When I first bought my iPhone in 2008, I was looking forward to turn-by-turn navigation thanks to its built-in GPS capability. Unfortunately the built-in Maps application can’t do turn-by-turn (although it can plot you a route and give a list of directions). What’s more, Apple’s SDK agreement prevented developers from selling their own turn-by-turn apps on the App Store.
However, with the release of iPhone OS 3.0 last year the restriction on turn-by-turn navigation apps was lifted, and since then we’ve started to see some very capable apps appearing for iPhone.
Sygic Mobile Maps was the first iPhone turn-by-turn navigation app available here in Australia. It was launched back in June 2009. Since then many others have sprung up here, including TomTom (with an optional car kit for charging, better sound, and better GPS), Navigon, CoPilot and more. (Here’s a good, if slightly out of date, comparison chart.)
I decided to go with Sygic because:
- It uses the same Australian maps as TomTom (Whereis), which are reputed to be the best
- It offers an impressive range of features, including multiple alternative route options, auto map zooming, signposts, lane assistance, and lots of customisation options
- It seems well-liked among the iPhone community, and Sygic do seem to listen seriously to customer feedback – they frequently release lots of updates with added features and fixes
- It’s cheaper than many other apps such as TomTom. (Even better – it’s currently on sale at AUD $59.99.)
Mobile Maps in action, showing a signpost, speed cameras, and current speed limit. (No, I wasn’t driving at 121 km/h – this is the demo mode!)
Choosing a route
When you start Sygic Mobile Maps, it takes a few seconds to acquire a GPS lock, and then shows you your current position on a 3D map. You can rotate your iPhone to view the map (and all other screens) in either portrait or landscape mode. You can also zoom in and out by tapping and holding the buttons at the top right and left of the screen, which works well.
The Mobile Maps main screen shows a 3D map of your route. The bottom right panels are (clockwise from top left): ETA, current speed, GPS signal strength, and distance to destination.
Choosing a route is easy. You tap the screen to get to the menu, then tap the Navigate to… icon. You can choose to navigate to an impressive variety of places:
- An entered address or postcode
- An address in your Contacts
- A favourite
- Your home (you can set up your home address in the settings)
- A location in your history (locations you’ve previously visited)
- A specific point on a map of Australia
- A hotel or restaurant near where you are now, near a specific address, or near your destination
- A POI (point of interest), such as tourist spots, ATMs, food outlets, parking spots, and so on. There are over 600,000 POIs in the Australia map alone, grouped into over 80 categories. You can also add and edit your own POIs.
- A specific latitude/longitude
If you don’t like the route chosen then you have many options. Tap Alternative route to get a list of ways to reroute. You can compute an alternative route automatically, avoid the current route for so many kilometres (handy for roadworks and the like), travel via a specific address, contact or other POI, and more.
You can also tap Show route summary then Details to see if the route uses roads such as motorways, toll roads, or unpaved roads. If you don’t want to use a particular road type, tap it to disable it and reroute. (Unfortunately the unpaved roads option didn’t seem to work for me – it took me down an unpaved road regardless.)
Once you’ve set your route, just start driving! The app shows your position and route on the 3D map. The bottom quarter of the screen clearly shows your next turning and how far away it is, as well as other useful info such as current speed, ETA and so on (you can configure which info is shown in the settings). A horizontal blue bar above this info shows you how far you’ve progressed along the route.
Turn directions are clearly spoken, although I found you need the iPhone’s volume turned up to around 70-80% to hear them when driving at speed. You can choose from a wide range of voices and languages, and many voices feature TTS (text-to-speech), which reads out the name of the street you’re turning into. (Occasionally it gets the pronunciation hilariously wrong, but it doesn’t really matter.)
The app has some nice touches, such as a large symbol showing you the current speed restriction, and the ability to add a warning sound if you go too much over the limit (you can adjust the threshold at which the warning occurs). Occasionally it would get the speed limit wrong – e.g. 60 km/h when I was in a 50 zone – but it was a very useful feature nonetheless.
You can also set a warning sound for any POI, which can be handy for things like speed cameras, as well as service stations if you’re low on fuel. For each POI, you can choose the distance at which to sound the warning, the warning sound itself (you have 10 options to choose from), and whether to warn only if the POI is on your route.
The app is also supposed to recognise 40 km/h school zones here in Australia, although this didn’t work for me.
On my test run to to Sydney and back, there were 2 occasions where the app dropped the ball and missed a turning, asking me to continue following the route when in fact I should have turned left or right. Presumably this is due to out-of-date or inaccurate Whereis maps. However in both cases the app re-routed me instantly, instructing me to perform some pretty impressive manoeuvres down hitherto-unknown slip roads to get me back on the route in under a minute.
Sygic, as with any other GPS-powered app, is very battery-hungry. I fully charged the iPhone before setting off. After my 90-minute drive to Sydney the battery was down to 30%. I’ll certainly be looking at an in-car charger for the phone if I do any longer trips.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Mobile Maps. From some of the reviews I’d seen of the Sygic app, and iPhone GPS apps in general, I was expecting an ugly, hard-to-use interface with unreliable position tracking.
In fact, I found the app’s graphics clear and readable (if not exactly beautiful) and the app was straightforward to use (although some menu options were a bit hidden and hard to find).
To get accurate GPS tracking, Sygic (and others) recommend you mount your iPhone on the windscreen so that it has a clear view of the satellites in the sky. No doubt the TomTom cradle with its own GPS chip would help too (apparently it’ll work with all navigation apps).
Anyway, I haven’t got around to buying a cradle yet, so I simply blu-tacked the iPhone onto my Corolla’s dash, just below one of the vents. Worked like a charm! I got a good GPS signal the whole time. The position tracking was spot on and never failed, although I admit I didn’t try it in a city centre with really tall buildings. Maybe that’s where the TomTom cradle comes into its own.
It’s true that the app’s user interface is pretty non-standard for an iPhone app, which means there’s a bit of a learning curve. For example, you often tap to move between pages rather than dragging to scroll, and drag a slider instead of pinching to zoom (although you can now drag and pinch in the latest version). That said, when you’re trying to operate the app with one hand in your car then dragging and pinching aren’t the easiest gestures to carry out anyway.
A few things about Mobile Maps do bug me though:
- Nasty non-standard keyboard. The keyboard you use for entering data and narrowing down choices is horrid. Having got used to the standard iPhone keyboard, the Sygic keyboard is like going back in time to an old PDA keyboard. Clumsy; no auto-correction; no pop-up keys. What’s more, the “numeric” key is on the right (on the iPhone keyboard it’s on the left), and the “Backspace” key is sometimes where you’d expect to find the “Enter” key on the iPhone keyboard. The space bar is also tiny. If Sygic simply switched to the iPhone keyboard, it would make data entry an awful lot nicer.
- Unreliable voice directions. Most of the time you get voice directions at set points as you approach a turning – say, 1km, 500m, and 250m. However, occasionally it doesn’t give you voice directions until you’re 250m or closer to the turning, by which time it’s almost too late to make the turn. I’m not sure why this happens, but it happens less than 5% of the time. Usually you get plenty of warning.
- Lane assistant colours. A minor point: The lane assistant is a nice touch, but when you’re glancing at the screen it’s quite hard to distinguish between the green “stay in this lane” arrow and the grey “don’t go in this lane” arrow. More colour contrast would help.
- Confusing interface elements. On the whole the user interface is pretty decent, but some things are confusing. For example, when you first start the app it asks you “Do you want to go online?”, with no indication of why you’d want to go online. What’s more, there’s nothing in the somewhat terse user guide covering the online settings. (Conversely the user guide appears to indicate that you can set separate volume levels for low and high driving speeds, but I can’t find this option in the app itself.) The app also defaults to imperial measurements (miles and yards), which is daft for an Australian app. Also, the horizontally-scrolling menu system could be clearer (it took me ages to find out how to edit your POIs).
On the whole I was very impressed by Sygic Mobile Maps. This is the first turn-by-turn navigation system I’ve used (on any platform) and I found there was something magical about letting the app worry about directing me to my destination. It made the drive less stressful and I could concentrate more on the actual driving. I’m sure other apps such as TomTom are just as good, if not better in some respects, but for now I’m sticking with Sygic (and looking forward to their forthcoming real-time traffic feature too!).