Sunday, March 18, 2012

Google Maps Navigation review

satelliteNot 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!

Droid in car dock 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:

directionsGoogle 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.

end point chosen

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…”).

Navigation interface

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. Nav screens

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

Traffic and turn preview

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).

Menu options

menu_nav 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
  • Mute
  • Exit Navigation
  • More – This gives you four options: Directions list, Choose destination, Help, Terms, privacy & notices

Interface weaknesses

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 of the worst quality text-to-speech I’ve ever heard

searchSearch 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.

Navigation performance

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.

terrainNav, 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

  • Free
  • 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

  • Beta
  • 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

Google Maps Navigation resources

About Rich Owings

Rich is the owner, editor and chief bottle-washer for GPS Tracklog. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus.


  1. Rich,

    Great review. Here’s a tip: if you want to manage the brightness of the screen add the “Power control” widget to your desktop. On the far right there is a three position brightness control which on the lowest setting works pretty well for night navigation. Not automatic but at least it won’t fry your eyes at night.


  2. Rich Owings says:

    Thanks Scott. Great tip! I just installed it. Learned how to rearrange icons on home screens in the process. LOL

  3. I think you nailed the cons perfectly, while unlike you in my area and experience i’ve been able to depend on it regularly, I too have found myself missing the eta, speed and so on. Those features are exceptionally common these days so to not have it, is something that I noticed quickly. Overall though, I absolutely love Google Nav on my Nexus.

    Thanks for your review, it was a good one.

  4. ITS FREE!!! If you want better pay $10 per mont or buy dedicated GPS!!!

    Id say if they fixed 1/2 of those issues there would NOT be a market for the dedicated GPS devices. Downloading maps per state would be great.

  5. Totally agree with the pros and cons, though I think that it works pretty well for day-to-day navigation. It’s worked really well for me finding my way to meetings and what-not in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Antonio.

    My biggest issue hands-down is the lack of night mode. I pretty much setup my route and then turn off the screen, going solely by the voice instructions. Even dimming the screen somewhat isn’t as useful as it would be if they would go to a darker background like most navigation systems do.

  6. AndroidNewb says:

    Nice review! Another tip for you, download Google’s “My Maps Editor” from the market. In the “My Maps Editor” app on your phone, you can pull up saved maps/locations that you create on your phone or pc. But within “My Maps Editor” you can open the locations with Maps and then Navigate. Not the quickest work around, but it works (seems like *should* be able to access your maps from the standard map app).

  7. “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.”

    This is one of the more powerful and least talked about things in Android. If another company comes out with a navigation app, you can set that as the default if you prefer that nav app. You got the Browser in that pop-up because it says it can handle navigation requests (which I believe would push you to

    Almost anything in the system can be switched out in this fashion. Keyboard, home screen, e-mail app are all changeable making an extremely flexible system.

    Good review of the Nav app. As for the data quality, I found Google to be fairly responsive to map change requests. Just go to and when you find a problem, click the “Report a Problem” link in the lower right corner of the map. They showed the street I live on going through, and it doesn’t. I submitted a request and about a month later it was fixed. And, that meant it was fixed on my Droid at the same time. Live maps are nice!


    • Rich Owings says:

      Excellent point. I am SO hoping more nav apps will come out, and that all these guys won’t be scared off by GMN being free.

  8. You *can* access your maps from the standard map app – press menu, layers, more layers, My Maps. The My Maps Editor is only needed for editing your maps from the phone.

  9. Awesome review, highly detailed, and I think you nailed all the points.

    Live maps do have their advantages, but I prefer to cache maps locally. I guess no one who works for Google ever has to leave cell phone reception.

    OruxMaps is worth a mention. It needs work too, but it’s great for small locally cached maps.

    I did, however, give away my Magellan unit after getting an Android phone.

  10. “Given Google’s history, I fear that GMN will stay crippled with weaknesses as they settle for ‘good enough.'”

    Could you give some examples that lead you to this conclusion?

    My personal impression of Google is rather that they usually takes on a concept and tries to perfect it, often via some innovative solutions. With that said, there’s almost always room for improvement, of course.

  11. Rich Owings says:

    Well, it’s a very subjective comment and it’s hard for me to pinpoint anything specific. One example would be Google Reader. It’s the best feed reader out there, so they pretty much stopped development on it. And many good features are hidden and very unintuitive.

    Another example would be support. Go to any Google App forum and you’ll find that 1/3 or more questions go unanswered, and many of the ones that are answered come from the community.

  12. While I’m pretty much with the author of review on the subject of “not ready for prime time” I would like to point out few things:

    1. It’s in beta, states so right when you start the app. And, as with any electronic device, one has to use common sense: you can just blame GPS for taking you the wrong way on one-way stree, look at the signs.
    2. Value per dollar paid: you absolutely not loosing anything with free navigation.
    3. Beauty is in the eyes of beholder: I actually prefer Google’s navigation to my wife’s TomTom.

    Now, regarding the cons:

    No nighttime view, which makes the app glaring and unsafe to use at night : Most phones will come with ambient light sensor in the near feature so this will not be a problem. As of right now, 1.6 hardware has “Powertop” widget which let’s choose between 3 settings (10%, 50% 100% brighness). Yes, it takes couple of clicks but so will stand-alone GPS unit.

    No options to save favorite destinations or view recent destinations: Not right of the bet but there’s an app in the market called “Nav Launcher” which does all of those things and then some. Not as elegant as CarHome but does the job and does it flawlessly.

    Loses satellite lock easier than a PND: this sounds more like hardware problem then app itself, doesn’t it?

    Everything else is right on the money.

    Thank you for the thorough review.

  13. Rich Owings says:

    Sheesh! Yes, the satellite lock issue is hardware. Doh!

    Thanks for the tip on Nav Launcher. Just downloaded.

  14. DCLawyer says:

    Thanks for the review – I’m getting an HTC Incredible (hasn’t arrived yet) and would very much like to use it for GPS purposes. I’m not surprised the “free / comes installed” version isn’t up to par. Is there an app (even one that isn’t free) that will make my new droid phone a truly functional GPS???

    • GMN is getting better, but its no nuvi. Navigon says they are going to port their app to Android, but I haven’t heard anything lately. CoPilot Live is available, but it doesn’t have a great reputation.

  15. Dave Parmelee says:

    Great review and comments!
    Tip and “pro in stead of Con” to being unable to save favorites and destinations:

    Just STAR the location in google maps. On the device in GMN, just slide over to the stars tab. This works awesome as you can simply star a search the night or even month before from any device which almost instantly syncs to your mobile (if you didn’t do it there in the first place).

    • Yes, and I use it all the time. It is a great feature One of the problems of having a site with 1800 posts going back 7 years is that I can’t go back and update many!

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