Source: St. Paul Pioneer Press
By Julio Ojeda-Zapata

For years, Lee Jones used a standalone Garmin GPS car navigation device to find his way around on the road and scarcely gave the matter any thought.

Recently, though, his wife accidentally broke the device, and the Minneapolis man had to turn to the mapping apps on his Apple iPhone.

And he liked them. He liked them a lot.

“It has been fantastic,” Jones said.

He is not the only one making this discovery. With the advent of smartphone-based navigation, more drivers are turning away from specialized Garmin and TomTom devices and are even eschewing the state-of-the-art GPS systems built into new cars.

Phones do fine, they’ve found, and are more convenient because the devices go where they go: They can be used for walking directions and public-transportation guidance, too.

Phone-based navigation has been in the spotlight this past week with Apple and Google each touting big improvements to their Web-based mapping.

On Monday, June 11, Apple announced a homegrown mapping service for its iOS devices, including the iPhone and iPad, effectively demoting Google Maps from those gadgets.

Apple’s mapping includes spoken turn-by-turn directions for motorists, along with traffic alerts and zoomable, richly textured 3D aerial vistas. The features were revealed at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference as part of the the new iOS 6 operating system, which will become available to iOS-device users this year.

Google has dominated phone-based navigation

since 2009, when the release of the Motorola Droid debuted spoken turn-by-turn directions for Android devices as part of its Google Maps.

Not to be outshone by Apple, however, Google made its own spate of map announcements last week. These included aerial 3D maps similar to the Apple 3D maps (both companies have used camera-equipped planes to create their respective from-the-air vistas), along with downloadable or “offline” maps and improvements to its popular Street View service.

With a phone-mapping war now erupting between Google and Apple, which was once reliant on Google for this, standalone GPS equipment for drivers is expected to fade further in importance.

This has already eaten deeply into TomTom sales, but rival Garmin has fared better because of an aggressive push into GPS devices for athletes.

Aaron Kardell of Arden Hills has had no shortage of car-navigation options. He and and his wife have shared a TomTom navigation device, and both their cars have integrated GPS systems with spoken turn-by-turn directions.

And yet, “98 percent of the time we both opt to use our iPhones,” he said.

“It is faster and more straightforward (to route a trip) on the iPhone,” he said. “It is easier to look up a restaurant or other point of interest, or do complex searches. It’s a speed-of-access thing.”

The Google Maps app now built into the iPhone lacks spoken turn-by-turn directions, but several mapping apps from third parties such as TomTom provide this capability (often at a steep cost). The debut of iOS 6 and its mapping service will usher in a new role for TomTom as one of Apple’s key providers of geographical data.

Jon Tapper of Boston recently disposed of a Garmin GPS unit and, when buying a new car and presented with the option of paying a bit extra for up-to-date built-in navigation, turned that down.

“By that point, I had fallen in love with my smartphone GPS,” said Tapper, who uses an HTC Incredible 2 handset with the Android operating system and Google Maps navigation.

“It has been flawless,” he said. “Boston streets have been changing all the time” due to a spate of major construction, he said, and yet the phone never steers him wrong.

Jerry Robertson of St. Paul has been impressed with Google Maps navigation on his Motorola Atrix 2 phone, which has helped him discover better routes to destinations in his neighborhood than the ones he has used for years.

“I turned on navigation even though I knew where I was going, and the route the phone found was way better,” he said. “Overall, the accuracy is fantastic.”

Keegan Shoutz of Minneapolis uses the Mapquest app on his iPhone even though his Ford Fiesta has the much-ballyhooed Ford SYNC technology with voice recognition for routing a drive with spoken commands.

Shoutz’s problem: SYNC often doesn’t understand him.

“It’s a bit easier to just grab my phone, and faster to just type it” into the Mapquest app, he said.

However, not everyone is completely thrilled with how a smartphone functions as a car-navigation device.

Carol Margolis, who lives in Florida and runs the PearlsofTravelWisdom.com and SmartWomenTravelers.com sites, has found phone-based navigation to be a major drain on the device’s battery, so she takes care to always carry a car charger for the handset.

Also, she has difficulty making or receiving calls while also navigation because “I hear two voices in my ear and often miss what the GPS tells me. My solution: stay off the phone while I’m using the GPS, but that’s tough!”

Pete Butler of Pittsburgh, who navigates with an Android phone, said he “would pay cash money to anyone who could make my Android behave the way my old TomTom did. Google Maps GPS has some interesting features, but also glaring deficiencies — and is, at random times, unusable.”

Sometimes it crashes, he said. Sometimes its maps don’t load completely. Sometimes it seems to forget a major artery near his house.

“On balance, I give the bloody thing a D-plus,” he said.

Julio Ojeda-Zapata writes about consumer technology. Read him: twincities.com/techtestdrive and yourtechweblog.com. Reach him: jojeda@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5467. Follow him at ojezap.com/social.

Tags: android, gps, ios, maps