Review: AT&T Navigator app for iPhone

att-navigatorI’ve been using the AT&T Navigator app for iPhone for a couple of months now. This is a free app, but it requires a $10/month subscription from AT&T (or $70 for an annual subscription). I’m not going to belabor the GPS functions too much in this review: it’s almost the year 2010, and the global positioning system has been used to provide turn-by-turn directions for long enough now that any GPS device or application being reviewed should do that basic job. Instead, I’m going to examine how useful a GPS function is on your mobile phone, talk about some of what’s nice (and not-so-nice) about the AT&T Navigator, and look at the value proposition of a $10/month subscription in light of Google’s free turn-by-turn driving directions on the Verizon Droid.

The Not-So-Good
The first thing to know about the Navigator application is that it suffers from the iPhone’s inability to support “background apps”. That is, if you want turn-by-turn directions, you need to leave the Navigator app running on your phone. You can’t pop over to check your email, or even take a call or reply to an SMS, without interrupting the navigation. When you’re on a long stretch of highway, that’s not a big deal; but it can be a little frustrating if you’re sitting in the passenger seat and trying to multitask on your fancy smartphone. (You should never multitask on your fancy smartphone if you’re driving the car!)

The good news, though, is that iPod functionality is well integrated into the app. With the press of an on-screen button, you can have access to your playlists, media navigation controls, and more. The music will be muted when the Navigator app needs to speak to you, which minimizes some of the concerns about the always-on nature of the app.

The second thing to know about the Navigator app is that it’s frequently just a little slow. This is a result of being just a little weak in terms of positioning accuracy. It consistently reports me as being anywhere from 50 to 500 feet away from where I actually am. Again, while driving down the highway this isn’t a big deal; but when navigating city streets it’s mighty frustrating to be instructed to turn left onto the street you just passed.

Also, it’s really slow to start up. This is frustrating when you wind up popping in and out of the app — whether because you’re making a call, or using another app. You need to wait patiently for the app to start before you can use it. If you’re en route, it usually remembers this, and asks you if you want to continue navigating to your destination. On a couple of occasions, though, exiting the app while en route resulted in a lost route. When I started the app again, I was presented with the home screen. It seems that there’s a minimum threshold for how long a route must be active before the app saves it. Put another way: don’t start navigating somewhere and then immediately close out of the app.

Finally, the app is really fond of U-turns. If I miss a turn, it will as often as not suggest that I make a U-turn. Maybe that’s okay in most parts of the world, but in Columbus, OH U-turns are illegal except at a few specifically designated intersections. If I don’t make a U-turn, I send the application into a fit as it tries to re-route me with every turn I make. I don’t mind being told to make a U-turn: I know I’m not supposed to do it, so I don’t. Instead, I make a couple of right or left turns to effectively get pointed back in the other direction. The Navigator app has no idea of my intentions, of course, and merrily recomputes a new route for me with every turn.

The Good
That sounds like a lot of negatives, and to be fair they’re legitimate concerns. But in all honesty, I’ve really enjoyed using this application. It’s been my experience that the routing is really good. I’ve never gotten lost using it, and it’s never given me a braindead route that causes problems. Indeed, on a Thanksgiving roadtrip to Cartersville, GA, it provided perfect directions to my sister-in-law’s house in a new development, while my mother-in-law got lost following the instructions from Google Maps.

Real-time traffic reports are included in the subscription fee. That, too, helped at Thanksgiving, so that I could know how far traffic would be bumper-to-bumper as we exited the city.

Probably the biggest selling point for the Navigator app, though, is the use of a server-based routing mechanism. Instead of loading all the map data onto your handset, the map data lives with Telenav. This means that updates can be made in real time, in reaction to important events. For example, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge was closed over the Labor Day weekend this year. If you were using a traditional GPS device, it likely would have been ignorant of this fact, and happily told you to take the bridge to get out of town, leaving you stuck in traffic. Telenav routed around the bridge, since they knew it would be closed, thereby saving their customers a lot of frustration and wasted time.

A recent update to Navigator added full landscape support, which is a nice feature to have. I didn’t have any problems using the application strictly in portrait mode, but landscape is certainly handy sometimes! Here’s a video in which you can see it, and the iPod controls, in action:

So, how does AT&T Navigator, at $10/month, stack up against Google’s mapping service on the Verizon Droid? Alas, I’m not able to answer that question, yet, since I don’t have a Droid. I did ask both AT&T and Telenav, though, how they think things compare.

Here’s a quick comment from Todd Witkemper, from Telenav:

In general, here are a few differentiators that TeleNav products provide that Google Navigation does not have:

• Proven map data that is consistently updated (I’ve read multiple reviews of Google Navigation where the reviewer received incorrect routing)
• Online preplanning/account management
• A real person’s voice for majority of audio commands (vs. text to speech computerized voice)
• Proactive traffic alerts with one-click rerouting (you don’t have to change views to see traffic updates)
• Real-time gas prices, weather, WiFi hot spot listings, commute alerts and movie listings/ticket purchasing (movie info on AT&T Navigator 1.8)
• Route style options like avoiding HOV lanes and toll roads
• Location-sharing

TeleNav also supports more than 500 devices in multiple countries.

Seth Bloom at AT&T adds:

AT&T Navigator remains one of our most popular apps to date. We have a great, open and ongoing dialogue with our Navigator customers and feel confident in our track record of making enhancements based on real-time customer feedback.

More choice is always great for consumers, but we’re confident with this app and with our interactive dialogue with our customers that is helping ensure they get a premier voice and visual turn-by-turn GPS experience.

Bottom Line: if you don’t yet own a dedicated GPS, and you’re tired of the shortcomings of the iPhone’s Maps app, the Navigator app is a good option. Be sure to pay the yearly fee, rather than month-by-month.