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TUAW Review: XRoad G-Map US

During the discussion earlier in the year about why Apple was blocking turn-by-turn GPS navigation apps for the iPhone 3G (it will be "legal" in iPhone 3.0), a reader pointed out that there have been a pair of turn-by-turn navigators in the App Store for quite a while.

Upon following the reader hint, I was surprised to find that XRoad G-Map US West (click opens iTunes) and East have the United States covered for navigation. These apps, US$24.99 each, don't have the voice prompts that most of us appreciate, but they do provide surprisingly accurate directions and a 3D navigation view that rivals the more expensive Garmin, TomTom, and Magellan dedicated navigators.

European and Canadian versions of the app are expected to be released by the end of this quarter, while Central / South America and Asian versions should arrive by the end of 2009.

Since I am the resident GPS geek at TUAW, I decided to give XRoad G-Map US West v1.3 a test drive and see how it performed compared to my Garmin nüvi navigator. While the XRoad product has some shortcomings, it's still worthy of a look if you're thinking about purchasing a navigation app. Click Read More to see how G-Map worked...or didn't.
Singing the installation blues

When I first started researching XRoad G-Map U.S. West, it appeared that people either hated it or loved it. There were a pile of low ratings, with iPhone owners griping about repeated crashes and an inability to install the app. One of the other TUAW bloggers gave up on G-Map after trying to install it numerous times.

After downloading the large (approximately 928 MB for the western US, 829 MB for the eastern US) app, I ran into the same installation issues. Although I was trying to install the app onto my iPhone 3G over a Wi-Fi connection, it repeatedly crashed during installation. I finally resolved the issue by doing a restart of the iPhone, at which point it displayed a message telling me to install the application via iTunes.

That did the trick. After a lengthy sync, G-Map U.S. West was finally on my iPhone 3G. You probably want to install this on a 16GB iPhone 3G with plenty of available storage, because you'll need it.

I once was lost, but now I'm found
Once the installation madness was over with, it was time to fire it up in my car. I used a car adapter to insure that I'd keep getting power to the iPhone, since I know from experience that running the phone with location services turned on and 3G enabled tends to burn power like the Griswold house on Christmas Eve. In the car at the same time was my Garmin nüvi, which I use constantly both at home and on business trips.

Since the iPhone uses A-GPS (assisted GPS), which enhances the startup speed of GPS systems by knowing (among other things) the location of local cell towers near a phone, you'd expect that G-Map U.S. West would find its current location more quickly than a traditional navigator. This appeared to be the case; in several tests at different locations, I was able to get an initial fix on the iPhone well before the Garmin nüvi finally acquired the satellites and figured out where it was.

When using the iPhone and G-Map in the suburbs, it also provided me with a very close location fix. That wasn't the case when I was using G-Map in a crowded city with many tall buildings. The initial location was often off by two or more city blocks, and it wasn't until I started driving that it seemed to be able to get a steady fix on where the car really was. This isn't the case with the nüvi, which always seems to find my current location very accurately, even in the midst of skyscrapers. Is this the fault of G-Map? Probably not, since I get the same inaccuracies with other GPS apps on the iPhone.

Where are you going?
G-Map provides a way to search for stores, banks, gas stations, and other points of interest. The search wasn't the best I've ever used; I wanted directions to my local bank (FirstBank) and a search on the word "Bank" didn't show any of their branches. I had to search for the full name of the bank before I could find a list of the branches. While it showed the closest branch to my location, it did not find another that is almost as close. The nüvi, on the other hand, was able to find both of the nearby branches.

Destinations can be found using the method above, or you can use an address search. The address search starts with the state, then the city, then the street name, and finally the street number being entered. Once you've found the destination address, you tap the "Go" button and within about 3 to 5 seconds a route has been calculated from your current location to the destination. You can choose to preview the route -- that is, have the app show you every move you'll make before you actually make the drive -- but it took forever, even at the 5x maximum speed. Instead, I just zoomed out to get a general idea of where G-Mail was routing me. You can also add your own routes or waypoints, although I didn't try this.

There's also an "Emergency" destination, which provides you with the nearest hospital, gas station, police station, auto service, ATM, or bank. In my testing, this worked very well and was very fast.

For everything, turn, turn, turn...
The turn-by-turn instructions are helpful if you have someone in the car who can read them to you; otherwise, they're a driving hazard. Why? As I mentioned earlier, there are no voice prompts. Instead, you get a map with the suggested route emblazoned on it. If you're looking at your iPhone screen rather than the road, chances are good that you're going to run off the road, hit someone, or otherwise raise havoc. You can switch to three different views. One of them is a traditional overhead view aligned with your current heading, another is a 3D perspective view, and the last view simply orients the map so that it is always facing north.

I found the 3D perspective view to be the most useful, since it is similar to what I see on my Garmin nüvi. When I started driving, I noticed that the unit seemed to be slow in terms of realizing that I was moving. Once I was driving, the accuracy of the GPS fix and speed seemed to improve. Occasionally, G-Map would lose track of where I was, and then create a new map with the current location marked with a "start" symbol (an "S" on a flag), then display a message at the top of the screen saying "Oops! Sorry."

Once feature I like is that the top of the display always shows the name of the next street you're supposed to turn on, and the display "fills up" from left to right as you get closer to the turn. One thing I didn't like is that for some inexplicable reason, the G-Map developers decided to add a game to the turn-by-turn display. A box with a question mark on it is displayed in the bar. As you get closer, the box opens and reveals slot machine symbols like a 7, a cherry, a watermelon, and a bell. If you follow G-Map's directions and pick up the symbols, you get points. What's odd is that the game isn't complete in this version (1.3) of G-Map, so it's really kind of worthless. Couldn't have the developers simply left this out?

If you turn off the recommended route, G-Map usually figures this out within ten seconds and recalculates a new route. I found G-Map to actually be faster than my Garmin receiver in calculating the new routes.

Certain waypoints, such as restaurants and banks, show up on the screen with corporate logos. There's a Wells Fargo bank about a mile from my home, and G-Map displayed a small WF logo on the screen at its location.

One other cool thing about the directions is that as you get to major intersections in 181 cities throughout North America, the display jumps into a 3D Junction View. That view shows you a street-level view of what the next intersection will look like, complete with street signs.

Apple most likely approved G-Map because the app uses its own set of NAVTEQ maps instead of relying on Google Maps. G-Map also uses the NAVTEQ realtime traffic information in estimating how long it will take you to drive somewhere during high traffic periods and even rerouting you based on delays.

Help! I need somebody...
I do a lot of documentation work for developers, so I tend to judge apps on the availability, accuracy, and readability of help files or user guides that come with them. There's no on-device help, so you need to read the user guide before you start. It's available on the G-Map website. It's not a very well written user guide, but it's better than trying to learn all of the features of this app by trial and error.

The G-Map website and user guide both have some laughable English. XRoad might want to acquire the services of a good localization firm to provide readable English translations. Yes, I know that not everybody speaks English, but this version of the app purports to be in English so it would be nice to read the user guide without constantly snickering.

Summary
G-Map is a good start for an iPhone-based navigation application, but it really needs to have voice prompting built into it to be useful while driving. Considering what G-Map has built into it, it's very much worth the US$25 cost. If you already have an iPhone but don't have a GPS navigator, G-Map is less expensive than purchasing a dedicated GPS device.

Thanks to several readers who pointed out that G-Map's pricing has been increased from $19.99 to $24.99.

Check out the gallery below for screenshots of XRoad G-Map West in action.

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