Since its release, Garmin’s iPhone app has been a bit of a disappointment. After numerous iterations and a few name changes—it was called StreetPilot, and then StreetPilot Onboard, both for a time—the latest version is the best yet. But it’s still not quite at the level of performance you’d expect from the industry sales leader for standalone GPS navigation devices. Garmin’s app lags behind the competition in several key areas, and I’m still seeing some of the same bugs I saw two years ago when I last reviewed it. If you drive a lot, you’ll be much happier with Navigon (which is owned by Garmin), our Editors’ Choice for paid GPS apps, or you could save the cash and go with Google Maps, our favorite free GPS app.
User Interface and POI Search
The main Garmin app is available in two versions: a $37.99 app that covers the lower 49 states, called U.S.A.; and a $44.99 app that adds Canada and Alaska, called North America. They’re otherwise functionally equivalent. For this review, I tested Garmin U.S.A. 2.3 on a Verizon iPhone 5 running iOS 6.0.2.
Garmin stores map data locally; this saves you money on your data plans, and it’s also more reliable in areas with poor cell phone signals. Other features include support for 3D buildings, multi-segment routing, a trip planner and trip computer, a Detour button, a turn list view, and data field toggles for the map view that let you view elevation and current speed, among other things.
If you’ve ever used a Garmin standalone device, you know exactly what to expect here, and that’s probably this app’s biggest draw. The main interface resembles that of recent Garmin products almost exactly. Two large icons, Where To and View Map, dominate the home screen, with several smaller ones in a toolbar along the bottom. Tap Where To, and you’ll see an array of choices for entering an address and running point-of-interest searches, plus an array of options for favorite addresses, recent destinations, intersections, cities, and address book contacts. You can use the app entirely in landscape mode as well as portrait mode, even on the menu screens.
I’ve always preferred Garmin’s POI database and search algorithms, just because it arranges categories more sensibly than the competition. For example, it breaks down Shopping into subcategories, and has separate top categories for recreation, attractions, and entertainment, in addition to the usual food, lodging, fuel, ATM, hospital, and transit destinations.
Entering street addresses, however, is a little different than with other apps: first you enter the house number, and then the street. If there are only a few choices, it will display them in a type-ahead mode; otherwise, you choose the city next. To change the state, you do it at the beginning, before you enter the house number. It works fine in practice, and my iPhone never “hung up” or froze for several seconds while the app figured out the next step.
On the plus side, you also get Google Local Search, which lets you put in anything, anywhere, just like a Google search on a laptop. If you’ve gotten used to entering addresses from start to finish on a single line, a la Google Maps, you may want to use this feature more often instead.
Performance and Conclusions
Once on the road, Garmin’s map view looks quite good, with crisp fonts and smoothly drawn roads. It displays the current road speed limit as well as the current speed, and it’s also iPhone 5-optimized. Map animation is surprisingly jerky, though. It doesn’t approach the standalone Garmin nüvi 3590LMT’s 3D terrain mapping or smoother animation, although you can get the former with an optional plug-in (see below). Either way, Google Maps and especially Apple Maps both demonstrate you can get beautiful navigation graphics for free (although Apple Maps has its own issues).
As expected, Garmin’s routing performance was excellent. While it doesn’t quite “adapt” the way TomTom’s app does, with the latter’s IQ Routes feature, or crowdsource results the way Waze does, Garmin has been at this long enough that its routing choices are usually spot on anyway. It’s also easy to stop navigation en route; simply tap the new on-screen Stop button. (TomTom’s app requires some contortions and aiming your finger at just the right spot, which is tough, if not dangerous, at full speed.) You can now report a “safety camera” (code for “photo camera speed trap”) for other users by tapping the on-screen button on the bottom right. Another nice touch: When you arrive at your destination, the app displays a Google-sourced Street View photo, just like Google Maps does.
I saw a few bugs during testing. Once, the route overview screen showed a trip that was different than the one I was currently on. The trip computer screen also displayed a number of bad data fields, suggesting that I’d traveled more than 80,000 miles with the app. Other users around the Web have reported additional bugs with finding and navigating to different POIs under version 2.3, though I didn’t personally run into this problem. Either way, stability still seems to be an issue with this app, which is unfortunate.
Garmin sells a number of extra-cost plug-ins, all of which are in-app purchases: Traffic ($13.99), Urban Guidance ($4.99, for public transit directions), photoLive Traffic Cameras ($5.99, for seeing traffic conditions across the U.S. live), Panorama View 3D ($7.99, essentially duplicates Garmin’s standalone terrain mapping features), Vehicle Display Integration ($49.99, works only with a few select cars and Kenwood electronics). Many app makers are doing this sort of thing, but Garmin is unique in not offering any traffic reporting at all unless you pony up for the plug-in, which is a disappointment. TomTom also sells an HD Traffic plug-in, but still gives you regular real-time traffic with the main app for free.
The latest crop of iPhone navigation apps are extremely competitive. We can’t help but get the feeling that post-Navigon acquisition, Garmin intends to eventually sunset this app in favor of Navigon’s superior program—which would be fine, except that I know a lot of customers are switching from older Garmin devices to this fully updated iPhone app and wouldn’t mind sticking with the same interface. Either way, in the meantime, if you’re a Garmin fan and already like the company’s admittedly excellent interface for its standalone devices, the Garmin app will make you feel right at home. Otherwise, Navigon is a more powerful paid alternative, while Google Maps, Waze, and Scout by Telenav are all compelling free options, if somewhat less informative and not always as on the mark with their routing choices while driving.
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Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc