- Search along route would benefit from distance to destination and / or distance from route
Promising, but not ready for prime time. Google Maps Navigation provides rudimentary navigation, but I wouldn’t rely on it if I really needed to be somewhere on time, or in some other navigation-critical situation.
I love the voice search and satellite imagery. But I hate the bad data, blindingly bright maps at night, and the fact that it can’t display your ETA, favorites or recent destinations.
Google has a great start here, but it still needs a lot of work. I expect their road data to improve fairly quickly, but interface improvements may lag. Given Google’s history, I fear that GMN will stay crippled with weaknesses as they settle for “good enough.” And it is good enough to play with, but if you really want to get there, this is not the nav app you’re looking for.
More Google Maps Navigation reviews
- Joel Kleppinger has posted a review of Google Maps Navigation
- PC World looks at GMN in their Droid vs iPhone shootout
- Business Week says Google Maps Navigation takes a wrong turn
- The NY Times reviews Google Maps Navigation
- GPSInformation.org reviews GMN on the Motorola Droid
- ABC news says Google Maps Navigation is okay for occasional use
- GPS Maestro reviews Google Maps Navigation
- The Miami Herald has posted a review of Google Maps Navigation on the Motorola Droid
Google Maps Navigation resources
- The official Google Maps Navigation web page
- A Google Maps Mobile discussion group
- Google Maps Navigation help pages