Navfree USA: Free Satnav (Android) review: Navfree USA: Free Satnav (Android)
Navfree USA is a North American localization of worldwide, crowdsourced and open-sourced GPS navigation software that is offered for free in the Android market. The world version of the app supports navigation in about 34 countries. Navfree USA chooses to focus on the 50 U.S. states, Canada, and Mexico.
There are two reasons someone would want to take a look at Navfree. Firstly, it's free. There are no charges for map downloads, updates, voices, or language packs. Secondly, the free maps are downloaded and stored locally, which means that you won't have to ping a server to download map tiles while on the road or to calculate and recalculate routes. There's also a third reason to consider and that's the warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when supporting open-source software -- if you're into that sort of thing.
Locally stored map data
After installing the app, the first thing that you'll want to do is to pop into the Upgrades section of the main menu to download the map data that Navfree will need for navigation. If you speak a language other than English or would simply like a different voice for your turn-by-turn directions, here's where you can download additional speech packs, as well.
The map data is provided by OpenStreetMap.org, an open-source repository for crowdsourced and community-moderated street map data. Think of it as a decentralized version of Waze or TomTom MapShare or like Wikipedia for road maps.
OpenStreetMap.org maps for the state of California took up 248.7MB of storage space on my device, so you'll probably want to make this download over a Wi-Fi connection. Factor in the space taken up by the app itself and the total storage footprint for Navfree USA on my Google Nexus 7 totaled up to 314MB, which isn't too bad in the grand scheme of things. However, by comparison, CoPilot GPS' maps for the entire Southwest United States (covering Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah) only took up 172.6MB, with a total app storage footprint of 207.8MB. Now, it's difficult for one person to compare the accuracy of all of that map data, but CoPilot manages to squeeze in four more states with 100MB less data. If you're looking for the absolute smallest footprint on your SD card or internal storage, this is important information to know.
Like most crowdsourced data, the OpenStreetMaps are constantly being refreshed, revised, and (hopefully) improved. So, you'll want to periodically check the app's Upgrades screen for updates. I received two full map updates during my two weeks of testing.
Destination entry and routing
Navfree's main menu features nine buttons for Navigate, Find, Google search, My Route, Upgrades, Route overview, Route options, Home, and Advanced options. However, underneath many of these submenus, you'll find redundant links. For example, the Google search option is present on the home screen, under the Navigate menu, and under the Find menu. The home-screen option Route overview is also found under the umbrella of the My Route submenu, as is the Route options button. It's all very simple, but also very confusing to see the same icons over and over.
When beginning a trip, the user has the option of inputting an address, searching the app's limited database of locally stored points of interest, or -- on connected devices -- searching Google for a business. There exists an icon that should lead to your phone's list of contacts, but the functionality behind the button is not yet available. The locally stored POIs are fairly numerous, but I was unable to find certain small businesses (such as my barbershop, which has stood for decades) or the nearest Target department store. I'm thinking your best bet on a smartphone is a quick Google search or, on Wi-Fi only devices, saving destinations in advance in the list of favorites.
When pathfinding, drivers can choose to avoid highways, avoid tolls and ferries, and make other tweaks to the routing algorithm. Once under way, spoken turn-by-turn directions give audible cues for your next steps. The software doesn't appear to support text-to-speech street name announcements. The live map follows along, as should be expected, and the positioning around my testing grounds of the San Francisco Bay area seemed accurate. Rerouting happened quickly after a turn was missed or a detour taken.
Traffic data is nonexistent. There also doesn't appear to be any graphic lane guidance when approaching major highway interchanges and exits. As GPS navigation software goes, Navfree is about as simple as it comes. "Turn left. Turn right. You've arrived at your destination." No more and no less. In terms of features, Navfree is about on par with the Garmin Nuvi 200 that I used to navigate with half a decade ago and, for most users, that may be just enough.
Google Maps alternative
In the Android 2.0+ world, where Google's own Maps Navigation app dominates, it's difficult to even consider alternative navigation software -- particularly exceedingly basic software like Navfree. For the majority of Android users, Navfree is probably of limited use and appeal. However, those who are keeping a close eye on their data usage on limited data wireless plans may see the appeal of this free app's ability to navigate without a constant data connection. Users of Wi-Fi-only Android devices (such as the Motorola Xoom with Wi-Fi, the Barnes & Noble Nook Color, or the Google Nexus 7) will like Navfree even more, as its ability to calculate a new route without a data connection gives this app an advantage over Google Maps.
There's also a case for using this simple app to repurpose that old disconnected Android phone in your junk drawer as a portable navigation device. Just put it in Airplane mode, activate the GPS antenna, and you're ready to navigate with Navfree.
That there are localized versions of Navfree for over 30 countries also makes this app useful when traveling, when data rates for roaming can make any connection to the Internet exceedingly expensive or network incompatibilities make connection impossible.