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iPhone navigation packages, in S-M-L editions

windowmount.jpgThinking about getting Dad some directional guidance for Father's Day? Our package selections cover small, medium and large budgets to get where you're going.

Of all the industries disrupted by the emergence of these odd touchscreen computers disguised as mobile phones, the standalone GPS market may be the most topsy-turvy.

Among Chris' 33 things he doesn't need any more now that he has an iPhone, a separate $100+ unitasker GPS unit is probably the biggest target; the same goes double for Android phone owners, who get a capable and free turn-by-turn navigation tool as part of the Google Maps application.

Just having the phone isn't quite enough, though, if you want to help those notorious no-asking-for-directions family members (that'd be Dad) self-guide with the iPhone 4. Combining the right app with the right car bracket can turn a simple purchase into a genuine Father's Day gift -- so here are our package recommendations in small, medium and large price ranges. All apps are available on the App Store, and most of the hardware can be found at Best Buy, Radio Shack or Staples.

Small

Everyone likes free, and that's what our first app choice brings to the table. MapQuest 4 Mobile (developed by AOL, our corporate parent) provides capable turn-by-turn navigation with voice synthesis, powered by the same map data as the mapquest.com site. The app includes live traffic data, point of interest search and more -- and did I mention the free part? Drawbacks include a quieter voice than some of the other offerings; you also have to manually choose between power-saving mode (where the app will allow the phone to sleep) and high-performance mode. Still, if you're looking for voice directions on a budget, it's a great place to start. (Note that both MapQuest Mobile and our #2 pick require data connectivity to download maps on the go.)

For a budget vehicle mount, Arkon delivers no-frills units in windshield or lighter-socket ($20) and beanbag friction mounts ($30). Personally I don't care for lighter socket mounts, as they make it much more difficult to glance at the map while driving when the phone is mounted so far out of the driver's heads-up sightlines. I've been using the IPM512 friction mount for a while, and it works; the phone holder swivels to work either in portrait or landscape, and it includes adjustable 'feet' to slide out of the way of the dock port and the headphone jack. It does sometimes tend to accidentally press the phone's sleep switch, but for the most part it works well.

To power the low-cost setup, any USB adapter will do; best to combine it with an iPhone sync cable plus a USB A-A extender to give you the slack you'll need. The Bracketron dual adapter ($25) is available at most Staples stores and will happily charge both the iPhone and a second device.

Medium

The next navigation app up the ladder doesn't cost much, but it's garnered some high-powered fans. MotionX-GPS Drive ($0.99, also available for iPad at $2.99) may not have impressed Mel for last year's gift guide, but others swear by it. The advantage here is that you can get the app at the low price, then if you like it re-up for 30 days ($2.99) or a year ($19.99) of live voice navigation as you like -- visual/map navigation is free of charge after the initial purchase.

Like MapQuest, MotionX-GPS requires data service to download maps, but you have the option of caching your route to avoid any hiccups or data issues on the way. The current version includes links to Facebook's check-in feature, full business/POI search and contacts integration. MotionX now even integrates with newer Pioneer in-dash hardware, as reported earlier this month.

The middle-range mounting solution is Griffin's WindowSeat mobile hands-free kit, which combines both power and a mount with a microphone-equipped aux 1/8" cable for audio and speakerphone use. The PowerJolt universal adapter included in the package provides 1 amp charging, and the simple bracket/suction cup holder keeps the phone tucked into position. The package retails for $49.99.

If you dislike the bracket shuffle, consider Clingo. This new mounting tech from Allsop uses a super-sticky pad (which apparently leaves no residue behind) to hold your devices neatly in place. The window-mount unit retails for $29.99.

Large

The next tier of navigation apps are all dramatically more expensive, which can cause a bit of app sticker shock. They do bring along a key advantage, though -- maps are included in the app itself, rather than downloaded on demand. This means that app downloads and updates in iTunes can take quite a while, but it also means you'll never be stranded without data service while navigating (and if you're traveling overseas/in a roaming area, the data costs would be pretty expensive).

The 'big three' in full-featured, maps-included navigation are Magellan (just updated with a new look and features), TomTom and Navigon; all the apps have their adherents, but for my money Navigon MobileNavigator is the best of the bunch. I've used the USA East Region version (on sale for $24.99; full USA map version is $34.99 on sale) for frequent drives in and around New York City, and it's been very consistent and reliable. Navigon offers versions for most countries and regions, so if you're headed out of town it's worth a look.

One of my favorite features in the Navigon app is the three-routes option at the start of navigation; the app shows you the route it thinks is best, but also two alternatives that may be better under specific circumstances. You can choose which way you want to go, rather than heading off in what the app thinks is the wrong direction and having to wait for it to clue in.

A premium app deserves a premium phone cradle; there are good options in the $100 Griffin RoadTrip HandsFree or the $70 Belkin TuneBase Direct, but as mentioned I'm not big on the power socket mounting approach. Instead, I'd suggest taking a look at the Dension Car Dock for iPhone -- an integrated unit that includes both aux and FM outputs, power, and a custom app for device control and navigation links. In-app purchase adds 'Car Finder' mode, which saves the exact GPS spot where you parked to help you find your way back. The Dension unit lists at 80 euros, but hopefully will be coming to US distribution soon; I'd expect it to hit at about $100 when it gets here. and is available in the US now.

Of course, if you choose the TomTom app you should also get the custom-fit TomTom car kit, and for $100 it's got to offer something more: enhanced GPS performance, a built-in powered speaker and better hands-free calling. It uses the same easy-mount back found on TomTom's dedicated units. TomTom's case also works fine with the other GPS apps; commenter Paul notes that there is a free TomTom Car Kit app to disable warning messages, read GPS status and more.

If you already have a mounting solution but need a sleek, cable-minimizing power and audio solution, check out XtremeMac's InCharge Auto Aux for $50. Using the dock/charge connector for audio, it includes an aux-out jack in the charger housing, keeping the cable clutter at bay.

Whichever size fits your needs -- small, medium, or large -- enjoy your summer drives!

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