Cheap and Good: Google Navigation Beta on Moto Droid

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| October 29, 2009


Perhaps the most far-reaching feature to be found in Android 2.0, in terms of impact on the wireless and consumer electronics industries in general, is Google Maps Navigation. Google's free turn-by-turn Nav app debuted in Beta form on Verizon's Motorola Droid phone, and basically adds a nav system with voice prompts to the Maps application already found in Android. The little "Navigate" button has already sent shockwaves through the tech world and caused Garmin and Tom Tom's stock prices to tumble earlier this week. But does it work?

In a word: Yes.

I tested the nav system yesterday when I drove to FedEx to ship some goodies to @PhoneDog_John. My FedEx location of choice is about a five minute drive from my office, so this was a quick test, but it provided ample opportunities for me to test the system's re-routing capabilities. For as is often the case with machine-generated directions to a place you already know how to get to, Google's suggested route was physically the shortest path from Point A to Point B, but my preferred route let me skip past a busy intersection and avoid a few speed bump-laden sidestreets.

So I grabbed Droid, hopped in my hybrid (yep, HAD to throw that in there) and headed off to ship John's box. Nav on Droid was easy to follow, due both to how brightly the clean 2-D map and its large arrows and labels rendered on Droid's enormous 3.7" display, and to the clarity and volume of the female robot voice prompts coming through the phone's speaker. I quickly blew off the first three "Turn left ..." prompts and the system stuck with me, again and again re-calculating its route in time for the next turnoff without missing a beat.

Droid Nav and I were soon on the same page, and the system guided me smoothly to FedEx, delivering me with a "Destination is on right" voice prompt and ... get this ... a Google Maps Street View photo of the building. At first I found the photo to be part-funny and part-creepy, but then I realized that in a real-world situation a photo could come in pretty handy: "Is this the place? Oh yeah, lookie there on the screen. Just like it looks in real life!"

For the trip home I decided to up the ante by jacking Droid into my car stereo's Aux jack and making the phone Nav me home while playing some music. Things worked quite well except for some volume management issues. Seems that the Nav's voice prompts and the media player's output are governed by separate volume controls. So while the volume of my tunes was just right, the first voice prompt from the Nav just about scared me to death. I had to pull the car over to fiddle with Droid's hardware rocker switch, the media player's software-based volume control, and the buttons on my car stereo to get everything back into Zen-like aural harmony. A minor complaint, but something to be tweaked in a future release, I hope.

Once back on the road, my Nav guide's voice started to waver a bit. I'm still not sure if the problem was with the Nav software, Droid's headphone jack, or somewhere else, but the voice prompts distorted a bit when played over my car speakers. Also, sometimes the media player would mute entirely during a voice prompt, while other times the prompt would play over top of the music. Odd. But, again, minor gripes that I'll look into next time I try the thing out.

More importantly, I was able to listen to mp3s and navigate myself home at the same time thanks to Android's multitasking prowess and Droid's capable hardware. And did I mention that Google Maps Navigation is freeware?

Nav for Maps is still in Beta but already features layers (including Google Latitude) and satellite view, not to mention the backend power of Google Map's insanely large database of location data. The system works, it's pretty easy to use, and it integrates nicely with the rest of Android 2.0's features. For all I know there's a section in a Google Lab somewhere devoted to leveraging crowdsourcing to add a "Shortest Route or Locals Only Route?" option that would have guided me along my preferred route to FedEx yesterday, too. 

All in all, my initial run with Droid Nav was a big success. I wouldn't be surprised to see a "iCan't navigate without spending an extra hundred dollars / DroidDoes navigate for free" ad from Verizon pretty soon.

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