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Cruising with the AT&T Navigator

Mel Martin

I love GPS. in the mid 1990s I had a Garmin unit that had no maps, just a bread crumb trail of where you were and where you'd been. I lived in England at the time, and thought I had a highly original idea to take it to the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and walk across the Meridian line and watch the screen as the numbers dropped to zero longitude. When I got there, I was hardly alone. I was surrounded by other geeks doing exactly the same thing. Oh well.

GPS has come a long way, and AT&T has released their subscription based Navigator [App Store] for the iPhone. It requires OS version 3.0. It is fee based, and will set you back US$9.95 a month on your AT&T bill. It is loaded with features, and has voice guided turn by turn directions. It also offers:

  • Automatic rerouting
  • Updated maps with no additional charge
  • Real time traffic updates
  • Fuel Price searches and navigation to those locations
  • Point of interest searches in all the usual categories like ATM machines, hospitals, restaurants, airports

The map gives you a 3D view from a position just above and behind your vehicle. On the setup page you can chose flat maps if your prefer. I found the maps easy to read but would have preferred a landscape view instead of portrait (there is no option to change the orientation). I saw a little lag when driving, but generally the response was fast.

The app really needs a 3G connection. It works on the EDGE network, but was slow to load graphics. If you are somewhere where you have neither you are out of luck. No maps are contained on the app and nothing is cached. In essence, the app is only as good as the AT&T network, and if you do a lot of driving where the network is weak or absent, you'll be navigating on your own.

I found the voice very hard to hear. This is a limitation of the iPhone speaker. It just wasn't designed to be played at a loud volume. On the highway, with road noise, good luck hearing that warning to turn. Of course, the directions are on the map, but the whole purpose of voice instructions is to keep you from looking at the map.

Other features are a high altitude view of your entire trip from beginning to end, a list of your turns on a scrollable page, directions to the nearest AT&T WiFi hotspots (nice), and the ability to set your default navigation method like shortest, fastest, traffic optimized, prefer highways or streets, or pedestrian routing if you're not driving.

I found the voice alerts were too frequent. Frankly, the app is a blabbermouth, and it kept reminding me of a faraway turn too often for my taste. It would be nice to be able to set just how aggressive the voice warnings are.

The big question for most iPhone users will be whether to wait for other nav apps to appear. TomTom is imminent, as is an app from Navigon. They both download the maps to your phone, so you are not dependent on the AT&T network. You only need GPS, and that signal is everywhere. You could also buy an inexpensive dedicated unit; on the low end that will cost about the same as a year of the AT&T subscription, and will certainly have a better speaker. Of course, there will be fees to update the maps, but in my experience you can use a GPS for years without doing that. Points of interest change, but the iPhone provides other sources like Google for up to date info.

I also think it is a bloody shame that the AT&T app has no access to your address book. Apple has walled that data off from 3rd party apps, (Update: Apple provides the ability, the Navigator app hasn't implemented it) and it is just senseless to have you type everything in again. You can copy and paste the data, but it is a needless pain. The AT&T app has this access when it runs on other phones like the Blackberry.

In summary, the app works, and is feature laden. I'm not sure it is the best option for in-car navigation, and you might want to wait for other solutions to appear. Of course, you can always get the AT&T app and cancel. It's a month-by-month charge.

So how is it like to drive with this app? My colleague Steven Sande did just that, and his report will follow soon.

Before you go, here are some screen shots to give you a look at some of the features on AT&T Navigator:

Gallery: AT&T Navigator | 4 Photos

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