Andy Ihnatko, a Boston resident who writes a great technology column for the Chicago Sun-Times, is one of my favorite technology reporters. He really knows his stuff, he offers great advice, and his writing style is very funny. A few weeks ago, Ihnatko reviewed some of the iPhone apps that provide GPS turn-by-turn directions. Most of these apps cost around $100, so I was surprised to see that Ihnatko's favorite of the bunch was MotionX GPS Drive, which only costs $2.99. That price includes one month of voice navigation. After the month is finished, you can pay another $2.99 for another month of service, but this is not a subscription service; you can wait until you actually need to use the program again before paying the additional $2.99, which you do from within the app. Since I rarely have a pressing need for turn-by-turn directions—my practice rarely requires me to drive to new locations, and my commute from my home to my office is just a few minutes—I can't justify spending $100 for an app that I would use so infrequently. But $2.99? That I can afford, and I've tried this app a few times over the past month, both on short drives within New Orleans and on long drives to other cities.
My verdict is mixed. The app is often very useful and ultimately I'm happy to have it and will use it again, but the app has drawbacks, such as the lack of text-to-speech which means that it doesn't tell you the name of the street where you need to turn. The app is also slow to recalculate routes.
Rather than go through all of the features of this app, let me simply refer you to Ihnatko's article, the last part of which discusses the MotionX app in great detail. MotionX itself also has a useful video showing you the app in action. What follows are some of the highlights from my experience.
Like virtually all GPS navigation systems, this one includes a 3D map that shows you where you are and where you are going. At the top, the app also tells you some basic information on the next turn and provides alternating information about the time remaining and estimated time of arrival.
To my surprise, however, I actually found this the least useful screen to display while driving. While there is nothing wrong with the 3D map display (which you can change to an overhead 2D display if you want), and it is sort of fun to watch your virtual car drive down the road, when driving I need to pay attention to the road and a virtual map is often more distracting then helpful. Like Ihnatko, I found it most useful to tap a button at the bottom that used to be called "iPod" and now seems to be called "List" in the latest version. On this tab there are three possible screens. The first one shows you your current location and other basic information. The third one (not displayed below) gives you a list of each of the turns. The middle one, the one displayed here on the right, is the one that is most useful because it displays, in a very easy to read fashion, how long you have to your next turn and the name of that street, as well as other helpful info such as the ETA:
If you are listening to your iPod while you are driving, you can optionally tap the "iPod" tab at the bottom of the screen to pull up a mini-screen that shows what is playing and has buttons for play, pause, FF, etc. This mini-screen covers up the info on how long you have until you arrive:
Nice as these screens are, my opinion is that when I am driving, I really don't want to look at screens at all. I just want the iPhone to talk to me and tell me what to do next. MotionX includes a very nice female voice that speaks clearly and does a nice job of telling you when you are coming up to a turn. If the iPod is playing, you can choose to either have the app pause the music while talking to you, or the app can lower the volume of the music and talk over it. Unfortunately, I consider it a huge flaw that the app doesn't have text-to-speech. In other words, it can tell you to "turn right in 100 feet," but it doesn't give you the name of the street on which you need to turn. Because the app often tells you to turn when you are at least two blocks away but other times is slow to figure out where you are, I often find myself asking "do you mean this intersection that I'm coming up to now, or the next one, or maybe even one that I have already missed?" The omission of text-to-speech is less problematic when you are driving on an interstate because exits are spread far apart and the app does seem to know how to say a number such as "Exit 10." But when driving in the city, the inability to say the name of streets is a real problem.
Indeed, there are times when the failure to read street names can give you what seems like wrong directions. For example, the other day I was driving to my son's school. I know from experience that I need to travel down one road until I reach a street called Metairie Road and then take a right. To my complete surprise, as I approached Metairie Road, the app told me to prepare to turn left. Huh? Of course, I ignored the advice, and eventually figured out that the app was thinking that I had to turn left and then turn right because of the way it saw the intersection. And sure enough, when I was finally at the intersection itself the app told me to turn left and then turn right. You can see from the following pictures how the app got confused. Anyone with a brain would just call this a right turn, but the app (or perhaps more specifically, Microsoft's Bing service from which the app gets directions) "thought" otherwise. If I didn't already know the way and had been relying on the app, it would have been very confusing to have the app tell me to turn left, and then as I was turning left have the app tell me to now turn right.
Another annoyance, and this is a big one, is that the app and I frequently disagree on the best way to reach a location. This is understandable and happens all the time when I use a service such as Google Maps to calculate a route. But this disagreement becomes truly frustrating when you factor in that the app takes a long time to recalculate the route when you ignore the app's directions.
Allow me to explain. A major reason that this app is so inexpensive is that maps are not a part of the app itself. On the plus side, this means that you don't have to spend the time downloading an app that is over a gigabyte (and re-download it every time that app is updated), plus you don't have to use up that much space on your iPhone. On the other hand, whenever the app tells you to turn now but you ignore that advice because you know that the better route is go via a different street, it takes the app a very long time to figure out that you deviated from the original route, compute a new route, get the maps for that route, and then tell you what to do next. And again, all of this is made more confusing because, as noted above, the app lacks text-to-speech so even after recalculating a route, you don't know if the app is now going the way that you want to go or if the app has come up with some alternative but also inferior route.
Moreover, if you happen to deviate from the app's planned route when you are out of the city, in an area where your AT&T coverage is flaky, you sometimes get this helpful screen:
Fortunately, you don't actually have to tap that "Try Again" button; the app will keep trying, and when it gets a good enough signal it will eventually do its thing again.
For all of these reasons, I find that I cannot completely depend on MotionX to get me to destinations. I wish that there was a way that, before the trip starts, you can adjust the recommended route so that the app knows which way you plan to go and then tailor the driving advice to that route. That would avoid many of these problems.
You might think that after this long critique, I wouldn't recommend this app. To the contrary, I actually do recommend this app to anyone who is willing to understand and live with the app's limitations. Indeed, for $2.99 I think it is a bargain. You see, I find it helps to think of the app as a person in the passenger seat offering driving advice with a traditional fold out map who has offered to help you navigate but on whom you are not completely relying. When you and your passenger agree on where you are going and the passenger sees where you are on the app, you can get very useful assistance on where you are and how long you have to the next turn. (You can always tap a button in the top left of the screen, at any time, to have the app talk to you and tell you how long before the next turn.) And to be fair, most of the time, this is exactly what happens with this app. On the other hand, when you and your virtual passenger find yourself disagreeing on the best route, just go your own way and eventually this virtual passenger will accept your choice and then start helping you again. And if this virtual passenger is having trouble finding where you are on the map (because of your bad data connection and/or the reroute delay), just be happy that you told yourself at the outset that you would not rely completely on this virtual passenger but instead just consider the offered advice to be a suggestion. Thinking of the app this way, as just a helpful aide that is sometimes wrong, the app actually becomes very useful for the 90% of the time when you and the app are in sync. Indeed, on long trips the app is even more useful. You don't have to worry about wondering how far you have to go; just tap that button at the top left (which I do a pretty good job of tapping without even looking at the screen) and the app will cheerfully tell you how far you have to go before the next exit or turn. Just be aware, though, that long trips sometimes mean traveling in areas with no AT&T signal or just a weak Edge signal, and the app can perform poorly under those conditions.
Finally, I should disclose that I don't have a on-dash mount for my iPhone in my car. Using a device such as (just to pick one at random from Amazon) the Kensington Dash Car Mount for iPhone might result in the iPhone getting a better GPS and data signal and surely would make it easier to glance at the iPhone when you are driving. Instead, I just connected to a power cable from my cigarette lighter but kept the iPhone in my cup holder next to my seat. I should also note that I was playing my iPhone via a tape adapter through my car stereo. Under those conditions, the MotionX voice was plenty loud over my car speakers. However, if you are not using an external speaker on your iPhone, and if the road is noisy, you might not find the voice loud enough simply because of the limitations on the speaker in the iPhone.
If I ever try out one of the more expensive iPhone GPS turn-by-turn direction apps, I'll let you know how much better that app is—although don't forget that Ihnatko did try out many of those expensive apps and still picked MotionX GPS. If you travel a lot and want a good app that you can depend on, I encourage you to take the time to research those other, expensive apps. But if you just want something inexpensive and you are willing to accept the limitations of this app and look at it as just some helpful secondary advice that you won't rely on 100% to get you there, then I think that you will actually become quite fond of MotionX GPS. I plan to keep it on my iPhone, and while I won't pay the $2.99 every single month, I'll be happy to pay that much whenever I find myself traveling out of town or otherwise in need of assistance.