Navigation Systems: Which Direction Is Best?
Road test of in-dash versus portable versus smartphone application shows strengths and weaknesses of all.
When shopping for a new vehicle, chances are you’ll have to decide whether to add a high-dollar navigation system option. Just a decade ago, the decision would have been a simpler one for early adopters and the directionally challenged, as in-dash navigation systems were the only choice.
I remember testing the first Magellan portable navigation device at the end of 2003. It retailed for close to $1,000, and at the time was rudimentary compared with full-featured in-dash systems. But then PNDs became less pricey and more popular -- and a great alternative to expensive in-dash systems. Plus, you could move a portable from car to car.
Then along came smartphone navigation applications, which are even less expensive than PNDs, and many are free. Like a PND, the app travels with you from car to car with the added convenience that you don't have to lug an extra device, since the app is living on the phone you're already carrying.
Of course, the biggest advantage of an in-dash system is its larger screen. Other than that, after testing all three during a road trip from Los Angeles to San Diego and back, I found all three alternatives work well. But which is right for you?
The in-dash system was in a 2011 Infiniti M56 -- one of the best systems available from an automaker. The portable: Garmin’s nuvi 3450LM, a sleek, high-end ($320) model that looks like, and is about the same size as, a smartphone. It has a pinch-zoom touch-screen like most nav apps, and also features 3-D mapping, voice activation and advanced lane guidance with Garmin’s photoReal junction views to help with tricky intersections.
The nav app I tested was the Navigon North America for iPhone, which at $60 is one of the most expensive available. But it’s also one of the best, with an intuitive interface, 3-D mapping, Google Local search and Navigon’s Lane Assistant Pro with Real Road Sign feature. I also used it with Navigon’s $50 car mount.
I found that each of the nav systems did a great job of getting me where I was going and helping me find services along the way. With the extra screen real estate of the in-dash system, points-of-interest icons were easier to see at a glance and showed more information, such as a turn list. It also gave more detailed information on traffic incidents and, of course, offered the advantage of not having to stick something to the windshield.
But the voice-activation feature of the Garmin PND worked better than Infiniti’s on several occasions, and the lane guidance of the M56 was the lamest of the bunch.
And while all had a “bird's eye” map view, the Infiniti system didn’t have the 3-D terrain mapping feature (below) of the Garmin PND and Navigon app.
At the end of the trip, my conclusion was that each system has its pluses and minuses. You can see how they worked on a curvy road and with a difficult-to-find destination in the video below.
So it depends on the vehicle you drive, your needs, your budget and, of course, how much you use a navigation system. I prefer smartphone apps since I don’t have to carry another device. And even though nav apps have limited features, they usually work just fine for getting from Point A to Point B.
However, I’m also waiting until I can have the best of both worlds: when automakers begin to take a “hybrid” approach to allow drivers to use a smartphone app on a vehicle’s larger in-dash screen.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
Why would you not test Google's FREE Navigation built into every single Android phone and tablet? I'm not going to mindlessly say it would blow the rest out of the water, but with the power of Google behind every turn, it is pretty fantastic.
I think the biggest pro of Google Navigation is street view. When you're getting close to your destination (<0.25 mi) it switches the display to the street view picture of where you are going to turn. When you're in unfamiliar territory, this is HUGE.
I would say the main disadvantages of Google Nav is one, when you use a phone that has GPS reception issues (there were a bunch of Samsung phones a few years ago that could never lock) and two, if you lose cell service. Google Maps does pre-cache your route, but if you ever turn or go off track, you're screwed.
I prefer the In-dash navigation, as it doesn't have to be stuck up on the windshield. It's in the line of sight without being distracting.
All 3 systems (In-dash, PND, PhoneApp) are good and pretty accurate. The phone app is cheapest (as it comes with your phone), so those looking to save some money would be best served with it.
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