Show me the way to go home

The personal navigation device (PND) market is under threat from the increasing proliferation of high end smartphones that are able to run navigation apps as just one of many functions. At least, that’s the premise put forward by many within the mobile industry. With players like Nokia and Google making turn by turn navigation readily available to smartphone users, are the days of the dedicated satnav truly numbered?

Not yet, if our experience is anything to go by. PND manufacturer TomTom enabled us to try a little experiment, sending us one of its latest PNDs, the GoLive 550, and giving us the iPhone TomTom app to run up against it. Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive review, given that we were pitting just one PND against one app on one smartphone, but it certainly gave a clear indication of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two options.

You’d think that price would be one of the biggest benefits of the app over the PND and, indeed, the iPhone app is a lot cheaper than the PND, priced at £49.99. But that’s not the end of the story, with the HD Traffic in-app add-on costing a further £22.99. Then there’s the bespoke iPhone cradle, which you need if you’re to have anything like a comparable experience to a dedicated PND, which is currently on sale at Apple’s store for £99.95. So all in, the set up cost is £173 ($270).

The GoLive 550, meanwhile, cost £150 in mid January from a popular online UK retailer. There’s no real need to offer a review of that piece of kit. Anyone familiar with satnav knows how they work, and the 550 performed without a hitch across a large number of journeys, opening our eyes to a number of handy shortcuts in the process

The iPhone app’s performance was significantly less satisfying. In the first instance, this thing drains power like nothing else we’ve seen. Even if you just use it for the end of a journey, for finding a residential address in an unfamiliar area, you’ve got to be quick. We found that with a battery life of about 25 per cent remaining, the app would wring the phone’s juice out in about ten minutes. We spoke to other users who said their experience was that, even plugged into the cradle, itself plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter, the app drained power faster than the phone could pull it from the car, meaning that it ran dead even when plugged in.

Obviously this is a hardware issue, and you could simply blame Apple’s battery technology and power management. But if one app can effectively render a phone useless, then that app isn’t going to get a lot of uptime. The phone also let itself down in terms of the audio instructions. At top volume the handset couldn’t cut it over a combination of road noise and spoken word radio, meaning that the radio had to be turned down every time an instruction was issued.

Then there’s the app’s inability to keep pace with the speed of the car. Even at low speeds we found ourselves a lot further down the road than the handset display, which was struggling to update fast enough to stay useful. And the iPhone’s GPS reception was repeatedly worse than the PNDs, which is pretty poor when you’re using it for navigation. That navigation was noticeably worse than what we got from the PND, unfortunately. The iPhone App tried to take us the wrong way down one-way streets, or took us to dead ends on a number of occasions.

The most obvious problem, though, is that, if you share a car with your spouse you need two handset-based solutions if you opt to shun a dedicated satnav. And that just doesn’t make sense financially; certainly if you both have iPhones.

Based on this trial, there’s only one way to go—the dedicated PND.

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