NDrive Australia/NZ: A competent GPS nav app with a few flaws

When asked if I wanted to reviewNDrive Australia & New Zealand (currently US$24.99, AU$29.99, and NZ$30.99), I was initially reluctant. "The problem with these nav apps is they don't really seem to offer me a compelling alternative to the free Maps app plus a co-pilot," I said. Since getting my iPhone 3G a bit over a year ago, my wife has been the human half of my turn-by-turn navigation system.

The biggest advantage she offers over any nav app is her ability to intelligently adapt to changing conditions. When it was pointed out to me that I won't always have a co-pilot with me, thus making it all but impossible to use the built-in Maps app without unintentionally going off-roading in my Toyota, I agreed to give NDriveAustralia & New Zealand a try.

After using the app for a few days navigating around Palmerston North and some of the backcountry roads of New Zealand, I came away more impressed with the app than I thought I would be -- but it still has some flaws that will likely keep me from relying on it as my primary GPS app. Read on for a more comprehensive review.

We reviewed the US version of NDrive back in November. Many of the quirks mentioned in that review seem to have been resolved in the months since. The US review noted that text-to-speech was still forthcoming at that time; four months later, the Australia/New Zealand app has four different voices in three different accents (Australian, British "Received Pronunciation", and General American), with text-to-speech offered in the Australian and American accents. The voiced turn-by-turn directions are the main draw of this app, enabling navigation without even having to look at the iPhone's screen while driving... though as the US review noted, turn announcements often come uncomfortably close to the turn itself, making it easy to miss a turn if you're not anticipating one. Even if you do miss a turn, though, the app will automatically re-calculate a new route, which is another major advantage it holds over the iPhone's built-in Maps app.

Predictably, the voiced announcements usually mangle the pronunciation of Maori city and street names in New Zealand, often with hilarious results. For example, Ruahine, a street in Palmerston North, is pronounced "roo-uh-hee-nay" or "roo-uh-hee-nee" depending on who you ask; NDrive pronounces it "roo-uh-heen," to the endless amusement of everyone who's heard it. Another even funnier voice quirk occurred several times -- depending on how the word "street" is abbreviated, the program will sometimes misinterpret the abbreviation as "Saint," which leads to laughter-inducing but also potentially confusing directions like, "In 50 metres, turn right at Grey Saint." Also, state highways in New Zealand, abbreviated "SH 1" for example, are pronounced literally -- rather than telling you "In 300 metres, merge onto State Highway One," NDrive will say, "In 300 metres, merge onto sh one." Those minor quirks aside, the text-to-speech feature of the app is by far its most useful feature.

The UI of the app is somewhat confusing and frustrating, especially compared to the simplicity of the iPhone's built-in Maps app. By default, the app has an ABC-style keyboard which I found maddening to use. The first thing I did was switch to a QWERTY-style keyboard, but even this keyboard is irritating to use, because NDrive uses its own keyboard style rather than the one built-in to the iPhone OS. I've become very proficient with the iPhone's standard keyboard, so having to switch to a different layout in order to use this app is more than a little irritating. Worse than that, though, is the way you have to input directions. If I want to find directions to the Te Papa Museum in Wellington in the iPhone's built-in Maps app, all I have to do is type, "Te Papa Wellington," and Maps will find directions immediately. In NDrive, I have to access the POI (Points of Interest) database, select Wellington as the city, try to figure out what category to use (or select "All" if I can't decide), and then type out "Te Papa."

Another annoying UI difference between NDrive and Maps: in Maps, to find directions between two points, you type the starting location and the end destination on the same screen. In NDrive, if you're starting from anywhere other than your current location, you have to first select "Find" to get the starting location, then "Directions" to get directions from the starting location to the end. In the end the result is the same, but it seems like a whole lot of unnecessary extra steps, especially considering the input method used. Rather than finding a destination by simply typing, "110 Rangitikei Street Palmerston North" like you can in Maps, NDrive makes you type the city name first, followed by the street name on another screen, followed by the address on a third screen. This input method feels cumbersome and incredibly unintuitive. Its one saving grace is the database intelligently suggests both city and street names, so I only have to type as far as "Pal" before it suggests "Palmerston North," or "Rang" to get "Rangitikei Street."

Once you've input directions, NDrive will run through a simulation of the route... very slowly. I appreciated the simulation option, but I found myself searching for and failing to find an option to speed up the simulation or at least skip to the next turn. The simulated route between my house and 110 Rangitikei Street actually took longer to play out than it would have taken for me to drive there.

As for the actual performance of the app while driving? Again, it's a mixed bag. Unlike Maps, NDrive will completely fail to get a fix on your current location if it can't find a GPS signal (for example, if you're indoors) -- it doesn't appear to be able to utilize cell tower triangulation at all. This isn't an issue for keeping the maps updated, because in another killer feature, NDrive has maps for both Australia and New Zealand built into the app itself, meaning that you can potentially navigate without a cell signal at all. I say potentially because in actual experience, going through some backroads between Palmerston North and a hiking trail in the Ruahine Range, once you reach an area without cell phone reception, the app will update your position only sporadically, if at all. We drove for more than 10 kilometres down one road with no updates before the app got a fix on us and updated our position.

To be fair, this may not be a failing of NDrive itself. A friend of mine who works for a local GPS company told me the GPS chip in the iPhone 3G is fairly anemic compared to chips in dedicated GPS units like his high-end Garmin. He told me the GPS chipset in the iPhone 3GS is a bit more powerful than that in the iPhone 3G, and he predicted apps like NDrive would see markedly better performance as a result. Even NDrive's somewhat iffy performance on the iPhone 3G impressed him, though -- he hadn't expected it to work at all in the areas we drove through. Aside from losing the GPS signal a few times, occasionally for extended periods, NDrive still managed to navigate us through the exact same route suggested by my friend's top-of-the-line Garmin nav unit.

By far the most glaring omission in this app is its lack of integration with the iPhone's contacts database. Finding directions to a friend's house is easy as pie in Maps if you have your friend's info in Contacts; finding directions to the same house in NDrive is brutally frustrating in comparison, without even support for copy/paste to help in inputting addresses.

Overall, even though I occasionally found it frustrating to use, I came away impressed with NDrive, especially at the offered price. NZ$30.99 for voiced turn-by-turn directions and built-in maps for both Australia and New Zealand is a great bargain. Having maps for Australia ensures that if I travel there, I'll be able to find my way around without even needing a data connection for my iPhone. The app has many other compelling features that I haven't even covered here, and if you're interested in a low-cost navigation solution, I'd encourage you to check it out. That having been said, I simply prefer the user interface of the iPhone's built-in Maps app for a number of reasons, and I will likely still use it as my main navigation app here in New Zealand so long as I have my wife to read out directions for me. In the event that you're travelling on your own, however, NDrive is a perfectly acceptable alternative to Maps despite its many minor and easily-addressed flaws.