Back in 2009, Google changed the mobile nav landscape with the original Google Maps Navigation, the first entirely free app that delivered voice-enabled, turn-by-turn directions on Android phones. At the time, no other smartphone offered free GPS navigation with voice prompts, meaning that you could use it while driving. (Google Maps by itself, among other apps, had offered free directions without voice for years.) Since it’s been two and a half years, we thought we’d circle back and test Google Maps Navigation again to check out its various upgrades. It turns out Google has made a few improvements, but still hasn’t addressed some key deficiencies. Nonetheless, it’s a solid app and an easy Editors’ Choice—and you certainly can’t beat the price.
Set Up, Icons, and Home Screen
While today’s Android phones may come with GPS and Google Maps Navigation for free, you should still buy a few accessories if you’re using it behind the wheel. Namely, a windshield or dashboard mount for your phone, and a DC power cord to keep your phone charged. Without the first one, you’ll be a hazard on the road, and without the second, your phone’s battery will drain inside of two hours, thanks to the power-sapping GPS radio.
As has been the case since the first Android version, Google Maps Navigation appears as a separate icon, even though it is part of Google Maps. You can begin voice-enabled navigation by tapping the icon that looks like a blue arrow pointing up (usually it’s called Navigation). Google has added plenty of features to Google Maps itself recently, including indoor maps of public places, indoor walking directions, public transit navigation, bike trails, and photo uploads. For this review, we’ll focus specifically on driving navigation. I tested Google Maps Navigation 6.7.0 on two phones, an ATT HTC One X running Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich), and a Verizon HTC Rezound running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread).
Google just changed up the Navigation home screen again, but you can barely tell. The bland view still shows four main choices: Speak Destination, Type Destination, Go Home, and Map. This is an improvement from before, when it showed Contacts and Starred Places, and now better reflects the way a standalone GPS device works. The home screen still has plenty of unused space, though, and barely hints at the app’s capabilities.
At the top is a toolbar with drop-down menus for navigation options, toggling driving and walking modes, and a three-dot menu spillover icon for route options, setting your home address, settings, and help. In the Navigation drop down, you can find places, check in at your current location, view your location history, and view your list of starred places. But there are also redundant options for navigation and the map view, and a Google Play icon with a blank space next to it; the impression is that Google programmers can add and subtract items at will without anyone looking at the results. On the plus side, Google Maps Navigation offers a Car mode, which puts five big finger-friendly icons in a landscape view. It’s not particularly attractive—HTC’s version in Sense 4.0 is much nicer—but it’s useful to have.
POI Search, Routing, and Audio
Searching for points of interest (POIs) is as good as it gets, as this is Google we’re talking about. One of the things that makes Google Maps Navigation different from other GPS apps is the way you search for points of interest. Just like with Google on the desktop, you can search just by typing or speaking the word—say, pizza, or bars—and you’ll immediately get a list of what’s nearby, instead of drilling down through lists of categories. You can do the same for other cities as well. Entering addresses is even easier, thanks to the voice input. You can say, “320 Elm Street in Portland, Oregon” or even, “Navigate to the nearest theater showing Battleship“—which, judging from the reviews of the film, we wouldn’t recommend—and it will listen and take you there. In a series of tests, it mostly picked up whatever I said without a mistake, and there’s also a learning mode you can activate to tailor it to your voice over time.
Once on the road, Google Maps Navigation is a willing partner, though it can still use a little improvement. You can navigate via 2D or 3D views, even with satellite maps instead of road maps, which looks stunning, if dubious from a functional standpoint. Actual road maps look bland, though, and lack terrain data and POI icons. The frame rate is smooth, and the maps are otherwise easy to read. However, the app still doesn’t display the current road speed limit, which is a strange omission given that all major competing apps do. When appropriate, Google Maps Navigation also shows beautiful, photorealistic destination views and highway exits, but it lacks a generic placeholder 3D graphic, so you won’t see anything if it doesn’t have a picture.
Some of the actual routes were a little questionable in testing. Before I moved back to New York City, it always routed me out of my neighborhood in Massachusetts the long way, for example, even though it added a mile to each route (and it did know the other streets existed; it just seemed to calculate incorrectly each time.) It also didn’t always cut through traffic the way I would have in Manhattan, especially with regard to secondary streets that sometimes also had gridlock. A way to turn off the automatic rerouting based on traffic patterns would be welcome.
On the audio side, voice prompts have improved considerably in their timing and sophistication. I didn’t hear any ridiculously long jumbles of redundant info, like I did when I first tested the app several years ago. One minor quirk: On the HTC One X running Android 4.0, I heard a new, smoother-sounding voice. But on the older HTC Rezound 2.3, I still heard the same nasal-sounding voice, even though both phones were running Google Maps 6.7.0. The new one is a definite improvement, so here’s hoping it makes it to more handsets.
So if Google Maps Navigation is free, and so good, why would anyone ever pay for the TeleNav-powered ATT Navigator, Sprint Navigator, or any of the standalone apps floating around on other phones? Only Android phones have Google Maps Navigation, for starters; the free Google Maps app on the iPhone isn’t voice-enabled, for example. As for the others, TomTom, Garmin, TeleNav, and Magellan all have a more driving-focused UI, with large, simple buttons, and relevant driving information. Our current Editors’ Choice on the iOS side, TomTom 1.8 (for iPhone) ($59.99, 4 stars), is particularly good in this regard. Google Maps might be the best there is in terms of map data and up-to-date POIs. But you can still tell Google hasn’t spent a decade refining its driving algorithms the way the other manufacturers have.
What must keep the other vendors up at night is that Google offers so much more in other areas, such as its photorealistic views, its satellite view, its excellent voice recognition for POI and destination search, and, well, the fact that it’s free. Even more so than in 2009, Google Maps Navigation is one big checkmark in the column for “Reasons to buy an Android phone.” It’s our Editors’ Choice for GPS navigation apps on Android even despite its flaws. It’s just not worth it to pay by the month for a third-party app when this one is so good.