Show me the way to go home: free sat-nav with Google Maps Navigation
Android fans were whooping in the streets the day that Google added a turn-by-turn navigation feature to its free mobile-mapping app. As if that wasn’t juicy enough, the program now offers additional layers of handy information, such as showing live-traffic updates on some routes and markers on the maps to indicate the location of nearby petrol stations, ATMs, and so forth. The app even boasts voice control (so you can simply speak your destination) plus the ability to switch over to Google StreetView if you’d prefer to see a photographic image of, say, a tricky junction or your destination. This, naturally enough, has proven something of a body blow for makers of paid-for Android satnav software and the mighty TomTom has notably stopped talking about releasing such an app. The question is, does Google’s wunderkind truly walk the walk? Let’s find out.
Unlike rival satnav apps - such as CoPilot or nDrive - that demand you download (and pay for) the maps you want and then store these on your handset, Google relies on the cloud to tell you are and how to reach your destination. The app therefore requires a constant internet-connection in order to function. This approach is fine and dandy if you are pootling around within metropolitan areas or even on major routes but could well prove a serious issue in more isolated areas. Remember this caveat: no internet connection, no mapping.
That said, the app works extremely slickly. Along with the regular Maps icon you will find that there is a separate Navigation app on more recent Android handsets (version 1.6 or better). Launch this and you are greeted with a screen that invites you to type or speak your destination. You can also choose between driving or pedestrian directions or even pick from a list of recent destinations.
Another option is the ability to flick between a satellite viewpoint of the route, or the regular mapping which, once you start navigation, becomes an angled 3-D view of the roads ahead. Whenever you see the person icon appear in the bottom corner of the screen, you can launch a Google Street View image. As you can imagine, it is immensely helpful to be able to see what is essentially an aerial photograph of, say, the next junction even if this is merely to ensure that you are in the location that you think you are, and with a huge blue arrow showing which direction to take next.
The impressive visuals are supported by spoken turn-by-turn navigation although, depending on the version of Android you’re using, you may need to download the free Text-to-Speech app separately.
Be warned, however, that the automated tones of Google’s navigator do not match the professional recordings found on, say, TomTom – never mind the ability to download extra voices, such as Homer Simpson or Brian Blessed. It is an integral part of the Google ethos that computers can do most jobs better than humans. This is certainly not one of them, as the robotic voice is far from fun to listen to at length. You should note, too, that GPS is one of the biggest sappers of any smartphone battery-life. So remember to switch this off when it isn’t being used or it’ll swiftly cane the phone’s ability to operate at all.
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Google Maps Navigation does have a built-in live-traffic tool, which mostly works by altering the colour of roads shown on the map overviews (red to indicate slow-going etc). This is a basic tool, but it does work and can prove a godsend. In practice, some of the app’s effectiveness is limited by the speed at which it can update the data the available to it, especially the maps themselves. If you are exploring off the beaten track, such as the back-doubles of a rural area with a dodgy 3G-signal, you will be lucky to see regular mapping. Extra features such as nearby points-of-interest or traffic may well come late, or not at all.
Also, despite its free price tag, the fact that Google Maps Navigation must download all mapping or Street View images, and typically does so over a 3G connection, will make this an expensive app to use if you have already used your monthly allowance of data-traffic. This is especially true while abroad, in which case, these costs will quickly prove exorbitant – it might even prove cheaper to buy a basic satnav. On the other hand, there is no need to worry about updating your mapping. You can simply grab your phone and go, safe in the knowledge that it will always show the latest routing.
Even taking all of these reservations into account, this is an exceptional app that would be well worth paying for. For this to be free is a modern miracle and ensures that it remains an absolute Android essential.
The Bottom Line
Truly powerful satnav, whether driving or walking, so long as your handset is online.
Requires Android 1.6 or above