Road test: Navigon's flat-rate iPhone navigation app

If you'd rather not pay 10 bucks per month for navigation software, consider Navigon's non-subscription alternative. It works nicely, but desperately needs some updates.

MobileNavigator offers 3D maps and turn-by-turn directions, but no text-to-speech or real-time traffic.

I don't know which is more disappointing: that it took this long to bring navigation software to the iPhone, or that most vendors are charging monthly fees for it.

That's one reason I was excited to try Navigon's MobileNavigator, which has a flat-rate price of $69.99 (until August 15, at which time it jumps to $99.99).

Steep, yes, but to me that's much more attractive than paying $9.99 per month for AT&T's Navigator or Networks in Motion's Gokivo . (TomTom hasn't yet announced a pricing plan for its forthcoming nav app .)

I took MobileNavigator for a test-drive on a recent trip. Bottom line: It performed like a typical navigation system--a really, really basic navigation system.

Indeed, while the app offers solid voice-guided, turn-by-turn routing, it lacks several obvious features.

For starters, it doesn't support real-time traffic data, so forget about steering clear of construction zones and traffic jams.

Nor does the app let you call phone numbers in its points-of-interest database. In fact, it doesn't even include phone numbers, which is mind-boggling.

Perhaps most disappointing, MobileNavigator doesn't do text-to-speech, meaning you don't hear street names. Instead, it merely says, "Turn right ahead." That's pretty inexcusable; even old closeout GPS models like this one do text-to-speech.

The good news is that all these oversights will be remedied in forthcoming updates. However, only one--POI phone calling--is on tap for the free update that's "coming soon." The others will be added later, and it's not clear if you'll have to pay extra to get them.

(Map updates will definitely cost extra, which is one point in favor of subscription-based GPS, which usually includes frequent map and POI updates.)

MobileNavigator does offer a few amenities, including an admirably simple interface, portrait and landscape map views, and a lane-assist feature coupled with photo-realistic views of expressway ramps and exits.

The app worked quickly and accurately with the routes I gave it, though I did encounter an odd bug: Sometimes the screen would dim and then turn off (with voice prompts still coming through, however), and sometimes it stayed lit. I'm all for power-saving, but give me a choice in the matter.

At this point I honestly can't decide whether to recommend MobileNavigator or not. The flat-rate pricing is a big draw, but even $69.99 seems high for what you get--especially when you can buy a standalone GPS for the same or less. (And the future $99.99 price? Too high, period.)

Meanwhile, the app is missing a few too many features for my liking, though I'm glad to know many of them are in the works. And I think that's the best way to describe MobileNavigator: an app that's in the works. It's good now, but it could be much, much better.

 

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