AT&T Navigator for iPhone by TeleNav
With the release of AT&T Navigator, powered by TeleNav, we saw the first release of a true street navigation application for the iPhone. Sure– there were a few other attempts ahead of TeleNav, however those lacked important critical navigation features such as voice prompts or required jailbreaking your phone. So is AT&T Navigator up to the task, and is it worth the $9.99 per month subscription fee? We’ve been putting the app to the test over the past few weeks letting it guide us through several hundred miles of destinations.
Network Based Maps
When comparing the TeleNav based app with its current and future competitors, one important fact to keep in mind is that the full set of maps (via NAVTEQ) are not stored on your iPhone– rather they come “over the air” to your phone as necessary. Network based maps versus “on-board” maps has positives and negatives. On the plus side the app is extremely quick to download at only 2.3 MB. So if you find yourself spontaneously in need of directions AT&T Navigator is a quick download away. Installation time is lightning fast, and so are sync times to iTunes. Once you’ve downloaded the app you activate your subscription through SMS.
On the other hand this means that the application relies on network availability for the app to work. Should you find yourself starting a trip in an area without network coverage you are simply out of luck until you drive to an area with network coverage. However I didn’t experience any issues while driving into an area with in and out network coverage– the app downloads maps ahead of time to help prevent that type of issue. Also your phone will spend more time using the network downloading maps as you drive along. This also seems to have a negative impact on battery life. Not only does the iPhone have an appetite for battery power when using the GPS chip, it also seems to drain the battery faster than other GPS applications which use the network less often.
The price of $9.99 per month may sound steep to iPhone owners who are used to a plethora of free and $0.99 apps on the app store. However if you compare similarly designed navigation applications for other phone platforms, including those built by TeleNav, you will find that the price is the same. At $119.88 per year that is double the price of the least expensive PND devices like the Garmin Nuvi 200, however you do get a number of goodies included with that price.
Want a map update with a typical PND? That might set you back $50-$80 per year, but map updates are “included” with AT&T Navigator since the maps are not on-board and are downloaded to your phone as needed. Want live traffic reporting on your PND? While there are free options that are advertising based, other paid options can cost around $60 per year. Traffic updates are included by INRIX through TeleNav. How about fuel prices? Those subscriptions can also cost extra on a typical PND but are included in the AT&T package. So all in all the price is outstanding for the features you get.
Entering a Destination
You can tap out destinations on the iPhone through the applications interface, and this works reasonably well. What is amazingly missing with the app is integration with the Contacts app. I’m dumbfounded that you can’t pull up a contact from your Address Book on the phone and select it as a destination. That is just crazy and makes no sense.
There is however a really cool voice input method. You tap a button which initiates a phone call to the TeleNav service. The service asks you for the destination, disconnects the call, and sends the destination to your device. I was skeptical at first thinking both the voice recognition technology and the speed of the service might deteriorate the convenience however I was pleasantly surprised. The service was very fast and accurate and not the gimmick I thought it might be.
You can also go to a TeleNav based website, navpreplan.com to enter in your destinations. This is smart, easy to do, and a must for pre-planning trips. Enter in all of your destinations ahead of time and they will get loaded into the app for quick access. Note that this isn’t for route planning per se, but rather to speed up entering destinations.
While driving along following a route a few things become readily apparent. First, the screen refresh rate (map update rage) is very choppy compared to both typical PNDs as well as other iPhone based navigation systems. It isn’t slow enough to impact navigation, but people who are more demanding of the app’s aesthetics might take issue.
Second, while the speaker of the iPhone is weak to begin with the voice prompts are terrible. At full volume it isn’t loud enough to hear above 45 mph and even under that speed the voice is difficult to understand. You can turn on and of text to speech it doesn’t change the quality of the voice. While some of this can be blamed on the iPhone’s speaker, other navigation applications I’ve tried on the iPhone have voice that is a bit easier to understand.
The voice prompts are timely, and plenty frequent if you can hear them. They are almost too frequent. When traveling on a local road with numerous intersections the app kept telling me to stay on the road, seemingly with every intersection I passed.
What is very nice is the huge “next turn arrow” at the top left of the screen. This critical piece of information is easy to read due to the color choice of yellow on black and is large enough to digest in a glance. You can tap on the next turn icon to repeat the last voice prompt– something you won’t need to do based on frequency as the app is very chatty but something you will likely need to do in order to understand the voice.
Should you miss a turn, we found the time it takes to re-route a bit slower than we would have liked– perhaps due to the time it takes to send the request up to the network and receive a response. There could be times when you “double miss” a turn due to the slowness, but that is the price you pay to get some of the advantages of network based navigation.
Another feature we found missing was speed limit data. This is available on many PNDs and even competitive iPhone apps but not on the TeleNav offering.
There were a few times when AT&T Navigator seemed to (unfortunately) abide by my iPhone’s sleep preferences. If I didn’t touch the screen every few minutes the screen would eventually dim and then turn off. I expect this is some sort of bug as there is a setting to not allow the iPhone to sleep within the app– but the app didn’t seem to honor that request.
You can play music from the iPod app, enter the AT&T Navigator app, and the music will continue to play. The music will be interrupted by voice prompts as they come in. However I’m not really sure why you would want to do this anyway unless you have some sort of external audio hookup in your car as the iPhone’s speaker isn’t adequate for playing music in the car.
Finally, it was somewhat strange to see that there wasn’t a landscape mode– the app operates in portrait mode only. This didn’t bother me at all and I grew to really like portrait mode for iPhone based navigation both with this app and others. However those of you who are thinking about ditching your widescreen PND for this app might need some time to adjust. You can switch between 2D and 3D maps. There isn’t an option for night-mode nor did I see any night mode switching.
The Final Fix
Overall the AT&T Navigator is an okay application. If you rely on voice prompts you will likely be disappointed. However if you place the iPhone in the vehicle where you can easily catch quick glances of the next turn arrow you will be more impressed. The lack of integration with the contacts app is a big disappointment as well. However if you want the full monty of features like map updates, life traffic, finding the cheapest price fuel (shown right) all in a simple package that is quick to install, then TeleNav might have built a great app for you with AT&T Navigator.