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There are several products out now for the iPhone (and some for the iPod Touch with a little hardware help) that will let you use your device as a GPS navigation unit, complete with turn by turn directions. Tom Tom and Navigon are a couple of the leading suppliers of software. There are some free alternatives, too. One that just became more of a contender is MapQuest 4 Mobile. MapQuest 4 Mobile is a free download, and a couple of days ago they added voice to the turn-by-turn directions. 

This means unlike the in-built Maps application, you can concentrate on driving and just listen for your turns. So how well does it work? To find out, I decided to use it to drive to work while also running my Garmin Nuvi 765T. Now, I didn't expect it to blow away the Garmin – the Nuvi was somewhat expensive when I bought it last year (around $380) and the MapQuest app is free. But I wanted to see if it was at least passable should I be without the Nuvi. 

One advantage of the MapQuest app is the fact that it can be linked with a MapQuest account. If you've got a free account with MapQuest and have saved off endpoints there, they will be on your iPhone if you also set up the same account in the app. Since I do have an account, it was easy to select my workplace from the saved places for the destination. Here's a sample of the directions screen:

You have several choices for the icon that represents you. I chose the dogcow. Because of that, when I get close to a turn, it reads "80 moofs" instead of "80 feet" (but all the other measurements are normal). Once you touch "Start", the turn-by-turn directions kick in. The maps will have a zoomed-in area for each turn, but you don't have to hit "next" (like in the Maps app) to get to the next one – MapQuest does that automatically.

You're also warned up-front that MapQuest 4 Mobile won't rotate the map to face the way you are going – it always faces north. There will be arrows on the route, but you have to remember that the top is always north. A small indicator in the upper-left tells you what direction you're heading, but it's nearly impossible to see while you're driving.  All the maps seemed a tad small to me, but I wasn't looking at them all that much – I was listening for the directions.

MapQuest doesn't say the street names – it just says "turn right now" – and before I leave you with the wrong impression, it also warns you a bit ahead of time that a turn is coming up. In fact, it warned me twice for each turn – usually a bit before the Nuvi did (although once the Nuvi was first).

One thing I found quite annoying (and also find annoying with my car's built-in OnStar directions) is what happens if you go off-route. You get this:

I don't know about you, but for me the answer is always "YES!". Don't ask me, just do it! My Garmin Nuvi just does it. My older Tom Tom unit just did it. MapQuest and OnStar want you to explicitly tell them to do it. Look, if I don't want any more directions, I'll turn you off, OK?  

At least, when I touched "Reroute Me", it did it quickly and was back on track. But I'm driving here, don't make me take a hand off the wheel (and eyes off the road) to make you do your job. Hopefully, this will be made an option (I couldn't find one currently to auto reroute).

So while it doesn't rotate the maps, say the street names, or auto re-route, it does do a pretty good job of getting you from A to B. It didn't seem to have any traffic data, but again, for free?  Not too bad. The GPS in the iPhone seemed better than the one in the Nuvi, too. (also, the one built-in to the cars is very good based on OnStar's directions, which is why the reroute problem bugs me – I would use OnStar more often if not for that.) The Garmin seems to think I am on surface streets or the service drive if I am in the right-most lane on the expressway, which is annoying as it keeps telling me to make turns on streets or take the entrance ramp to get on the freeway I'm already on. At least the iPhone seemed to know where I was all the time, which made the MapQuest software more accurate then the Nuvi.

So while it won't replace a real GPS unit any time soon, it's certainly worth having, especially if there are times you don't have the GPS with you, or you don't own one at all. You'll need an Internet connection, at least while getting directions – I don't recall seeing the wheel spin at the top while driving, but couldn't exactly stare at it, so it may be getting refreshes as it goes. But I was able to go through the entire (short) trip by looking at the next direction right from the get-go, so it may cache at least some of the maps you'll need. Coupled with the MapQuest integration with your computer, this is a great value, especially in these days of tight home budgets, when a GPS might be a purchase you just can't afford. You can also use the app for walking directions, which could be pretty handy, as you could just put the iPhone back in your pocket/holster and listen for directions. Of course, you can also see all sort of points of interest (gas stations, restaurants, etc) since MapQuest has that info too.

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  • KenC

    I just tried it, and it’s very unpolished. The always pointing North thing is not at all helpful. Its only saving grace is that it is free, but hey, there’s another GPS app that is only $1 and is EXCELLENT, according to Andy Inatkho. I’ve tried it and it is excellent, but if you want voice, you have to pay extra, after your free month. I highly recommend it, it’s by those same guys who made that realistic dice rolling app, MotionX GPS Drive, and you get everything buy voice for $1.

  • http://www.beckmanjm.com Jack Beckman

    Without voice you really have no business using a nav app if you’re the only one in the car, IMO (and frequently I am). But as long as it works for you, that’s what counts.