GOOGLE'S DECISION to enable free turn-by-turn navigation on handsets running its Android operating system is the start of the long road to demise for established satnav vendors.
Google's announcement followed that of Nokia, which made its Ovi Maps freely available for a number of handsets earlier this year. Google finally launched its turn-by-turn Navigation application for UK users a couple of weeks ago.
We decided to take the two free navigation tools, Ovi Maps and Google Navigation, for a test drive to see which loses its way. In our entirely unscientific usage, both systems performed well, though not without their idiosyncrasies.
Nokia's Ovi Maps was tested on the firm's N97 Mini handset. Things don't look all that promising when faced with the clunky interface, especially apparent when trying to set up in a hurry. However once you learn its little foibles all is well and on our handset, a suitable GPS signal was picked up fast.
What Ovi Maps lacks in interface niceties it makes up for with a clean, concise display. Unlike Google's software, Ovi Maps displays multi-lane directions. While its satnav application may be free, Nokia do charge if you want traffic updates, something which is free on Google's software.
Calculating routes and adjusting to changes in the route are all as expected, which frankly, is good enough. The problem is while Nokia's solution may do the job, when sat next to Google's software it feels outdated.
We tested Google Maps Navigation on a Nexus One, Google's own handset. The software is feature rich, with tools such as Street View built in, but in other areas it's clear that Google's software is still in beta.
The Navigation application is gotten to by clicking on the rather unimaginatively named "car home" icon. Once in, anyone who has used the maps application on an Android phone or an Iphone will immediately be at home. The process of setting up a destination is a whole lot clearer and requires less fiddling around.
When driving features such as Street View are simply distracting eye candy. That said, the comprehensive map overlays the usual points of interest such as petrol stations but also a traffic overlay. However, on our travels we found that zooming into the map to get a more detailed view of the surroundings meant that it wouldn't follow our location cursor.
The accuracy of traffic status on Google's system is a bit hit and miss, regardless of where you are. We tried Google's Navigation through a number of US states, including Google's home state of California, as well as London, and found the accuracy of traffic updates to vary wildly.
Google's Navigation software was fast in just about all aspects of operation, from destination search, to route calculation and adapting to route changes. Nice touches include the ability to choose from different routes, if they exist, and an impressive voice search for locations.
Disappointingly, neither Google nor Nokia included speed camera information on their maps, something which Tomtom and most other satnav vendors include as standard on even their most basic of models.
The weak spot of both Ovi Maps and Navigation is the reliance on wireless data connectivity to download maps and other data. Although some map data is cached, we found that at times there were delays, especially due to in-journey route changes. Given the patchy nature of connectivity in most countries, this will be a major stumbling block for either system to overcome.
Google and Nokia may look to bundle some basic, high level map data on supporting devices' removable storage. Both firms' free satnav systems have excellent map data, which is not surprising given Nokia's acquisition of Navteq and Google, through its various map data arrangements and its regiment of Street View cars.
Satnav vendors may argue that their devices provide a reliable service without a dependency on wireless data connectivity. Given that portable storage capacity is going up and all Nokia and Google have to do is include some basic country wide data, it really does look like Tomtom and its ilk are at the end of the road.
The fact that Google Navigation looks like a work in progress will give Tomtom, Garmin and other satnav vendors some comfort for the time being. The problem for them is that Google's free service already offers enough to warrant many users to ditch their dedicated satnav units and just go with an Android handset.