Living in the car capital of the world, it wasn't that long ago we remember every Angeleno had a bible in our caar. That's a bible with a lowercase "b", because what we're referring to is the directional scriptures known as Thomas Guides. Then came the great reformation of add-on auto GPS units, making the awesome, yet cumbersome printed maps obsolete. And now we find ourselves packing up our Garmin GPS unit because we don't need it any longer...
Of course, what we're referring to is the explosion of GPS apps for both smartphones and tablets. We once used a Samsung Galaxy Tab with 3G connectivity and a screen that dwarfed our Garmin unit to navigate and never forgot how awesome it was to get around using a visual aid that large.
Though nowhere as large as a tablet, we've been testing out two alternatives for travel navigation to compare to the iPhone+Google Maps experience and also against the tried and true stand alone Garmin unit. Our Windows Phone 7 device, the HTC HD7 was recently updated to the Mango OS, and one of the biggest improvements was made to Bing Maps, Microsoft's answer to Google Maps. Previously, the best we could say about Bing Maps was it was free and...well, it was free. The GPS map would update so slowly, by the time the phone would update our location, we were already "there" at our destination (often without knowing it or passing it by). But more about the new and improved Bing Maps later.
Recently we dropped some coin...actually the most we've ever spent on an app ($29.99 for a limited time, then back up to $49.99)...for the first WP7 onboard maps navigation app, NAVIGON. iPhone and Android have already had this app for awhile now, but this version was designed to look and feel a part of the WP7 experience we know and love. So now we had two options, one free and integrated into the operating system and another paid app with features like Live Traffic reporting, Reality View Pro, Lane Assistant Pro, voice options, Augmented Reality feature, and all the bells and whistles. Which would prove easier to use navigating Los Angeles?
Surprisingly, we found the Mango updated Bing Maps on par, if not better than NAVIGON, at least locally here in Los Angeles. NAVIGON's primary advantage happens to also be its disadvantage: the app requires a humongous, lengthy 2.3GB download of all the maps. So this means you'll always have all the maps available, accessible even when a GPS connection isn't available and less cache/download refresh slowdown. But the tradeoff is a huge chunk of storage lost for a great many maps you'll never need or access. Also, NAVIGON surprisingly does not announce street names, instead offering general directional guidance, which is disorienting coming from using a Garmin Nuvi (though we spent many of hours on road trips mimicking and making fun of the robotic voices and mispronunciations).
The geographic database of map data is extensive and accurate, whether in the car or walking around the neighborhood, and if you're a strong user of Points of Interest (restaurants, gas stations, tourist spots, etc), the speed in which the app pulls up recommendations is fast. We can't really vouch for the quality of restaurants it recommends sometimes (McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut are their own Sub Category!), but when traveling, sometimes the recognizable is the most safe. And as mentioned before, because the unit doesn't rely on having a consistent GPS signal, even when out in the boonies, the NAVIGON seems to keep track of where you're going and offers directions assuredly (well, except for the not speaking out street names part). The app has proven itself to be our go-to solution when traveling outside city limits for these reasons.
On the flip side is the integrated Windows Phone 7 Bing Maps app. It's bare bones compared to NAVIGON, but we've found it's as accurate, as fast to refresh as you're moving along, and it throws out directions clearly and concisely, including street names. The turn by turn list with maps makes it easy for my navigator, aka girlfriend, to keep an eye where we're going without much fuss. The Mango update really improved everything about the Maps experience, right down to the color/graphics of the maps themselves. So where once we derided Microsoft Bing Maps as the drooling slow halfwit brother to Google Maps, Bing seems now like an Advanced Placement pencil neck geek of navigational knowledge.
So we find ourselves ditching one device and replacing it with two apps on a single device, Bing Maps and NAVIGON. One for local-city travel, the other for out-of-town getaways. We're okay with the 2 for 1 tradeoff, because the stick-on-the-dashboard was getting old and unwieldy (the unit took up all of our glovebox space).
And when not in use, we can now just walk away with our GPS service our phone, not tied down to a single use device which we have no desire to be walking around with. Smartphones sometimes prove themselves to be exactly what they purport to be: smart. And in tandem these couple of navigation apps make us a whole lot smarter while driving without the burden of using an additional device.