Saturday, March 23, 2013

Android Tablet -- a GPS Device Poser

I concede that I was exaggerating a bit when I referred to my new tablet as "a GPS device, RF scanner, MP3 player, eReader, camera, digital voice recorder, hand held gaming device, clock, portable translator...." It's the "GPS device" boast that's questionable.

Well it depends on how you define GPS Device. If it's a merely a device that displays a map and shows you where you are on that map using the Global Positioning System network of satellites, then, yes, the tablet is such a device.

But if you expect the device to allow you to enter a destination and provide real-time instruction on how to get there, along with an reasonably accurate estimate of when you can expect to reach your destination, then the tablet is merely a GPS Device Poser.

On my Nexus 7, directions are provided by Google Maps, which does a very good job of routing. But something called Navigator assumes the role of proving the actual turn-by-turn directions and arrival time.

Navigator works fine as long as you follow the initial route and as long as traffic conditions do not change during the trip. For example, if you start out at home while the tablet has an Internet connection, Google Maps will check the traffic conditions and provide both a route and an estimate of arrival time that's fairly accurate. You have the option of downloading a rectangular map that encompasses the route, too, so you can use Navigator offline.

But during the trip when the Internet connection is missing, Navigator cannot adapt to a traffic problem. Well, that's to be expected, and it's no reason to find fault in the app. The real problem is that Navigator does not recalculate the trip when you deviate from the route.

On my 20-minute commute to work, I can take one of four different major routes, two of which are on state highways, both of which are littered by red traffic lights. So I like to take the back roads, which are scenic and have fewer stops, albeit longer. It's reasonable for Navigator to prefer the state highways. But when I ignore the chosen route, Navigator refuses to recalculate. Instead it provides directions to return me to the point where I went off course. So the closer I get to work via the back road, the longer the trip time. I've seen the 20-minute commute spike up to 1 hour and 45 minutes. And when I finally do come to an intersection with the highway, it will actually direct me in the opposite direction, presumably to reach a way point on it's own route.

Well there are other GPS apps, even free ones, that can provide turn-by-turn directions. Right now I'm evaluating Navfree USA: Free. It does a better job of dealing with my willful disregard of the planned route. But it's a little rough. For example, it fails to give you the first instruction at the beginning of the trip. Also you need to have an Internet connection in order to get directions to an address because it queries Google maps.  (That's not an issue if you've saved your destination as a Favorite.) I'm assuming that the same is true for Points of Interest.  The biggest problem with it, though, is that it will crash after 30 to 40 minutes and need to be restarted.

So alas, I'm not about to give up my Garmin Nuvi just yet.  It would provide real time traffic updates in some areas and serve as a backup to the tablet in the event that I needed to follow a detour.

Edited on 2013-04-13 to add two sentences to the Navfree paragraph.

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