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AT&T Navigator

 

AT&T Navigator is one of the first apps to fill a HUGE gap in the iPhone’s app catalog: Turn by Turn GPS navigation. This app, which is “powered by Telenav“, is one of the first apps that I know of that does not bill directly through the iTunes App Store. Instead, the monthly charge of $9.99 will appear on your AT&T bill.

Voice guided turn by turn directions are finally here!  No more hitting the “next” arrow on the Maps app while you rear-end the car in front of you.  So what is the deal with this app?  Does it deliver?  What is the experience like?  Are the directions solid?  What about the business listing database?  Real-time traffic?  How can you use this as a GPS device without multitasking (background running apps)?   Read on for the full review.

AT&T Navigator is currently available on most of the current handsets in the AT&T lineup.  Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless also have similar navigation services available for about the same price ($9.99 / mo) as well on selected handsets; Some of them also use Telenav as the backbone.    

Entering in the destination:

First, you need to tell the app where you are going.  There are a number of ways to do this.  The most common way will be to either manually type in or use the “call in” feature to load the address.  This app does not currently work with the contacts that are stored in the iPhone, which is a HUGE miss on my opinion.  It should give the option of scrolling through the contacts and select a destination address that way.   AT&T Navigator for BlackBerry for instance, will interface directly with the address book on the device.    The good news here is that the iPhone 3.0 software update allows for cut, copy, and paste, so you could paste the address into the field on the app.  You can also speak the address using a call in feature.  This comes in handy when it is not safe to type on the phone.  The voice recognition worked extremely well for me, it saves the address spoken into the “Recent Places”.  Since it exists the app to make a call for the voice recognition, I thought I would need to re-launch the app manually,  but to my surprise the app re-launched on it’s own and loaded the address that I just spoke as the destination.  “My Favorites” allows you to save frequently used addresses (like home or work) so you can access them quickly and easily.  “Recent Places” keeps an ongoing list of the last destinations for easy access, and you can also enter an address from a web browser at www.navpreplan.com and it will show up directly in the app.   You can also do a business listing search from the app and start your route that way, which is very convenient.  Also, the business listings are updated and current since the app accesses the internet to pull the listings in real time.   Point of intrest (POI)  and business listings can be a huge issue with standalone  GPS devices apps that don’t have an internet connection, since these databases can become outdated quickly.  Since frequent travellers often are going to and from airports, “Airport” is also an option from the first level of the “drive to” screen and works well.   While all the destinatination options are nice,  I still can’t ignore the glaring omission of not being able to access an address from your iPhone contacts. 

Voice Guidance and Routing:

Like G-Map (UPDATE: G-Map’s Western USA voice guided update launched July 2nd, 2009 at $34.99 – one time fee), AT&T Navigator supports true voice guided turn by turn Navigation.   Once the route loads (which happens surprisingly quick compared to other versions of AT&T Navigator) The route starts guiding right away.  The maps look great on the iPhone’s large display, and it is easy to see the street names.    The voice guidance worked and gave plenty of notice before the next turn.  I noticed that the volume of the voice can become a little distorted at the higher settings, but in general it was fine once I dialed it in.  I really liked using this app with my Stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) hands free kit, as the voice guidance sounded much better through my car kit.  You can also play iPod tracks and have the app running at the same time.  It will pause the music or podcast briefly when the app “speaks” to you.  One annoyance is that the volume of the app’s voice was not matched up with the volume of my iPod music, so I had to keep the volume a little lower so the voice guidance wouldn’t be too loud when listening to the iPod at the same time.    The directions were accurate and well done.  The main routing screen gives all the essential information. Next turn is displayed in the upper left, while total distance and ETA is displayed in the upper right.  I found the ETA to be pretty accurate, unless some unexpected traffic slowed me down.  Speaking of traffic, AT&T Navigator supports real-time traffic alerts and offers to avoid if possible.   This is a very nice touch and can come in very handy.  Every few minutes the voice will say “checking route for traffic” and it re-scans the route for possible delays.    If you miss a turn, the re-routing happens quickly. 

Maps:

After seeing the Tom Tom demo at Apple’s recent developer conference, I really liked the way maps and navigation looked in landscape on the iPhone.  AT&T Nav only supports portrait view, so that is a bummer.   As far as the maps themselves, they are downloaded through the cellular data network in real time and not stored on the device,  which has some specific advantages and disadvantages.  For starters, you don’t need to worry about updating the maps like a standalone GPS unit or an app with locally stored maps.    For those who are approaching the memory limits of your iPhone, locally stored maps can also take up HUGE chunks of memory.  G-Map, for instance will take up over 2GB of memory on the device for the entire USA (both East and West apps).  One drawback of loading the maps in real-time is when you are out of AT&T’s coverage area.  With no data connection, a route can’t be loaded.   Once the map is loaded, it can still provide turn by turn directions using GPS if you happen to drive out of coverage AFTER the route is loaded,  but the map will disappear and large arrows indicating next turn will pop up instead.  Once a data connection is restored, the map will re-appear.  I drove into a known AT&T dead-zone in the area (a 4 mile stretch of road with little or zero coverage), but the map didn’t disappear in this instance.  It seems as if this app has a pretty large buffer to store the next few miles of mapping data in case of lost coverage.  On the BlackBerry Bold using the same app, the map would disappear right away when leaving coverage, but not on the iPhone.  Another nice touch is the way the map will show business listings.  They will appear on the map in a similar way that they show up on the default iPhone “Maps” app.

Point of Interest and Business Listings

This is one area where the app really shines.  Food by category is extremely helpful when in an unfamiliar location.    It can find Gas by price, WiFi Hotspots, Bars, Post Offices, all sorted by distance from current location. You can type in a business name directly like the default “Maps” app, but the detailed categories allow the user to discover new places in an easier way.  There is a user ratings system for restaurants, but I didn’t find that particularly helpful since there weren’t a lot of reviews in the database. 

Multi-tasking

So the BIG elephant in the room for me is this:  What happens when you need to make a call?  What if you want to respond to a text message?   What if you need to send a quick “tweet” or update your Facebook status while you are in the middle of a route?  This is a fundamental Apple iPhone OS issue, but it needs to be in the conversation when looking at an app like this.   When an INCOMING call comes in during  a route on AT&T Nav, the app and route will automatically resume when the call is ended.  If the user hits the home button to go to another app during the route, they will need to relaunch the app manually if they need to resume their route.  When re-launching the app, it will first offer to resume any route that wasn’t completed before the app was existed last.   If you need to make a call, one should definitely take into account mileage until next turn so nothing is missed.  It is easy to resume the route by simply launching the app, but frequent users of this app will want to put it on the 1st home screen for easy access to resume the route.   For someone who need to be on frequent calls or accessing data from other apps while on a route, a standalone GPS solution would be much better for them. 

Performance

The app launches relatively quickly and locks onto a GPS signal surprisingly fast when compared to other mobile phone navigation apps.  A window mount and car charger are essential accessories when using the iPhone as a turn by turn GPS solution, and they definitely will make the experience better.   Battery life takes a HUGE hit as expected. 

 Price

For someone who travels frequently in unfamiliar areas, the $9.99 monthly price is a no brain er.  The always updated maps, the real-time traffic, and up to date business listngs are all part of the value of this app. The car rental companies charge almost that much on a DAILY basis to use their standalone unit.    $120 per year is a tough pill to swallow for someone who using this app only a few times per month.   It is important to note that deleting this app will not cancel the $9.99 feature with AT&T.  You must call AT&T or use online customer service to cancel the billing.  The fact that is a monthly feature is nice for someone who is travelling for a couple months.  They could add the feature and remove it at any time, which you can’t do with the standalone GPS units with the large one time hardware costs.  It will be interesting to see how Tom Tom prices their upcoming iPhone app.  Will they offer unlimited  map updates (if they are locally on the device)?  Will they offer real-time traffic alerts and re-routing?    Tom Tom is known for an ultra slick user interface, and from the developer preview at WWDC it looks like the UI will surpass AT&T Navigator.  The ultimate question: Will users pay the premium? 

AT&T Navigator does a very good job with the core functionality of voice guided turn by turn navigation.    I would love to see the iPhone’s contact’s addresses be selectable from within the app, independent volume control of the voice guidance, and  landscape view.  AT&T should also offer an accessory kit with a window mount and car charger in their retail stores.  This is by far the best turn by turn navigation experience available on the iPhone today, but we all know Tom Tom is coming soon.  iPhone users are used to apps costing FREE to  $.99 to $4.99 on average, so this pricing model may be a lot for them to swallow.  The month by month nature of the pricing, however,  makes this app easy to try at any time.   I would give this app a 7.5 out of 10.   Check out the gallery for some screens

Reviewed with:

iPhone 3G 8GB  / OS 3.0












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