Convergence, sweet convergence. First your iPhone let you chuck out your iPod, your PDA, your dusty old filofax and even your lame netbook. Now, you can burn your road maps and even bin your in-car GPS, thanks to iPhone 3.0 and the introduction of turn-by-turn GPS apps. The first such app to hit The Store in New Zealand is Sygic Mobile Maps 2009, but is it any good?
Sygic may not exactly be a household name, but they’ve been quietly developing GPS systems since 2002. Based in Bratislava, Slovakia, the company started out gearing up taxi drivers, truckers and other road-based industries. Here in 2009, they’re a full-fledged consumer brand offering turn-by-turn navigation on many mobile platforms including Symbian, iPhone and soon Android. Priced at $84.99 and available through the App Store, Mobile Maps 2009 covers both Australia and New Zealand in one combined app.
Firing up Mobile Maps for the first time will take you through a quick wizard where you can choose from some core basic settings such as language, unit of measurement, spoken language (the app has an American or British voice, but sadly no Kiwi), but there is extensive customisation available beyond this wizard. Thanks to the iPhone’s lightning-fast GPS lock, you can begin using Mobile Maps almost instantly.
By default, the program takes you straight to a 3D perspective view of your current location on a clear, crisp and uncluttered map with details such as current speed at the bottom of the screen. At the top of the screen, + or – buttons allow you to set the zoom of the map view. Detail on the map is sparse, but when you can’t take your eyes off the road for long that is not necessarily a bad thing. Road names are displayed in a large font that you can clock at a glance and other details such as restaurants, petrol stations, shops and more can be turned on or off.
To begin planning a route, you simply tap the screen anywhere, and six large icons appear allowing you to choose to begin navigation, browse the map etc. Hitting ‘navigate to’ allows you to manually enter a specific address (Mobile Maps can navigate you right to the door of a specific street number), choose from a ‘favourite’ that you’ve already saved, an address you’ve entered before from ‘history’, choose from a vast database of points of interest (you can search for airports, banks, cinemas, cafes, car parks – you name it!), a specific post code (perhaps more widely used in Australia?), your own home, a point on a map, a city centre or a specific GPS co-ordinate. Can’t ask for many more options than that!
Once your chosen target is locked in, you will be presented with a top-down 2D summary of the route it is suggesting you take at which point you can refine the route by specifying the shortest route, fastest route, most economical etc etc — hit ‘Done’ and you’re taken back to the 3D perspective map with your route marked in solid yellow on the map. Start your journey and the spoken instructions will kick in. The voices are clear and loud, however a downside here is that if you are listening to music Mobile Maps does not fade the volume out while speaking to you. Sometimes instructions can be lost in the music you are playing, but perhaps this can be addressed in a future update.
Whilst navigating to a specific destination, Mobile Maps will display some useful information at the bottom of the screen. By default, it will show your speed, your estimated time of arrival, the direction of the next turn so that you can plan lane changes, and the strength of the GPS signal. These are customisable options and there are a plethora of other information you can choose to be shown instead. The speed limit of the road you are currently on is permanently displayed on the top-right of the screen and the name of the road at top centre. Going off-route will cause Mobile Maps to recalculate the route in lightning-fast time.
The 3D rendering is fairly smooth, certainly no worse than any dedicated in-car GPS I’ve seen, however I did notice that there is some ‘dithering’ with your on-road position. In testing the app whilst my wife drove around the streets of Christchurch, I kept my eye on the iPhone and noticed that often when crossing a road the map would flicker between showing us going over the road, then approaching it again, then over it again — not a deal breaker but it could be a little distracting or confusing. The same thing happened when turning corners, the map would flicker between going straight and turning 90 degrees a number of times before settling on the new direction of travel. Again, hopefully Sygic can address this in future updates.
The software adapts the display depending on time of day – when it is dark outside, Mobile Maps will display roads as royal blue on a black background so as to cut-down on glare from the unit. In normal daylight conditions, the display reverts to white roads, brown land and blue sky. This can also be set manually if you would like to use night mode during the day or vice-versa. It also quickly and cleanly changes between landscape and portrait modes with no obvious benefit or downside to either. It does feel more natural to have it in a landscape position however.
Compared to some other GPS navigation apps I’ve used on other mobile platforms including Garmin XT, Sygic Mobile Maps is a leap and a bound ahead. It is infinitely more polished and the speed limits and extensive POI are a real neat touch. The fact that this is all stored locally on your iPhone and requires absolutely no data tranmission is also a god-send especially here in New Zealand with our restrictive data caps. You can also take advantage of the maps in a non-GPS scenario too — the maps are fully browsable as is the POI.
While we may not be used to seeing apps that are priced at $85 on The Store, I feel this represents incredible value when compared with the cost of a separate and dedicated in-car GPS system. There is practically no loss of functionality compared to these devices, and the fact that you are taking it with you everywhere within your existing device and without the need for separate cords or cases is an obvious plus. Add to that the marriage-saving abilities to effortlessly navigate you around strange new cities – both here and in Australia – and the value proposition becomes clear!
Time will tell what competition from the likes of TomTom will bring to the table, but realistically I am not sure what more they can possibly offer. If you are in the market for an in-car GPS system now then don’t waste your money on one – spend a fraction of the price on this app and make your iPhone even more amazing than it already is.
UPDATE (24/07/09): Sygic have advised that the issue I identified with regards to the music not dimming when verbal instructions are given is actually a change that was introduced in an update in response to user feedback.