Review Part 3: Navigation Apps on Android
Part 3: the routing – calculation and navigation of a route
Skobbler/Scout versus MapFactor Navigator
This third part of my review only covers routing (the way an app decides to take you from A to B), without reiterating the basics of setting personal preferences or how to search for an address, which are covered in the first two parts of this series. Therefore I recommend that you read Parts 1 and 2 before you proceed. All I can say now: my routing outcomes were sometimes quite frightening or occasionally hilarious – so read on to the end.
Calculation of a Route
Since I have already described the different options to search for locations, I will skip that part of setting up a route. Whichever way you choose to enter your ‘departure’ or ‘destination’ points, the calculation process of each app remains pretty much the same.
Skobbler always starts off by calculating 3 routing options in parallel. On some occasions it drops one of the three very quickly and continues with two. It then displays all options on the screen for exactly 9 seconds for you to choose one; if you miss this very small window of time, it automatically chooses ‘Route 1’ and starts the navigation. You can halt the ‘auto starting’ by tapping the field; this gives you time to compare all options and maybe zoom into the proposed routes for closer inspection.
Overall I think that the multiple route choices given by Skobbler are its best feature! They are the main reason that I continue to use it more frequently. Although, I sometimes wonder why routes have to vary in small sections, or why there isn’t a third or fourth route option combining parts of ‘Route 1’ and ‘Route 2′ into an alternative new route – I guess this will remain the programmers’ secret. Quite often one of the options, but rarely the topmost, very closely reflects my preference that I have selected from a paper map beforehand.
When you ask Navigator to calculate a route it first gives you a screen with a list of all route points to check, there might be a couple of recent ‘Favourites’ listed, with check-boxes next to them, between ‘Departure’ and ‘Destination’; this allows you to manipulate a route via particular points along the way. From correspondence with Skobbler support I have deduced that something similar is high on their “To-Do-List”, but not yet available. When you tap “Navigate”, Navigator tells you in a rather loud voice (which you need later on, but not now) that it is “Recalculating Route”, and a small window pops up on the screen with a ‘cancel’ button. (Why it is always “recalculating” shall remain a mystery.)
The route calculation process seems to be a little faster in Navigator, but it also gives you only one route – that’s it! Either you’re happy with it or not – bad luck! Quite often I’m actually not very happy with it or I know for fact it’s not the best option… What’s far more annoying is when Navigator simply states at the end of the calculation “Route Not Found”! This happens in situations where Skobbler finds two or three different options.
This was my initial reason for switching to Skobbler when I arrived in Mendoza, Argentina: I was standing at a Carrefour supermarket to the East of the centre, right beside Ruta 7, which is one of two main highways coming into town, and I wanted to go to a campground in the North-North-West of the city. I had used Navigator from Buenos Aires all the way to Mendoza without a glitch, and then suddenly heard “Route Not Found”… Skobbler found a route very quickly, that was in reality very direct, not complicated at all, and not difficult to drive either. To this day Skobbler has only failed to calculate a route once – they might not have been the best every time, but I always got one. Last time I was in Mendoza, Skobbler veered, for some unknown reason, off the familiar route it had used several times before and guided me along a main thoroughfare from where it wanted me to turn left – except there weren’t any left turns permitted at a dozen or so intersections in a row.
When you miss a turn, or cannot turn, or do not want to turn, Navigator can get very quickly confused too; it recalculates briefly and way too often ends with a “Route Not Found”. Skobbler recalculates a fraction slower, occasionally insists for a long time on U-turns or a drive around the block, but it almost always finds an alternative.
Conclusion: when calculating a route Skobbler/Scout is the clear winner, despite its many shortcomings and occasional crass errors! I would use Navigator more frequently if I could trust its routes or if it gave choices for how to get from A to B. The most distressing experience is when you’re in dense traffic, can’t (for whatever reason) take the advised turn, and suddenly hear “Route Not Found” with nowhere to stop and search for alternatives.
Following a Route Whilst Driving
This is where you spend most of your time with your off-line navigation device. So this should also be the deciding factor for choosing which app you use. In my experience it’s not! Why not? Several shortcomings I have already listed overshadow the experience of following the turn-by-turn instructions given by the two navigation apps.
Skobbler/ScoutBoth apps have female voices giving you instructions whilst driving; for an inexplicable reason the voice of Skobbler is so low (on the highest volume setting) that I often don’t even hear that something was said! Our Berta is a truck with a big Diesel engine and is therefore noisy, yet just as often it is traffic around me (like trucks or buses in a lane next to me) that prevents me from hearing the voice from the GPS. My device is set to “British English”, and neither app has any alternative voices to download, only other languages (including of course “English US”, but no Australian).
As mentioned earlier, Skobbler indicates on the top left of the screen the distance to drive straight on; this changes to an indication that you have to turn once you come closer to a turn (to this day I have never watched closely enough to notice when this happens). Way too often this turn is only a slight bend in the main road, where a small road might fork off to the side – these instructions are often unnecessary. Turn instructions on the screen are clear and mostly accurate, whereas verbal turn instructions (when I can hear them) are limited in their vocabulary and, more often than not, misleading. I have had turns of over 110 degrees announced as “turn slight right” (I have to approach such a sharp turn wide with a truck of Berta’s size), I have keep-to-the-right lane choices in a gentle fork announced as “turn right”, and so on. I’m missing announcements like “keep in the left lane” or “follow the right lane”. In cities there are no lane choices indicated.
Due to the hit-and-miss or indistinguishable verbal instructions, I have to look at the Skobbler screen more often than I would like in dense city traffic. Before I switched Skobbler to 3D-map-view my other problem was that intersections showed up on the screen too late to make a correct lane choice in heavy traffic. The slower you go, the closer the maps zooms in, so you usually only see one cross street before the upcoming intersection – in stop-and-go city traffic it is often too late to execute a lane change. Consequently I’ve learned to preferably take the middle lane if there are three. Still, I cannot count the times I have realised far too late that the GPS wanted me to be in a different lane.
The female voice of Navigator is relatively loud and a lot clearer than Skobbler’s voice – on the same volume setting! It’s not often that I miss any verbal instructions. Navigator also seems to possess a broader vocabulary, I hear instructions more frequently like “keep to the right” or “go around the roundabout, third exit”.
When it comes to instructions, the screen display is also much clearer. In cities you often see indications of which lane to chose, either in the bottom left corner or occasionally in the centre of the screen as well (I guess with European or USA maps the centre display of lane choice will appear more often – I believe this is a new feature since the last update).
On the other hand Navigator has the same issue I complained about with Skobbler: when you are in stop-and-go traffic it zooms too far in and shows turns on the screen too late. Annoyingly Navigator also sometimes ‘forgets’ to tell you about important turns, both on-screen and in verbal instructions; all you have to go by in the moment is the road lay-out as seen through your windshield (a nightmare when it’s dark) and the navigation route on the screen.
Another complaint about Navigator in cities is that too often it seems to choose either ‘the long way around’, or it goes off a highway three exits too early (because there’s a main road parallel which could be a kilometre shorter, although this might be caused by my individual settings – see Part 2), where then I have to battle through more intersections with traffic lights.
Conclusion: no winner here! Both apps have too many flaws to rate them any better than barely “satisfying”.
If I had the choice, I would be happier with Skobbler’s map display and better routing in cities, Navigator’s clear and audible voice commands, and Navigator’s clearer graphics displaying the turns ahead.
Another thing I like about Navigator – not mentioned above – is that under the tab “Navigation” it always remembers the last route request; with Skobbler I haven’t discovered any way to save my last, partially driven, route to continue it. That’s a catch 22: leave the navigation app on and it drains your battery, turn it off and in Skobbler you have to start all over again. When I know I have an hour or more of straight drive ahead (no major turns) I like to turn the tablet off and maybe take it out of the sun – the same when I need a toilet break in a dubious location.