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G-Map US East

 
Certainly a candidate for ‘killer app’ status is G-Map US East from XROAD, billed as the first onboard GPS navigation app available for iPhone and iPod Touch.  True to that description, it’s a full-featured navigation aid that takes full advantage of the iPhone’s A-GPS (the Touch has no GPS support but more on that later).  In fact, it’s so full of features that it could almost (but alas not quite) take the place of the default Maps app.  Here’s a basic example using my trip to a friend’s house across town.

Never having used the app before I created a location called ‘home’ and saved it as a favorite.  I then created a location called ‘friend’ and did the same.  Alternately I could have just gone straight to punching in the destination and let the app locate my starting position via GPS (great for any 1-shot trips you won’t be needing again).  Note the app is not always 100% accurate in detecting your current location down to the house number  so I found it best in the long run to add as many specific addresses as possible to favorites.  Next I went to the route menu and created a new route by adding ‘home’ as the start and ‘friend’ as the destination and saved this route as ‘home to friend’ for immediate recall in the future (I could also have added as many waypoints as I desired).  After that I selected Route which calculated the route then asked me to choose shortest or fastest path with appropriate guesstimates for each.  I selected fastest then hit Start which brought me to the map screen and I was ready to hit the road.  Once en route the app tracked progress dynamically and provided an audible (beep) and graphical (onscreen arrow) prompt when a turn was impending.  Unfortunately voice prompts aren’t available due to strict SDK restriction by Apple.  Also from the map screen I was able to zoom in/out,  switch between north/south, east/west and 3D perspective views, see a running estimate of the ETA in both distance and time and my estimated velocity.  The road I was currently on displayed in a large banner across the bottom and the next road to turn on across the top.  As I approached my destination an animated checkered flag was there to greet me; a nice touch.  For the return trip all I had to do is select the reverse route option and load up the route I had created earlier.  That’s the quick and dirty and certainly the most common use of this app for most folks.  However it offers much, much more than the basic navigation above.  In fact there’s far too much to even cover in this space so be sure to check their website which has a whole host of videos, animations and documentation.
  
First thing of note is the size of this app, close to a gig just for east (west, s0ld separately, is about the same).  This is because all map data is downloaded right to the phone; no data connection needed and subsequently the app runs very fast.  Also, there are no subscription fees so the 1-shot cost of the app is basically all you ever need to pay.  The app offers a highly customizable POI (points of interest) feature where you can edit and even add your own and do things like show gas stations, banks and parks (to name just a few) along the way.   Currently, for 28 major metro areas there’s a very cool 3D-rendered display for complex interstate junctions though I wasn’t able to see this in action in my local runabouts (the list of all covered areas is on their website).  Just like the default maps app you can type in keywords such as pizza or bank but the maps app is still king in that dept as terms like ‘haircut’ and ‘hardware’ returned the expected hits there but none in G-Map.  A nice feature that definitely does work well is the ability to quickly find the nearest emergency facility whether it be a hospital, police station or even ATM (among others).
 
As noted prior, the iPod Touch has no GPS chip so dynamic routing isn’t possible.  However, the app can still be useful due to the route preview function which steps through your route (at adjustable speed) using the local map data.
 
New in 1.3 is a driving game that takes the turns along your route and makes them achievements of a sort.  Basically a progress bar tied to the next turn measures progress toward a mystery icon and when you make a successful turn the icon is revealed (piece of fruit, jack-in-the-box and such).  Nothing fancy but it could be fun for some and give incentive to stay on course.  If you do veer off course by the way, the app will automatically recalculate the route which is nice.
 
Interestingly, the price went up $5 from v1.2 and there’s some argument out there about the change to turn notification being for the worse.  Basically the onscreen arrow had its own preview window in the upper right but this appears to have been removed to allow for the game.  Would be great to see an update allowing the game to be disabled and the original turn notification restored if the user so chooses.  Finally, versions for Europe and Canada are planned for a 2009 release so that’s great news.
 
Couple gripes and notables:
  • The shortest/fastest route is not always the best (especially if you already know the area) though this is a minor gripe only as typically you wouldn’t be using G-map in familiar areas
  • How long will the map data be viable before going stale?  I’m not sure but am assuming periodic map data updates are planned.
So is this app worth it?  The map data alone is a bargain at $25 and after you add in all the thoughtful features XROAD included, I believe it is indeed a fair price.  The already-noted restriction on voice prompting is of course a huge one and clearly Apple has their reasons for this (remains to be seen what Maps for OS 3.0 will be capable of) but the developer has stated that if and when Apples lifts that embargo they will immediately add it in for free.  For now though, this app does what it advertises very well and if you can find a convenient way to mount it in the car (again XROAD has you covered on their website), it’s a bonafide GPS navigation tool, right there on your phone.
 
Version reviewed – 1.3
Reviewed on – iPhone 3G 8GB 2.2.1
 

 









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