Review: Apple iPhone 3G's AT&T Navigation

June 26, 2009

•    What is it: AT&T's attempt to displace portable navigation systems with Apple's iPhone and its cell network
•    Key facts: Turn-by-turn navigation with voice prompts; also stores favorites and fetches routes by dialing numbers
•    On sale: Now
•    Price: Application is free on iTunes; $9.99 monthly subscription

GPS navigation comes in many flavors for drivers: there are standalone units from makers like Garmin and TomTom,  operater-assisted navigation instructions from GM's OnStar, and navigation programmed into cell phones for on-the-fly directions that depend on cell phone connections to update data and maps.

AT&T's stepping into the latter game--and hoping to displace the other types of GPS--with its new Navigator service, available on the Apple iPhone 3G and 3GS, as well as other phones sold by the company.

The Basics

AT&T asks you to access their application through the iTunes App Store, if you're an iPhone user. I'm a new 3GS owner, so I signed up for the plan. Then, I discovered if you went through the AT&T site, you get one month of free service--a quick call to AT&T resolved the initial charge.

The installation takes a quick sync to load on the iPhone. Then it's easy--and the app itself loads quickly. A warning screen reminds you not to use the service in motion, but I was able to make basic changes while driving. Not a good idea, but a test.

The primary screen lets you set destinations, search them, view maps and traffic options, and see extras. On the destinations screen, you can choose from favorites or recents, or by four types of destinations: businesses, addresses, airports or intersections. You can also call destinations from a sub-navigation screen that allows you to type in destinations directly.

The maps screen shows your location and route, if chosen. The maps are in 2D or 3D (shown here). It's all fairly conventional stuff, save for the End Trip button on this screen--other GPS units from the aftermarket or from manufacturers make you go on a fishing expedition to find the cancel trip function. (The Ford Taurus SHO I'm driving? Three screens away, under a navigation element you'd never expect.)

You can choose route preferences "("fast," "short", etc.) and you can plot out a trip from 10 million points of interest, like most GPS units. AT&T WiFi hotspots are prime among these--and since they're usually at Starbucks, it's a bonus.

On the Road

The AT&T system functions about as well as most low- and mid-priced navigation units, with some of the same issues with sound quality and correction speed. It's incredibly simple to use, even for first-time GPS users. All the typical functions are easy to access, and the iPhone's interface magic has influenced this app's design heavily.

Most of the problems in using the system are physical. To use it in the car, a window kit from Griffin ($29) is a necessity. But then you have to wonder about plugging into music; in the Jaguar XFR I also tested this week, a windshield mount left the music in the iPhone untapped, since the iPhone connection port lives in the Jag's console. You could plug in via AUX jacks or stereo Bluetooth, but the trifecta of power cables, window mounts and USB/aux connections will leave a tangled mess, not to mention a series of discarded iPhone cases that simply don't fit the mission.

Voice quality from the system could be improved. The iPhone 3GS is the first of its kind from Apple to talk back to you. The voice commands can be turned off, but I preferred to leave them on--with the volume turned down a bit. The iPhone's speakers just aren't good enough to deliver loud, clear commands. If you're using a Bluetooth headset, the instructions will play out over any call you're holding, and while the phone will mute music for incoming calls, other systems it interacts with--like Ford's SYNC -- will not control it to do so.

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