January 7, 2011

Review: Garmin StreetPilot App First Impressions


UPDATE: New Version available of the Garmin StreetPilot App to fix issues with Garbled Voice and slow map downloads - read more!

Garmin announced their StreetPilot App for the iPhone this week at CES, and I wanted to take the opportunity to gather some first impressions of their initial App effort.

It's well known that they are late to the iPhone game given their drive into the Nuvifone strategy that didn't receive the market welcome that they had originally thought it would. Given that failed attempt, it was prudent to get a hold in the marketplace in Smartphones as they continue to be the go-to personal device. I read this morning that Smart Phones are expected to surpass computers in overall numbers in the US within a year or two; simply amazing. With that portable and very personal computing power, people are going to rely on and want to rely on that device for more and more integrated capabilities. It is imperative to play in this area.

Garmin StreetPilot already a Contender

Overall, the Garmin StreetPilot App is a reasonable choice, with some strengths and a few weaknesses that while good enough, represent areas of vulnerability for Garmin. They will need to jump on these to 1) Keep any momentum coming out of their CES launch announcement and 2) Build a superior product. For years, Garmin has had an easy to use interface that continues to grow and evolve; it makes its way to the StreetPilot App. Navigation continues to be solid, with some features that make the StreetPilot App more full-featured than other navigation Apps when they were launched well over a year ago. It of course melds well with the iPhone capabilities - navigating from portrait and landscape modes and navigating to contacts from within the App. So while the weaknesses don't make it superior in the market the $39 price point and the expectation for improvements make it a contender in the App world.


StreetPilot - What's in a Name?


Newcomers might not know the StreetPilot name, but it harkens back to Garmin's line of early navigation devices that were anything but flat, and eventually got eclipsed by the Nuvi line originally introduced back in 2005 as a business traveler's assistant. Flat was in and the market for bulky navigators was doomed.

Interface and Navigation - Garmin Through and Through

The Garmin interface comes through in the StreetPilot App with some recent improvements apparent in several areas. The simple Where to and View Map screen gives you access to the most used functionality when you start the App. The smaller Weather and Settings buttons are good additions to the front page; not sure about the Traffic button, but I have hopes for the future (See Below).

Searching directly from the "home" page is a smart feature here - it gives you a Google Local search (for Points of Interest) as well as a search of recently found destinations, but stops short of searching your contact list; something that I would like it to do. I think that this is the second best feature of the App; easy to understand and functionally solid. Well done.

Garmin has included things that you would expect, like Text to Speech, quick re-routing if you miss your turn, a vast array of Points of Interest, and some more advanced features that make a lot of sense, like Google Local Search and Junction View that shows you a representation of the junction ahead indicating what path through the highway intersection you should take. Not a big deal with standard right lane exits that are common on many highways, but a life saver when you are approaching a complex multi-lane exit scenario in an unfamiliar city.


Reasonable Flexibility - the StreetPilot App offers reasonable flexibility in its first release that makes it fairly mature, but not mind-numbingly complex. The ability to avoid a good set of road types is a must; can't tell you how many times I have been routed onto an HOV lane with other navigators, and I like being able to avoid unpaved roads. Yes, we have those around New England, and they aren't pretty in the wintertime!

Quick Access to Key Functions - the Main navigation screen comes with a page curl at the bottom is my favorite function of the App. Well executed, and gets you to Route Overview - a quick look at the route from 20,000 feet which is good as a gut check for you, Directions - a turn by turn set of directions for your route, Walking Mode - my lease favorite of these, Stop Navigating - sometimes you just want to change what you need mid-route and you need this button, and Cancel - takes you back to the map screen.

Kill the Lawyer's Disclaimer Screen - Thank you Thank you Thank you - whoever made it possible to shut off the "Warning Page" with the long disclaimer that Garmin isn't liable for blah, blah blah stuff I am happy. I get it; show it once and I'll agree and we're done. Shut off your own Disclaimer Screen: Go to Settings--> General--> then slide the "Show Warning Page to "off" after you've read it once too.

Weather - Not a bad addition, especially for those on the road; quick tap and it gives you the weather for the region that you are in.... Tap the Day grid on the right and you get a day by day assessment for the next few days. You don't get a ton of data, but more than just a happy icon of what's to come like so many Apps have. I am usually pretty up to date on weather, and there are about a dozen Apps that can handle weather better than this, but for weather when on the road, where I am right now, this is great. No fumbling to find a zip code, or a City and State combination; it just works.


Some Opportunities

Garmin has a few opportunities that they need to address to close the gap on competition. Both will help the App gain better acceptance and I would put them high on the list if I were running the product group.

Map Drawing: Offline Maps vs. Onboard Maps


When routing in 3-D mode, the road seamlessly unfolds ahead of you and you never see any indication that the App is downloading the map data on the fly (with wireless coverage). The StreetPilot App is <8MB right now and has the maps on servers that give you the most up to date maps available as you go. A big plus for accuracy. Other Apps that have the US downloaded locally are well over 1 GB in size, making the updates painful and the maps more likely to be just slightly out of date. I downloaded StreetPilot over the 3G connection in a short time while on the road; liked that.

The troubles come when you attempt to look at a broad area, like when you want to "View Map" or when looking at a Route Overview, the map is [down]loaded in small map squares. It looks blotchy and unrefined (See image) but for only a few seconds as it starts to display.

There has to be a way to cache the maps that surround you, or similar to make this effect seem less amateurish and more mainstream. Cache your region over Wi-Fi and look for changes? "Check-In" when you fly to a new location and offer to download the regional maps over WiFi before navigating maybe?

It does not affect functionality much, but it will affect adoption. In looking around the Net at consumer comments, this is a major signal for dissatisfaction.

I won't address the whole idea of map caching for when you travel outside of the coverage area; Garmin needs to cache the Route's maps and then preferentially the surrounding area in case of re-routing. With cell coverage, this isn't an issue, but try venturing outside of AT&T's network and you're dead [insert ATT network joke here - I know!]

Text to Speech Voice

The voice is garbled and needs to be addressed. It's a tad too fast at times running words together, and if I really had to listen hard to the directions, I might be in trouble here. The lone voice choice seems slim; but then again I rarely wander off the pre-defined Text to Speech voice anyway.


While the Map Drawing issue will touch nearly everyone at the annoyance level, this will only touch a smaller segment of people, but is much less functional. As background, living in and around the Boston area, I am keenly interested in figuring out how to avoid traffic. We're no Los Angeles, but we are in the top 20 for bad traffic; it sucks and technology should be able to give me a large advantage. It's an area I like to watch the development on and have watched companies like Inrix come up and offer unbelievable data on what's going on out there on the roads.

I am going to spend more on this subject than really needs to in order to chart out the possibilities here for an excellent App. If I had to quickly bottom line it for you; the free traffic feature offers people who occasionally encounter traffic a way to have a bit of a guardian angel on their shoulder, but this App won't cut it for the daily commuter who regularly deals with serious traffic situations.

Nicely, the traffic is free, unlike competition who charge about $20 for an annual subscription to the traffic services. I subscribe to a few, because I think it saves me time and $20 is pittance for the amount of time I could save by missing a few hot spots.

The traffic functionality on StreetPilot will look for incidents and list them for you, but offers little detail on an incident level and regionally. This week I opened up the StreetPilot App, the TomTom App with optional traffic coverage and the Inrix Traffic! App to take a look at a classic pinch point on the way up to Boston (I-93 and I-95 Intersection southwest of Boston on the Beltway - locals call it Rt 128 and I-95).

Garmin picked up the traffic issue and even brought up the back-up duration correctly back to Neponset St where the start of the yellow line was. The detail page just offered "Slow Traffic, Medium Impact". The TomTom traffic offered the same information on traffic backed up to Neponset St, but also included the calculation that it was 2.3 miles long representing about a 5 minute delay. It also offered the ability to "Minimize Delays"; a good plus. Finally, Inrix showed what I believe to be the truth; slowing traffic approaching Neponset St (orange color) then stop and go traffic all the way to the beltway as indicated by the red color. Note that Inrix also offers me a look at Rt 1 to the north - a small red band at a set of lights, and if I wanted I could zoom in and they could offer me insight into traffic on smaller roadways between Rt 95 and Rt 1.

Above - Garmin's look at traffic correctly indicated the start of the traffic stoppage.
Below - Garmin offers little detail on the impact to me and inspires little confidence.

Above - TomTom gives an accurate look at the situation, in terms of where the stoppage started, and its impact on me - a 5 minute delay.

Below - Inrix offers better detail and resolution on the traffic situation with gradations of severity that rang true.

In the end, I would prefer to see a map that is zoomable and pan-able with traffic indications like the Inrix Traffic App has. The understanding that you can get out of a few seconds looking at the comprehensive traffic map can give you the confidence to take a certain route into the city knowing that you are not headed right into the jaws of a traffic jam. Most GPS makers take the "Trust Me" approach of navigating you and offering you alternate routes when your current route is jammed, not really offering the overall picture of traffic for you to assess.

In the past, when over the FM band delivered TMC traffic was bandwidth limited, I understood why showing a detailed, data-laden, picture wasn't feasible, but with 3G or better, I want to see it all. It inspires confidence and makes me know that the provider is tracking not just highways but secondary and some smaller connector roads. I want to see the best of Garmin's easy navigation combined with the type of detailed overview that Inrix offers on their Traffic! App. Maybe the detail level can be set at the options level like Garmin does on some navigators with the map details? Not sure, but we're not at nirvana yet.

Not related to the above, I would like to add a plug for a favorite of mine. I miss Garmin's trip computer screen that is usually obtained by tapping the lower right part of the screen; great road trip information. It's small, but please bring it to the App.

Review Summary - Garmin StreetPilot App

It's been a quick couple of days and while I haven't had the chance to use the StreetPilot App extensively, I think on the surface it represents a good solid first effort with some caveats. There is a nice suite of features and the interface is already ahead of some others due to the Garmin heritage of simplicity and ease of use.

In order to get general acceptance, the garbled voice and map drawing issues need to be addressed as it already appears to be a dissatisfier among many. For me, continued effort by Garmin in the area of Traffic is warranted. With their interface and usability skills combined with a world-class data set, they may just finally get a smart enough application to outsmart the masses not using their App. With TomTom's HD traffic announcement for the GO 2505M, my hunch/hope is that they will be bringing the higher quality traffic services to their iPhone App which would even further raise the ante in the Nav App wars.

The set of features that are already included and the promise for better performance wouldn't make me hesitate to buy this again for $39. I expect upgrades are imminent to plug some first generation gaps. If you need a flawless navigation app now, you'll need to look elsewhere.

The Garmin StreetPilot App is available at the iTunes Store.

Read More in: GPS Reviews | Garmin GPS Reviews | Mobile Phone GPS

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Posted by Scott Martin at January 7, 2011 11:03 AM

Recent Comments

This app is fine. With all the bad reviews, I was very hesitant to buy it. I caved in and bought it, and it works the way it's supposed too. The voice actually does not sound garbled, to me the pronunciation is very distinct. The only problem I can see with the voice is that it sounds like a bad hands free coming through the speaker.

The map drawing is slightly below average, but it works. Consider your getting the most up to date maps free!

The User Interface is outstanding, very similiar to a Nuvi in my opinion. I love the fact that when I do a search it tells me how far away the POI is and it's direction from my current location.

The only suggestion I can make is having a 3D view available all the time (and not just when you have a destination) and also have a North arrow. Other then those 2 very minor things, I love this app!

Posted by: Piper at January 10, 2011 10:44 PM

I'm a longtime Garmin GPS unit user, and really wanted to like the iOS app. BUT, the need to download maps from the server makes this a deal-killer. I travel about 30 weeks a year, and I'm in enough areas with marginal voice and data coverage that I would never even consider a GPS app that required constant map downloads. Fair enough, I think, if some people would rather not download 1GB+ of map data, but give people a choice. In the meanwhile, I've finally settled on the TomTom app, which -- after a couple months of use -- I've gotten used to. The voice is loud and clear enough that I often don't bother with the Magellan iPhone GPS mount that I have, and just leave it in a cup holder. The main functionality that I miss from my Garmin GPS unit is the ability to tap on the top of the screen and bring up a list of subsequent directions.

Thanks for your comprehensive review -- I've referred to your reviews often when trying to figure out which GPS unit I wanted to buy.

Posted by: Gerald at January 8, 2011 2:12 PM

As far as I know the navigation software of NAVIGON is worldwide the most sold navigation app for the iPhone so I´m a bit surprised it is not mentioned here or used to compare. Would love to know if it makes sense to switch.

One additional remark, the additional Inrix Traffic service I bought for my NAVIGON software is a one-of payment and not an annual subscription.

Posted by: Fred at January 7, 2011 2:26 PM

Agree - a project like this is at least 3 quarters in duration even if you just ported existing functionality over to the new platform. In no way did I mean to indicate anywhere that Garmin started working on this when they moved engineers off Nuvifone and onto iPhone development (October/November timeframe). It does start to lead me to believe that they made this decision 12+ months ago which would put it on top of the Nuvifone launch. Was it a parallel development or was it as a result of Nuvifone delays/declines?

FYI - As far as versioning goes; the App indicates that it's ver 6.5.2 - hardly 1.0 indicating several revisions and long development timelines, but then again it may be a ruse.

Agree on TT assessment too.

Posted by: Scott Martin at January 7, 2011 1:38 PM

I'm surprised Garmin has released their StreetPilot app with some of the weaknesses mentioned. They've had versions of it in the works for well over a year as I understood it. Perhaps an update is already being finished and the push out the door was only for the benefit of CES media mentions... perhaps.

As for TomTom's "HDTraffic" announcement, it's way too early IMHO to assume that it's a significant change from what they currently offer to the live models. They've obviously "fluffed the facts" in their press release. 12 times the coverage of RDS/TMC? Really? So 12 times 500,000 miles, or 6 million miles of roadway covered in America? If you take it as written, they must also be releasing almost 2 million miles of roads to the US too, since there's only around 4 million now according to the US government. And real-time traffic to every dirt road in America too? I don't think so with only several thousand probes (Inrix has 3 million!) and a relative handful of live devices, perhaps as few as 100,000 total in the US. I think we should wait till late summer before pronouncing TT's HDTraffic as best in North America.

Posted by: gatorguy at January 7, 2011 12:26 PM
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