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The arrow is pointing up for navigation apps on Android

by Marty Gabel

At its onset, Android had an obvious advantage over other mobile operating systems as far as its navigation capabilities are concerned. It helps to be able to draw from the innovation and bundled features found in Google Maps. Today, Android’s navigation features, which include a wealth of independently developed applications, are making standalone GPS units relics of the past.

Time to put the TomTom to bed?

I have a standalone GPS unit which I still use in the car. It’s an old model. It’s big, cumbersome, the battery doesn’t last long, the maps are out of date and it doesn’t even speak the name of the streets like more modern ones do. It still cost me a few hundred bucks back then, and at the time was one of the best you could get. Sure, it still gets me from A to B reasonably well, but there are no MP3 capabilities, no Bluetooth, and the darn suction cup never sticks to the windshield properly.

But enough about my problems. When I got my first Android smartphone, I was impressed by Google’s navigation ability and the handy “car mode.” But it had a few issues like losing signal or battery drain with the GPS on. It’s notable however, that both Verizon and Sprint have continued to offer their own navigation apps. Verizon’s VZ Navigator is free, but costs a whopping $9.99 per month. However, it is pretty feature-filled and gives you traffic alerts, roadside assistance and more. Sprint’s Navigation comes pre-installed on its phones and is free. But I’m not sure it offers much more than Google’s own app.

Related Android App List: Mobile Navigation

Other alternatives

Garmin also released its Garminfone last year. A hybrid cross between a standalone GPS unit and smartphone, but perhaps with more in common with the former. Still, it was reasonably well received but sold slowly and dropped in price (for existing T-Mobile customers) quite quickly.

As time moves on, however, Google continues to improve its Maps and navigation offerings, and possibly helped make ideas like the Garminfone increasingly more obsolete. Further, dedicated navigation apps from Verizon and Sprint begin to look a little unnecessary. One important addition for Google’s dedicated app was the capability to use its navigation offline when out of range of satellites or 3G. It also offers transit navigation features for those in new cities, but not necessarily in a vehicle.

There are still a lot of good navigation apps in the Android Market, and it’s encouraging for Android users everywhere that there’s so much choice. Sygic gives you a free seven-day trial for its comprehensive navigation services. TeleNav, while free for its limited feature set, offers its premium services for $2.99 per month (quite a substantial saving on Verizon). MobileNavigator USA from Navigon might set you back close to $60, but once you’ve paid, that’s it -- no more pesky subscription fees. Then there are some more intriguing players in the navigation market like Waze. This app offers a social take on GPS with community features so users can let other drivers know about obstacles ahead like speed traps or snarled-up traffic. I’m not sure how effective it is, but it’s an interesting extension to the standard navigation apps out there.

Future direction

So what does the future hold? Well, it looks pretty bright. While Google will no doubt continue to improve, consistently stay up-to-date, and add more features, there is some new technology out there which could be very promising. Right now, Wikitude Drive US is a little pricey at $14.15, but it offers an Augmented Reality approach to navigation so you see the road ahead via your device’s camera overlaid with arrows and information. This state-of-the-art feature could make things just that bit safer and efficient.

Whichever app you choose, whether you stick with free offerings or pony-up for something a little more sophisticated, we’re sure the state of Android navigation is pretty good right now with plenty of choice and some great technology. It might not be time to chuck out the dedicated GPS unit just yet (unless it sucks like mine), but that day may well be approaching soon.