Review: Road Test Navigation Apps on Android

Since the publication of this review, I have written another post where I

  • review our experience with off-line navigation after 35,000 kilometres,
  • add my 2 Cents worth about other navigation apps not covered in this review.


This series of articles is still relevant if you want to learn all about the features of the 2 apps reviewed: MapFactor Navigator & Skobbler/Scout. Be warned: it’s long ;)

Part 1: set-up, menus, address search

Skobbler/Scout versus MapFactor Navigator

Android gps navigation - review part1

Android gps navigation – review part1

[Second Revision 26.Nov.2014]

Introduction

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.

GPS Review: tablet running Skobbler on dashboard

GPS Review: tablet running Skobbler on dashboard

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

GPS app NAVIGATOR's menu view

GPS app NAVIGATOR’s menu view

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.

GPS app SKOBBLER's menu view

GPS app SKOBBLER’s menu view

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.

Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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15 Responses

  1. We really liked Joost’s blog. Although we have been using OsmAnd+ quite a lot we nevertheless learned some new tricks. Joost is right that OsmAnd+ has many options, but compared with OruxMaps and Locus+ they often are hard to find and some require manipulating of .xml files.

    A few examples:

    1. I wanted to make the line of the planned route and the driven route thinner, because you can’t see the color of the road and road numbers anymore through it. In our case that lead to a few judgement errors that took a lot of effort in Zimbabwe. In OruxMaps and Locus+ you can just set the color, width and style of the lines in settings. OsmAnd+ requires me to write a render file in .xml

    2. I usually create a favorite of every campsite we visit. I want to export the campsites to make the information available to other travelers (see for example http://www.deeindervoorbij.nl/camping.html and http://ioverlander.com/). OruxMaps allows me to just filter and export the favorites I want, in OsmAnd+ I have to manually edit the favourites.gpx file.

    3. I have long thought that it is impossible to remove a favorites category, but I recently found out that it can be done.

    But all in all OsmAnd+ remains the preferred solution for us for the reasons explained in our blog (http://www.deeindervoorbij.nl/navigation.html).

    • Juergen says:

      I see I really have to learn a fair bit more about OsmAnd (and probably my other apps too). So much to do, so little time! Or more precisely: I fear at some stage website maintenance, social media, and navigation apps combined will surpass the real travel experience.

  2. Joost says:

    Looking forward to tour next post, especially on Osmand. Yes, rendering is not very fast, though on my LG G2 that isn’t really an issue.

    It’s definitely not the most user friendly one, though I don’t understand how De Einder Voorbij can say it has few options. In my opinion it has rather maybe too many options :)

    If spamming is allowed: here’s the link again for my tutorial for setting up Osmand for navigating AND contributing to better maps: http://joostschouppe.wordpress.com/2014/07/25/using-osmand-on-the-road/

    • Juergen says:

      I should mentioned that the data for the screen capture (in Dutch) on the last page was from Joost’s page linked in his comment. He seems to know much more than I do…

  3. Michelle says:

    I am going to bookmark this post because I may need it not only traveling outside of my country but in my neighborhood. My father has always joked that I could not be able to find my way out of a paper bag and I’m afraid it’s true. Thank you for that easy to understand instructions.

  4. Thanks very much for this easy to follow post. Let’s me know once again how much I still have to learn!

  5. Nancie says:

    I don’t drive when I travel. However, a great post for anyone who does! :)

  6. This is a really helpful post which I am going to share with my Boomeresque FB followers (probably some overlap with your FB followers ;-) Now for the non-techno person question: Don’t you need some data usage for the app to be able to use your tablet GPS? I have a Nexus 7 also, so this could be very cool. We usually rely on my husband’s Iphone with Google maps because he usually has data access when we travel internationally and I don’t. That saved us quite a bit in Ireland and even in New Mexico where there were some roads with no signs.

    • Juergen says:

      No, that’s the beauty of these offline Navigation apps – no data connection required to navigate or search! The only data or WiFi you need is to download maps and updates, but the data (maps and the app) will fit easily onto any tablet or smart phone with sufficient storage (say 8GB minimum or a device with a micro SD-Card slot).

  7. We did extensive comparisons of navigation tools in preparation of and during our trip through Africa. Here is a summary of the results: http://www.deeindervoorbij.nl/navigation.html

    • Juergen says:

      Thanks for that. I highly recommend that interested readers follow the link above – no spam! It highlights a number of other options, many I didn’t know about. I installed yesterday the free version of OsmAnd (as mentioned in my previous comment, this app is also mentioned in above article) and ‘played’ a bit with it today. Again differently looking OSM maps, first impression so far is that it renders really slowly as the maps are created in layers; you get the basic grid, which then has, in another layer, colour applied according to importance of roads, then another layer for buildings and POIs, and so on… Makes it rather slow to move around the map as everything gets constantly redrawn.

  8. This was terrific info and explained quite clearly! I’m a bit of a tech geek and love finding apps that will help make our travels smoother and good maps that are near at hand (and readable since our eyes are not as great either!) are always appreciated. I’m going to check if my Kindle Fire has a GPS receiver so that I can download the Navigator – if not I may replace it when we visit the US in April.

    • Juergen says:

      I’m still sitting on the fence which one I would really recommend. Overall I still prefer Skobbler for various reasons – more about this in part 2. To complicate things I just installed OsmAnd , another offline navigation app I will evaluate soon.

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