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Navigation softwares on mobile phones

UPDATE: Google finally released their navigation software

I was the proud owner of a non-smartphone for a long while, as I managed to resist buying one of these evil iPhones. When the latest "google phone" got released though, I couldn't resist to the temptation of getting one.

So now that I had this new toy, embedded with Google's Android, I told myself I should try getting a GPS navigation software, as the only GPS software shipped with it, Google Maps, doesn't do real time navigation. I didn't know then I was going on a quite hopeless, and expensive quest...

There are actually really, really few GPS navigation software available for Android right now. Each of them is bad. I won't bother talking about the others that are just toys hooked on google maps, trying to do real time navigation over it. But let me review the top three of the other "real" software I've found. Again, I'm mostly going to rant, so this post will be biased towards the bad aspects of each software. It's not a real review of these software, just a demonstration of how bad their design can be, in a "what were they thinking ?!" way.

Nav4All

This one is free, but... I originally thought it was some kind of a joke. Honestly, the overall software is so awkward it's hardly usable at all. They actually claim on their website that Nav4All doesn't have any helpdesk because it's so simple and reliable. Honestly, I really got dazzled by the menus and they way they work. This software should be shown in HMI lectures as an example of what could be the worst possible case of a user interface, if only by the ugly choice of colors: pale green on black. I thought this was some kind of vt100 nostalgia. The worst is that no actual screenshot you could find on the web of nav4all show this. Everything's dark blue on white, and looks great. But the actual Android software is very, very different. Or was, maybe, as I notice now that there's an update for this app. Anyway: the UI is awkward and sluggish.

In all cases, there's a lot of other bad things about this software, including the fact it goes on the web all the time to retrieve the data. Great if you are lost in the middle of nowhere without any connection. Also, it's badly designed, software-wise: if you exit it using the home button instead of closing it properly, it's going to keep the GPS running in background. Yay for battery draining. And the actual precision of the navigation software is kinda dumb. Quite no street numbers, hazardous navigation information, ...

Anyway, don't waste your time on this one. Even though it's free. There are big hints all over the place that it's free for a limited time only, and it's probably going to be subscription-based for the future.

Telenav

This one is a scam. Get away from it, as far as possible. It's not free, it's subscription based, and it's awfully expensive: $10 a month. BUT there's a FREE 30-Day Trial. Or is there ? The fact I had to enter my credit card number in order to download the software got me suspicious. Also, when you're done, you have to install an insecure application on your phone. Telenav is actually not available on the Google Market. It's a specific download from their website, which is kinda scary. Anyway: I'll go to the actual design review, but first, let me explain why this is a scam. As you create your account for the free trial, you have to enter your credit card. And it's written in small letters at the bottom of the page that you'll start paying if you don't cancel your subscription after 30 days. Now how do you cancel the subscription ? There is strictly NO way to cancel the account I created on their website USING their website. According to their FAQ, you have to call them. Hu uh... Easy come, but not easy go, huh. Well, I'm going to have to be persistent with them on the phone now, if I don't want them to steal me $10 in the next few days.

About the features and stuff... well, I gotta admit I was quite impressed, at several levels. The Android software is quite linked to the website. You can manage your favorite places and locations on the website, and the mobile version will automatically synchronize, which is great when you have to look for a very specific spot on a map, since using a phone screen and keyboard sucks more than a real computer screen and keyboard. For that part, their ripoff of Google Maps is quite awesome. You could actually think they did the whole thing from scratch, even the shadowy stuff from the bubbly popups over the map.

Now, when it comes to actually use the software on the phone... Dear God... Okay well, at least the UI is very clean and quick. But the navigation itself...! Gosh: the software STREAMS the rendered maps with the path from their website, in real time! So first, there's the same problem than with Nav4All, if you're lost in the middle of nowhere, but also, the reaction time is just plain horrible. You get your refreshed map every 5 seconds or so, and when you get it, you're usually ahead of the real position by a quarter of a mile. And if you don't take the proper turn, because there's a roadblock or something, it just takes forever to understand we're not on the planned route anymore, and to give back a new route. That is just not usable at all. Don't waste your time (and maybe money) on this piece of shit.

CoPilot Live

This one is probably the best navigation software I've seen on the whole Android Market. Now don't get me wrong: this software is horrible, compared to TRUE navigation softwares, such as Tomtom or even ViaMichelin. But over all the Android applications, this one is just the best one, as it's usable. Or at least, you could probably get to a certain location in the middle of nowhere without any data connection without getting too horribly lost. And the software has only a one-time fee. $35, which isn't exactly cheap, but at least, there's no recurring payment. Compared to Telenav, 4 month of usage is going to cover the price.

Now, this application is self-contained. Which means it's giantic: more than 15 MB on the phone, and more than 1GB on the micro-SD to store the full USA map. But at least, you won't need to rely on the coverage of your provider. The UI is kinda sluggish, and will be unworkable at all if there's any background application running. I'm using Advanced Task Killer in order to just wipe out all the background applications before running CoPilot, otherwise I get UI response time from my button press of about 5 to 10 seconds. Ah, btw: if any CoPilot coder reads these lines, why in the hell did you come up with this awful "queue event" stuff ? If the UI gets unresponsive, please, please do NOT queue events! Or flush the queue after 1 or 2 seconds! When the UI gets sluggish, and when I try pressing a button, sometime I don't know if the hardware got my press at all, so I retry. That's usually a big mistake because if the CoPilot UI was a bit frozen, it'll still queue up the events and process them after it unfreeze. If the UI gets really sluggish, then I can queue up to 2 minutes of commands just by randomly touching my screen.

As for the navigation itself... well, I have to admit the screen rendering is extremely smooth and fast. That's by far the smoothest GPS navigation software I've ever seen, even on "real GPS hardware" such as Tomtom. Now the software lacks cleverness. One of the most common issue with GPS chips is their lack of precision, especially when you're moving. Most software are trying to compensate by being clever. If you've been on a freeway for the previous few seconds, there's very little chance you suddenly managed to teleport your car on the road that started to be really close to yours since one mile. CoPilot however assumes you're a driver gifted with Jumper abilities. Also, the maps are really imprecise. It's only polygons, no curves, and they could use a few more points. So when you're on a curve, your position often gets awfully off, and since the "road stickyness" threshold is basically set to 0, you usually get with CoPilot recomputing your route, assuming you jumped on another road. There's a lot of street numbers missing, and some roads are completely missing. I often end up being on a "unnamed road". Also, CoPilot Central, the companion application for your computer, is a big failure. Not that it's very useful at all anyway, since there's quite nothing to do with it apart of doing backups of your micro-SD, and buying more maps such as Europe's, but still. It doesn't work at all under Windows 7 right now, and there's absolutely no way to configure your proxy settings or whatever, so if you try running the software on a network that needs a proxy for whatever reason, it just will never work.

As a conclusion, CoPilot Live is just the only worthwhile GPS navigation software available for Android right now. Don't bother trying any other software: they just are extremely unsatisfactory. CoPilot is usable just enough to be bearable, so if you really want navigation for your Android, just take this one. And switch to Google's Navigation software as soon as they release it, because it'll be way better anyway. *Hint* *hint*.