Navigon MobileNavigator (GPS) for iPhone

Over the weekend, we had the chance to test Navigon's MobileNavigator GPS program with North American maps for the iPhone 3G and 3GS on a 16GB iPhone 3GS. The application is currently available for an introductory price of $69.99 until August 15th, at which point it will return to its normal price of $99.99 (direct link to the iTunes App store). MobileNavigator offers turn by turn GPS directions alongside a full set of North American maps, so that if you do lose connectivity to GPS temporarily, the application can still continue directions for you. Over the course of our testing, we found MobileNavigator to be a mostly dependable GPS mapping solution for the iPhone 3G or 3GS, albeit one that takes up a hefty 1.29GBs of space on your iPhone and comes with a few problematic rough spots with the voice directions feature as well as a few caveats shared by all iPhone-based GPS systems.


Figures 1, 2, & 3: Starting up Navigon MobileNavigator on the iPhone

GPS software vs dedicated GPS device

Navigon MobileNavigator can work in either portrait or landscape mode and will automatically adjust between the two depending upon how your iPhone is being held. One of the great things about this software is that for a one time purchase price, MobileNavigator provides you with a full turn-by-turn GPS system that will read the directions out loud to you as you drive without the need to buy a fully separate navigational device. 

This strength is also the one major weakness of the software in terms of design. The GPS functionality in the iPhone will suck down the iPhone's battery life as quickly as any heavy activity on the iPhone, so to fully enjoy using Navigon MobileNavigator, you are going to need a car charger for your iPhone. You're also going to want some sort of mount to hold your iPhone in place, as the iPhone's form factor isn't designed to be easily propped up on your dashboard where you can glance at it easily while driving. In all our tests, we had someone riding with us holding the iPhone and serving as our human set of eyes alongside MobileNavigator.

Our point is that to use MobileNavigator, or any iPhone-based GPS software, to its fullest, you are going to need to invest extra money beyond the cost of the software towards a car charger and some sort of iPhone car mount.


Figures 4, 5, & 6: Map with no GPS, no GPS warning, and first screen

GPS signal needed to get started

Unlike the Maps application that comes installed on your iPhone, Navigon MobileNavigator really needs an active GPS connection in order to get started with helping you find your destination. The default screen (Figure 6 above) offers you 4 choices at start up: Enter an Address, Search for POI (Point of Interest), Take Me Home, and Show Map. You can select "Take Me Home," enter a specific address, or search for a point of interest in a particular town or area, but without an active GPS connection, MobileNavigator will only show you a simulation of how to get there until a GPS signal is picked up, and this simulation only shows the last few turns toward arriving to the destination from what appears to be an arbitrarily picked starting point. If you choose Show Map without a GPS signal, you will receive a full picture of North America with a red GPS bar across the top (see Figure 4 above) and selecting Options takes you to the Options menu (Figure 5) which again warns you that you have no GPS signal. 

However, if you choose any option besides "Show Map," and then choose the Simulation mode, and start driving, as soon as a GPS signal is picked up MobileNavigator quickly provides you with a route to the pre-selected destination. This also works in your favor if you are driving along with a GPS signal and you then lose it. MobileNavigator does a good job of tracking your route and last location to keep giving you useful directions until you regain a GPS signal.


Figure 7: Searching for destination in categories.

Entering in destinations

Whether you are entering in a destination address or selecting a particular point of interest, MobileNavigator approaches the entry of the information in a way that is different than the approach you may be used to from the Maps program on your iPhone, but which is typical for GPS devices: categorical searches beginning with broadly to narrow in on the desired end results.

When entering in a particular destination address, you begin by first choosing a state / territory, then selecting a city, then entering a street name, and finally entering an address number on that street or an intersection. If you've already entered in your home address, then the MobileNavigator remembers your state and you begin by searching for the city.

When searching for a particular place of interest, you begin by choosing either a location-based search—"In a City," "Statewide," or "Nearby"—or by choosing a category-based search via the three icons for searching for gas, parking, or food. If you choose location, then you first choose the location and then pick a category followed by a subcategory. If you choose, category, you are presented with nearby destinations that fit within that category. 

You can also save any destinations that you enter or find to your favorites. Also, if your iPhone contacts have addresses associated with them, you can simply select your contact from the contacts section to find a route to that contact's address (notice Favorites, Recents, and Contacts along the bottom of the screen in Figure 6 above).

Figure 8: 3-D map view with expected time of arrival at top middle, lane indicator on right, and speed limit indicator at top right

En route

The default view presented by MobileNavigator is a 3-D view as can be seen in Figure 8 above. MobileNavigator does a really good job of presenting a lot of visual information in this view. At the top middle of the view, just under the actual time as it is displayed on your iPhone, you will find an estimated time of arrival. In the bottom left, there is an icon indicating your current movement and the distance to the next change in direction. On the bottom right, there is a lane indicator that tells you which lanes you should be in and at the top right there is an indication of the speed limit.

As can be seen in Figure 9 below, as you near an exit, the actual exit sign is displayed across the top of the screen and the movement indicator in the bottom left of the screen notes that you will be exiting right in 1.2 miles and the lane indicator shows you that you should be in the right lane. The speed limit indicator also notes if you are going over the speed limit by adding an explanation point. 

All of these bits of data are accompanied by a loud, easy to understand voice notification: "In approximately 1.2 miles, exit right." If you are speeding and the speed limit indicator warning comes on, you are also greeted by a voice saying "Caution." At first, we didn't know why it was saying "Caution" all the time, but once we discovered that it was because we were speeding so much, we quickly found that we could turn off the audible notifications of speed limits via the Options menu.

Figure 9: As exit nears, the sign info is displayed at top; also, notice the speed limit warning in top right

When you actually arrive at an upcoming exit on a highway or interstate with actual signs, the view on MobileNavigator changes to the exit sign view that is depicted in Figure 10 below. The voice also clearly tells you: "Now, exit to the right."

Figure 10: As you arrive at an exit, the view changes to exit sign.

Unfortunately, when you are coming up closely on an exit is also when we noticed the voice navigation tends to misfire a bit. Once when we were approaching an exit on the right, the voice suddenly came on and proclaimed "Move into the left lane." The lane indicator itself and the map on the screen did not indicate this change in direction, so it was good that we had another set of eyes with us to confirm that we should ignore the instructions. This happened to us on about three different occasions when approaching exits or turns. For some odd reason, MobileNavigator vocally instructed us to move into the lane farthest from the direction in which we were supposed to be turning.

Another glitch that we experienced was when approaching the pay tolls for bridges in the NYC area. While approaching the pay toll for the Throg's Neck Bridge and immediately after passing through it, the voice instructions repeated several times "Prepare to turn left" and "Now turn left," both of which options were impossible and would have ended up in us crashing into the median dividers. Again, although the voice was telling us to make these unsafe turns, the actual MobileNavigator screen indicated no such turn.

Figure 11: Overhead 2-D view with Night Vision mode enabled

In addition to the 3-D view that is the default, you can also customize your view by choosing an overhead 2-D view and you can even toggle on a "Night Vision" mode that makes everything darker, as can be seen in Figure 11 above. You can also choose to see an overview of your route, which will present a 2-D overhead map where North is the top of the map and your destination is marked by a checkered flag (as in Figure 12 below). In map view, you can also zoom in by pinching and zooming, and center a new destination and click "Set Destination" to change your route on the fly.

Figure 12: Route overview view with flag at destination.

There are several other nice touches with Navigon's MobileNavigator. If you ignore the directions provided or you deviate from the route recommended, MobileNavigator does a good job of quickly rerouting your trip to your current location.

You can continue to use the iPod portion of your iPhone to listen to music while MobileNavigator is running. The voice directions will continue to be spoken aloud alongside the music. Unfortunately, MobileNavigator does not appear to have any control over the music, so if it is a particularly loud and cacophonous rock song, sometimes the voice directions can be drowned out. Ideally, we'd like the music to decrease slightly just before the voice directions are announced in the same way that music decreases in volume and pauses when accessing the Voice Control features in the iPhone 3GS. Fortunately, according to MobileNavigator's listing in the App Store, optimized volume control to address just this problem is on the way in an upcoming free update to the software.

Voice Control on the iPhone 3GS is also available while using MobileNavigator and it's the way that we controlled the music that was playing while following a route. Another somewhat unwelcome feature that works while MobileNavigator is running is Push notifications. If you're following MobileNavigator normally and using your iPhone as a GPS unit, Push notifications interrupt this usage by demanding your attention. If you try to ignore the Push notification, it takes the primary spot on the screen and as a result, the iPhone's screen goes to sleep with MobileNavigator still running, so you are effectively at that point running it blind and unable to get it back up and running without either driving dangerously for a little bit, relying on a human navigator riding in the passenger seat to intervene, or pulling over on the side of the road to set everything back to normal. However, this is most likely a problem faced by all GPS solutions for the iPhone and something that could perhaps be avoided by remembering to disable notifications before launching MobileNavigator.

Overall Recommendation

If you're looking for a good turn by turn GPS navigation system for the iPhone 3G or 3GS, then Navigon's offering with MobileNavigator, especially at its introductory price of $69.99, would appear to be one of the more powerful and affordable options out there. The large database of maps on the device make the app weigh in at a hefty 1.29GBs, but this also means that if you lose GPS signal while traveling, the application manages to keep up with where you are based on your last known location until you return to an area with a clear GPS signal. It also offers a large database of gas stations, restaurants, parking garages, and other points of interest alongside the ability to quickly find a route to those places that can prove valuable while on the road.

However, keeping in mind the adjustments that you'll have to make to use the software on your iPhone (purchasing a separate car power adapter for your iPhone and some sort of iPhone car mount) and the other services on your iPhone that aren't really designed to work alongside a GPS unit (incoming phone calls, SMS messages, and Push notifications), it's doubtful that any iPhone GPS solution is going to be as effective as a standalone GPS device dedicated solely to navigation or an integrated navigation system built into your car. 

We would have rated this software higher than we did, if it weren't for the multiple incorrect and sometimes unsafe voice directions that came from the device. Should Navigon fix these vocal glitches with future updates to the software, we would more highly recommend it. As is, if you do purchase MobileNavigator, keep these problem areas in mind and don't risk trusting the voice commands too much.