Smartphone navigation shoot-out
It wasn't long ago that getting somewhere required a map on paper. You know, something you bought or that came groaning out of your tired old printer. GPS navigation units made those maps obsolete, but now they too are under threat. With smartphones invading pockets everywhere it's no surprise that their next assault would be on the dashboard, early volleys shaking up financial markets worldwide. That was just the beginning of a shock and awe campaign that will leave no automotive interior untouched -- and hopefully no driver unsure how many miles until the next Dunkin' Donuts. Google Navigation was the first to really shake things up, while Nokia's Ovi Maps is a more recent addition to the battlefield and the latest VZ Navigator, 5.0, lets Windows Mobile and BlackBerry users join the fray. We've taken this sampling of the best built-in smartphone navigation options (the set of paid add-on options for iPhone is a beast we'll be taming later), learning which you should trust to get you to where you're going and to dodge construction and traffic on the way there. Read on for a turn-by-turn exploration of each option's highs and lows.
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Smartphone navigation



The contenders Return to Top
Google Navigation
Ovi Maps
VZ Navigator 5.0
Works on Android devices in US only 12 Nokia devices today, more coming 14 WinMo and BBerry devices currently, more coming
Works offline No Yes No
Street and exit names Yes Yes Yes
Search by voice Yes No Yes (only nearby)
Traffic Yes (automatic update) Yes (automatic update) Yes (automatic update)
Works internationally Maps, no navigation Yes No
Send destinations to phone from computer Yes (destinations only) Yes (routes and destinations) Yes (routes and destinations)
POI search Search by name or category, with reviews Search or browse by name or category Search or browse by name or category
Direction types Walking, driving, public transportation Walking, driving Walking, driving, bicycle

Google Navigation

Google wasn't the first to bring turn-by-turn navigation to a smartphone by any means, but it was the first to make it really good, good enough to send TomTom and Garmin stocks reeling and to make us all start thinking things would look awfully different in the smartphone market from then on out. Google Navigation was the hallmark feature of Android 2.0 (later brought back to 1.6) and the then all-conquering Motorola Droid. Though it is the most stately of these three competitors it's hardly old and is the one to beat, getting a little better recently thanks to the addition of multitouch.

Google Nav (as it's known to its friends) brings the clean and intuitive UI of Google Maps to the smartphone, and all of its functionality. From here you can get a quick track on your location, search for nearly anything, and then get directions there. The big thing is of course the turn-by-turn navigation with speech, a feature that's sadly only available when your begin and end points are both in the US (it will give directions, but will neither navigate you into or out of the country). Likewise, you must have a network connection to begin your route and while you can route yourself into a cellular black hole (the route is cached when you begin) you won't be able to route yourself back out again.

Google Nav is by far the easiest to use here, as finding directions is as simple as saying "Directions to" and then the name or address of where you want to go. That you have to say "directions to" every time gets a bit old, but nevertheless we've yet to encounter a domestic destination we couldn't find by voice, and the app's directions are generally accurate. That said, Nav didn't necessarily do a very good job routing us around areas of high congestion, like city streets with lots of stoplights, and while it does indicate traffic problems on your route, it doesn't say the direction of those issues, meaning if you're heading into the city while everyone is in gridlock trying to get out you'll still get a warning. It's also consistently the most pessimistic of the three when it comes to time estimates, indicating that any given route would take longer.

Finally, it's worth noting that this choice is the only one that will give you directions using public transportation, so if you're the sort who rocks the commute with a transit pass but haven't mastered the schedule yet, this is probably your choice.

Ovi Maps

Nokia unleashed Ovi Maps upon the world just a month ago, and we do mean the world. This is the only entrant capable of providing turn-by-turn directions just about anywhere you can get to without reaching escape velocity, and beyond that is the only one that works entirely offline. We in fact did some testing without a SIM Card in this N97 Mini, side-loading maps through a desktop application that can pull down a city, state, or country. Most states are between 50 and 100 megs, while the entirety of North America will set you back 1.5GB (Europe is 1.6GB). Given the size of your average microSD card these days that's not an awful lot of space to sacrifice for guaranteed routing regardless of how far out in the boonies you're going.

Searching for POIs is a bit more clunky here than on Google's option; no voice search means you'll be frequently going to the keyboard, but being able to browse through categories is definitely nice if you're not sure what you're looking for. Likewise, the integrated Lonely Planet guide is a great addition for those Murphing their way through some destination or another. Overall the UI is not as intuitive or as responsive as Google's nor, it must be said, as attractive, but the information you need is generally just a few swipes or taps away.

Ovi Maps seemed to give the best routes, dodging common congestion spots that Google would often send us soldiering right into. It and VZ Navigator often traded for the most accurate time estimates, and Ovi Maps was without a doubt the quickest to re-route, reassuringly telling you how to get back on course less than a second after you've gone off of it. However, it offers the least available traffic information, forcing you to navigate into a submenu and manually update to get the latest.

Along with the on-phone software Nokia has launched maps.ovi.com, upon which you can find locations and send them to your phone. You can also define complete routes via the site and send those over too, a definite bonus for those who don't want to rely on some darned computer to find the best way to get there.

VZ Navigator 5.0

If you haven't used VZ Navigator in awhile (guilty) you might be surprised to see its inclusion here. Previous iterations have generally been simple affairs, but this latest one turns the subscription-based service into a genuine contender when compared to the free offerings. Yes, this is a service that you must pay to use, the only one here not provided as part of the platform. It is offered by Verizon Wireless to certain BlackBerry and Windows Mobile phones (14 currently, more to come) available for a $10 monthly fee -- or $3 daily if you're the noncommittal type. We tested it on a BlackBerry Storm2 and, while there is a global version of Navigator (for an extra $10/month), this 5.0 flavor is currently only available in the US.

While we're only interested in navigation here, VZ Navigator is the most socially minded offering, starting out by presenting you with local movie showtimes, gas prices, weather, and easily letting you share locations by e-mail or Facebook Status, a feature that is sure to charm your friends. Like Google Nav, VZ Navigator is entirely online based, meaning no downloading maps, though it too will cache routes so that losing a signal along the way isn't a concern -- but getting back again will be. It offers voice search too, so you can hit a button and say what you want, but whereas Google's works this one does not. We tried it multiple times from multiple locations asking for multiple things and never got a single result. lets you search for anything anywhere by voice, VZ Navigator will only search for POIs that are close to you.

If you're planning ahead you can again search and view destinations online and send them to the phone, and once you're on the go the navigation looks more or less like the others, with a simple presentation available either in an isometric view or an overhead one. The screen updates more slowly than the competition, which is a bit unfortunate aesthetically, but more troubling is the app's slow updates if you should go off-course. We intentionally made numerous wrong turns and, of the three, VZ Navigator was by far the slowest to find a new route. It would often show the car still trucking down the suggested path as if we actually had made that missed turn, only reluctantly popping back to reality a few seconds later.

That said, VZ Navigator delivered consistently the most accurate and detailed traffic warnings. We took the phones straight into rush hour and VZ Nav impressively pinpointed the beginning of gridlock to within a tenth of a mile. The other two just told us there were problems ahead on our route and gave us a rough idea of where. Social networking integration here is nice if you're a Facebook addict, but the ability to quickly e-mail yourself (or someone else) a link to a location is genuinely useful. Beyond that, the directions provided here were good, and with the maps stored remotely you always have the sensation that the app won't try to send you over a closed bridge, Dukes of Hazard style.

Wrap-up


So which is the nav for you? There's zero platform overlap here, so if you already have a smartphone in your pocket and you're happy with it that will be the one and only deciding factor. Android? Google Nav. Nokia devices? Ovi Maps. WinMo or BlackBerry on Verizon? VZ Nav. But, if you're ready to jump on a new contract, get yourself a new toy, and want the one with the best navigation which is it? Well, it depends. It's safe to say that VZ Navigator 5.0 is not the best, if only thanks to that $10 monthly charge. It does have some nice, premium features that the others lack (nearby fuel prices, movie showtimes) and the traffic accuracy is very, very good, but when the competition is free you have to do a little more.

So that leaves Google Navigation and Ovi Maps. Which is for you depends largely on where you're going. While Google's offering will get you from place to place in a pinch if you're outside of the US, it certainly won't make it easy, and if you're worried about international roaming charges it may not be a good choice. There's also the whole "no connection = no route" problem that you may encounter. Nokia's ability to work anywhere in the world and to do so without data makes it the choice for globetrotters or those who need the most reliable navigation in places with unreliable networks. The ability to save a preprogrammed route also makes it a good choice for charting great driving roads.

But, if you're staying domestic and won't need to be navigating out of any coverage gaps, it's hard to find fault in Google Nav. Its traffic and congestion avoidance is not the best, but it is by far the most intuitive to use, has the most comprehensive suite of destinations, and it presents the UI that we found easiest to parse at a glance -- important when you're driving. It isn't perfect, and we hope that side-loading maps and international navigation are features high on some Google engineer's to-do list, but when we had all three phones charged and we needed one to get us where we're going, the one packing Android was what we reached for.

Update: The text above has been updated to fix two inaccuracies. First, Ovi Maps can be set to periodically update traffic information at various intervals, five minutes being the most frequent. It's not realtime like the others, but you at least don't need to dig through a menu. Additionally, the reason we couldn't get VZ Navigator voice recognition to work was because it does not allow you to specify a location. You can only search for POIs that are near you, and only by name or category.
Google

Navigation

Pros

  • Voice searching
  • Solid directions
  • Free!

Cons

  • No offline functionality
  • No proper multi-point routing
  • Only on Android
Summary

Nokia

Ovi Maps

Pros

  • Offline functionality
  • International directions
  • Near-instantaneous routing

Cons

  • No voice searching
  • Somewhat limited POI directory
  • Not all devices
Summary

Verizon

VZ Navigator 5.0

Pros

  • Multi-platform support
  • Reliable directions
  • Traffic

Cons

  • Limited voice search
  • No international functionality
  • Not free
Summary