Last week I had been invited to an interview, and I needed to find the company’s office. The office in question was in a village I’d never been to before, and while I can print off some of Google Maps, I’m not very good at following a map (especially when I’m driving). While my iPhone can do me a route via Google Maps, it doesn’t work if you can’t guarantee the signal (as I would find out later, the signal went from full strength to nothing and back within 2 miles of my destination) and it doesn’t do turn-by-turn navigation either.
So what better time to try out a proper sat nav iPhone app?
I know some people hate sat navs. I don’t. They won’t know if your car is too wide for the road you’re travelling on, they won’t find postcodes in the right place in the countryside, and yes – I’ve been advised before to drive up bus lanes, the wrong way up one-way streets, and several miles of a pedestrian footpath before. They’re not a substitute for common sense, but they’re better than having nothing, or relying on my poor sense of direction alone.
A few years back when I had a job traveling to places I didn’t know on a daily basis, I got the mobile version of TomTom on an old Nokia. I sold it all a while ago, so let’s see what is available on the iPhone these days. I thought TomTom was good back then, and every review I’ve seen on The Gadget Show since has always found TomTom to still be the best. However, the TomTom app on the iPhone is £49.99, and I’m a poorer man these days.
So, while hunting around the app store, I found Navfree GPS, and thought for FREE, it’s worth giving a go.
I have to be honest, that when I first ran the app, I wasn’t sure what to do. It doesn’t seem very intuitive. There’s buttons that look like compass points, and defaults to 3d mode (which is something I never liked, even on TomTom). Switch to 2d mode, and a few wrong buttons, found me the main menu (button in the bottom right of the start screen). Great. Let’s go.
Let’s go navigate.
Postcode or address? Errrm. You see I’m going to somewhere in the country, and while one postcode covers a street in the city, in the country, they can cover miles. Let’s go with address then. Next, enter city name (or village in my case). Go. For some reason it won’t route me to the village without a street name. That’s rather annoying. Cue lots of searching on the passenger seat for the exact name of the street I’m going to.
I know we all shouldn’t, but in the past I’ve used a TomTom while driving before, which is manageable as it’s so simple. This is a bit fiddly.
In fairness, it did find the small road in a village, perfectly well.
It’s a bit slow. On several occasions during my testing, I hit the button to go to the main menu, thought it wasn’t doing anything (or I’d mis-tapped), so hit it again. It registers both clicks. When the main menu shows, I’ve already clicked the new button, that is in the same place as the main menu button (the button to go to “Advanced”), and so when I click “Navigate” in the top left, it’s one screen out from me, and actually switches it from day mode to night mode (which is where the ‘navigate’ button is on the advanced screen, if you see what I mean). I managed to do this twice in my journey to the interview and back.
As far as routing goes, it was doing well, until I got about 2 miles from my destination (where I most needed the sat nav – even I can manage to navigate a motorway without assistance), where it had a bit of a breakdown, and showed me this:
I read that as go left, then go right (there’s even a left turn warning in the top left of the screen). But it’s not that sort of junction. It’s a roundabout, that you should go straight over. Bizarrely, when I left my interview to go home, and returned on the same road, it knew it was a roundabout, and told me to go straight over.
There are options to report map problems, but it’s not going to happen while I’m driving.
I arrived for my interview early. About half an hour early, so too early to go in. So, I drove a bit further down the road and found a spot to relax for 20 minutes in a layby, in front of a car containing a couple that didn’t say a word to each other the whole time I was there.
Time’s up, so I need to go back to my interview. Suddenly, this sat nav seems a bit lost. In fact, I drove the other way up the road I’d just been down, but managed to drive right past the turning I needed, as it had decided to route me to the other end of the road the company was based on. This would have added an unnecessary 2-3 miles to my journey, but I was having none of it. I drove a bit further along, turned round, reprogrammed the route and went back. This time it gave me the same route it had given me the first time (the correct/shortest route).
There’s a few weird sound bugs. I hit the music note icon, to select some music from what I had on the phone, and selected something. Having selected Vampire Weekend from the artist list, followed by one of their songs, what happens at the end of the song? Well I don’t know about you – but I expected it to play more by Vampire Weekend. I would have thought it would play their entire album either in order, or on shuffle. However, it plays that one song, then plays something else at random from the entire music library on the phone.
So say it’s chosen something from a cheesy 80’s album and I don’t like it, presumably I can hit the music note again, and skip the track, right? Well, not really no. If you hit the icon again, it just presents you with the songs/artists list again and asks you to pick something else.
You can get around this by picking a playlist instead though, right? Nope. Playlists -> Classic Love Songs -> The Shirelles. When that song finishes, it cuts to Jay Z. I like variety as much as the next person, but it’s the strangest music player I’ve ever used.
So without picking another track, how do I just stop the music? There must be a button in the software for that somewhere, surely. Well I’ve had a good look and I can’t find anything.
After some fiddling, I worked out that it’s just using the normal iPhone music player in the background. So, this being an iPhone 4, you can multitask, switch to it and manage your music yourself, right? Sorta.
If you double-tap-home and switch to music, when you try and come back, it reboots the app, works out where you are all over again, etc. It does remember what you asked it to route to, and rebuilds the route again, but it’s hardly seamless. Just skipping to the next track takes at least 10 seconds as you have to wait while the app reboots, and several taps/button pushes. While you’re driving? Not a great idea.
Music aside, I’ve got issues with the voice directions too. When you’re listening to a song, it’ll helpfully mute the song, and speak you some instructions. Sometimes. It visually mutes the volume (you even get the volume control show up on screen, as if you’re holding the volume down button, yourself), then….sometimes it gives you an instruction. Quite a number of times on my journeys, it muted the sound to nothing, then left me in silence for 5 seconds before putting the music back on. There seemed to be no pattern to whether or not it would give you any audible instructions or not. It started to amuse me after a while, and I found myself going “What? What is it? For the love of God. What’s the important news? Tell me! What do you want? Why won’t you talk to me?” (which gave me a bit of time to practice some radio sketch voices, if nothing else). I’d estimate it was about 40% of the time, it gave me an audible instruction. I’d imagine it’s a bug they’re working on.
So in conclusion, it’s a great free sat nav. It’s the best free sat nav I’ve ever used. TomTom can sleep soundly at night, and if I needed directions for my job, I couldn’t rely on this. But if you take occasional drives to places you don’t know, and are as poor at map-reading and route-remembering as I am, this will help you a lot. Did I mention it was free?
(Note: This review was based on version 1.9.1. build 5706)