Review: Road Test Navigation Apps on Android
Part 1: set-up, menus, address search
Skobbler/Scout versus MapFactor Navigator
[Second Revision 26.Nov.2014]
This is a very subjective review of Skobbler/Scout and MapFactor Navigator, based on around 6 months experience, mostly gathered in South America. More precisely, I drove directly from Montevideo in Uruguay to Santiago de Chile. Up to Mendoza in Argentina I used only Navigator. After that I travelled a couple of thousand kilometres in Chile and bordering Argentina, relying more on Skobbler than Navigator. (We haven’t really started travelling full-time yet).
I should perhaps add that I started with Navigator, and added Skobbler later based on a recommendation in a thread on the German Allrad-LKW-Forum . In part, I opted for a back-up app because on my second day using Navigator it made an appalling mistake at an Autobahn entry in Mönchengladbach, Germany. I wanted to head south, but it wanted me to go north and then later turn south, even though there was a direct highway entry leading south.
I will also confess that I’m an Android newbie and not very familiar with touchscreens, so some things, which might come to others naturally (is there such thing?), can sometimes drive me mad.
[In advance: please excuse the image quality. All photos were taken with a small hand-held camera inside our camper; some are a bit off in white-balance, and all are slightly distorted because I couldn’t get enough distance between camera lens and the tablet screen. Though I expect they suffice to document my points.]
What are these Navigation Apps?
Both apps are meant as offline navigation and rely on the built in GPS receiver of your Android phone or tablet; Skobbler/Scout is also available for Apple devices (iPhone & iPad). Offline navigation means you do not need mobile data reception and also save on data volume charges – at least in theory. In August 2014, when Skobbler downloaded a rather large update online, it somehow lost, or forgot to replace, the language file. The next time I needed Skobbler (miles away from any internet) it wouldn’t work because the language file was missing. This is the first reason that I have two apps, but there are more, as you will find out.
To start with, let me explain that both apps use maps from OSM (OpenStreetMap). Navigator also badgers you to upgrade to TomTom maps, but since TomTom is a Dutch company, which doesn’t have any market penetration in South America, I doubt if they would have any decent maps for this area. Even Garmin, the market leader, doesn’t offer complete coverage. In this respect the OSM maps are way more advanced because they are user-contributed.
OSM maps are usually free to download, and so are both apps in their basic versions. Somehow Skobbler/Scout wangle it so that you get only one free country map (I chose Germany), and then have to pay – so in reality Skobbler/Scout is not free. The maximum price is $US10.99 for all maps of the world, but I chose to buy only South America (one continent), which cost $US4.99. The more maps you download, the more storage they need, but also the more updates will be required. Consequently, at this stage, I only have maps of five countries saved on my tablet.
Android Equipment for GPS Navigation
Since I have mentioned my tablet, I will explain why I bought a Google/ASUS Nexus 7 tablet , first generation. My main reason for this purchase was navigation. I needed to buy something, because we didn’t have a late model GPS device, and the obvious option was a Garmin – despite its shortcomings in regard to maps for Latin America. But my eyesight is not the best anymore, so I usually need reading glasses to decipher any but the largest Garmin screen. Price-wise, both Garmin and the tablet were close, but the tablet also has more uses, e.g. it’s my eBook reader, I get occasional Wi-Fi access to check emails, and I can check my own responsive website designs. But it was the larger screen size, compared to most other GPS options, which really sold me. A 7-inch tablet is small enough to take along when exploring a city on foot – both apps come with a pedestrian mode. You can use any Android device with built in GPS receiver – most mid- to up-market Androids come with one (but check with your vendor because it is not always included in the feature list on the box!). Note: iPhones with lower end specs don’t have GPS receivers.
[pullquote-right]Tip: try to find a shaded place in your driver’s cab to mount your Android device! The few times my tablet got hot from direct sun, the touchpad did not respond (quite logical).[/pullquote-right]
An adequate vehicle mount for your tablet or phone, and a USB-charger you can plug into your cigarette lighter outlet, are necessities. The charger should provide somewhere around 1000 mA or more – a tablet with the screen on and a GPS receiver running is power hungry. At first, I used a 500 mA charger; this kept me going for normal driving days, but in the evening the tablet’s battery was almost exhausted (despite being plugged-in all day).
Starting the Apps and Settings
When you first start Navigator you are sometimes greeted by a nag screen, encouraging you to buy TomTom maps. Ticking “Don’t show this dialog again” works for about 10 uses, then it starts all over again. Otherwise, a clean menu is displayed, giving you access to all functions and settings.
Skobbler starts with the last opened map screen. Tapping on the top right accesses a very basic settings menu; and tapping on the left opens all map related functions. Both menus expand partly across the screen, reducing the brightness of the map. To reach all functions on the left side you have to scroll. A more detailed settings menu can be accessed from a ‘Settings’ point in the left menu.
Overall I find the menu structure of Navigator much clearer, despite the extensive ‘Settings’ options. With Skobbler I particularly don’t like, that the ‘Settings’ are split up and the structure of the sub-menu appears a little old-fashioned. Navigator could do with a design overhaul; in general it looks a tad dated with too many gradients and not the most subtle choice of colours.