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Navigon USA & CAN navigation review:

Strong GPS app needs an interface overhaul

I'm not a fan of the home screen; having to swipe to reach the destination search option is more annoying than it sounds, especially when the phone is mounted at an arm's length. Additionally, there's no built-in voice search button anywhere on the interface; you have to first open the onscreen keyboard and use its search button. That Garmin does so much better with the interface design of its Nuvi line of PNDs makes this level of design awkwardness almost unacceptable.

But Garmin tells me that Navigon has a dedicated hard-core of users who would freak out if they moved a pixel, so perhaps there's a counterpoint to my criticism.

Road test
Before starting a trip, you'll have to set a destination. Navigon gives you the option to input an address -- drilling down from state to city or ZIP code to street to the street number or intersecting street. However, you'll more likely want to find a point of interest using one of the app's search tools.

destination screen
The app's interface can be confusing. For example, half of these search methods are labeled with vague icons. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Under the "My destinations" menu, you can browse the contacts stored in your phone's address book for addresses, which works fine. You can also, under the "Search for POI" menu, search the locally stored points-of-interest database downloaded as part of map data. These destinations are organized into a plethora of categories, if you simply want to browse.

Though Navigon is designed to be used offline, it does feature some online POI functionality including the ability to find destination by searching via Google Local or Foursquare, which often have more up-to-date listings than the local data.

Once you've chosen a destination, you'll be met with a confirmation screen that shows more information about the destination, traffic nearby, and options for initiating walking or driving navigation to the destination or nearby parking.

Tap the car-shaped icon to start driving, but -- not so fast -- you'll next be greeted with a route preview screen that gives you the choice of up to three color-coded routes. There is no real explanation of the difference among these three routing methods, but one of the them is always highlighted as "My Route," indicating the default. On the surface, there's no rhyme or reason as to why a particular route is chosen as "My Route"; perhaps it's the fastest trip, but one could just as easily assume the alternate routes are just alternates without any specific optimization for distance, efficiency, or speed.

Like the recently reviewed BringGo navigation app, I'm not a fan of having to confirm my destination twice before embarking on a trip. I want to pick a place and go.

Before taking off, you'll have to confirm your destination twice and choose from three unlabled alternative routes. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Users can also use the "Route planning" option to queue multiple destinations, for example when running multiple errands or following a driving tour.

The map screen is simple enough, but not what I'd call "pretty." All of the streets are represented as thin white lines and text for street names can be difficult to read.

On the positive side, the current route is illuminated, by default, in thick orange, making it easy to separate from the rest of the bland maps. Also, when approaching a highway exit, the entire interface changes to a detailed graphic representation of the interchange, complete with lane guidance that helps drivers to predict which lane to be in for the current route. I like this bit.

Spoken directions are easy to understand and feature text-to-speech (TTS) pronunciation of street names.

This lane guidance screen appears occasionally to help the driver navigate complex interchanges and multilane highways. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Generally speaking, the actual navigation experience is good where accuracy and quality of map data, routes chosen, and available destination information is concern. Routes chosen were logical and lined up with my expectations and local experience. Cover your eyes and you might not be able to tell the difference between the routes chosen by the Navigon app and our top-rated Garmin Nuvi 3597LMTHD. As the Navigon app no doubt shares these bits with other Garmin-branded implementations, I'm not surprised.

In sum
I should probably reiterate what I've been asking for when asking Garmin to make its Nuvi/Navigator app available for the North American market. I want the accurate Navteq map data stored locally and the Garmin routing algorithms that I've come to trust, only on my phone. The Navigon app brings both of these things to the table, but I didn't doubt that. When scoring the app, I awarded Navigon a healthy performance score, which helps to bump up the overall star rating.

Navigon performs well and has accurate maps, but its interface could learn a lot from the Garmin Nuvi's design. Screenshot by Antuan Goodwin/CNET

However, the other piece of the puzzle is the fantastic interface design that has kept the name Garmin Nuvi on the tip of my tongue when making GPS recommendations for so many. I want the simple interface, the gorgeous maps, and the clever features, such as Garmin's great hands-free voice command or the new one-box destination input. Here's where Navigon falls flat and loses a lot of the goodwill that it gained, earning a low interface score. The app's interface is, at best, annoying and, at worst, confusing. It doesn't go out of its way to make destination input easy or navigation eye-pleasing and makes justifying the price tag difficult, particularly when compared with the TomTom app, to name a paid option, or the free Google Maps trump card that every Android navigation app must first beat.

What you'll pay

    Visit manufacturer site for details.

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