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Ready to Navigate: Smartphone apps and dash-mount GPS units go head-to-head in east Coffee road trip

Posted on Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 10:30 am

Staff Writer
John Coffelt


The question’s simple but relative, have cell phones made dedicated GPS devices obsolete?

To answer this and to see which GPS navigation platforms perform best in Coffee County, I recently begged, borrowed and bartered to find a sample of each the most popular GPS systems available to compare against my smartphone and tablet.

Representing the dedicated device market, I found a 4 EN 42 TomTom unit and two Garmin units, an older Nuvi 1300 and last year’s Nuvi 40. The cell phone app navigators are Google Navigation on my Wi-FI-only Nexis 7 tablet and the basic iOS maps for the iPhone 4.

The stock iPhone 4 maps app really aren’t a navigation system. They don’t have vocal turn-by-turn navigation. Both TomTom and Garmin have developed iPhone navigation apps, but they run $49.99 for a Garmin iPhone app or $45.99 for TomTom USA on Android.

Indecently, the basic iOS maps, offer a Google Maps look with satellite images that are significantly better than Google Earth images.

Google’s Navigation app looks cool with a sleek, black display, but functionally it’s a wreck.

The biggest drawback to the app is that it always seems to plan the most convoluted route possible. On a recent trip to Oak Ridge, the navigator avoided the McMinnville bypass to go around the square and what seems like every square between here and Clarksville.

Another drawback for tablet users is that many of the devices are Wi-Fi only. Navigation works without the internet connection only as long as the device doesn’t stray too far from the planned route. And be ready for a stop at a restaurant that offers free Wi-Fi to plan the return trip.

A second issue with cell phone navigation is battery life while using the GPS. On the iPhone’s relatively small screen battery life isn’t too much of a problem, but on the 7 inch Nexus screen, constant viewing in Navigation runs out the batteries in a couple hours.

Dedicated devices aren’t the do-it-all items that cell phones are, but they generally offer better route flexibility, are designed to work on the car’s electrical system and mounts pretty securely on the windshield or dash.

The most basic dedicated units usually have more route choices to find fastest, shortest and, on some models, offers the more fuel-efficient way to your destination.

The TomTom units tend to offer better options, but they also sacrifice ease of use. The market for dedicated GPS dash mount devices seems to be slowing, so both Garmin and TomTom are beginning to branch out into other GPS devices and offering product incentives on the car units. Garmin is way ahead in branching out with other products, having an already secure line of boating and hiking units. TomTom offers several portable GPS units for jogging.

On the road, both Garmin and TomTom will warn if you’re speeding, but Garmin, even with the latest update, has the speed limit too high then to low coming into Manchester on Highway 53.

TomTom waits until you are five miles over the speed limit before it warns of speeding.

Overall, Garmin and TomTom are very similar. The Garmin seems to find a route a little faster than the TomTom. But TomTom offers more features.

Both brands identify local points of interests, restaurants, gas stations, etc. But the new Garmin still tries to send diners to Crockets, formerly on the Woodbury Highway.

One big improvement from the older model Garmin and to an extent the TomTom is the sensitivity of the touch screen.

A real-world test

Summitville Road reportedly wreaks havoc on GPS devices, so I figured it would provide an excellent test area for the various devices.

For those not familiar with Summitville Rd., it winds through as a series of dog-leg-turns southeast from Pocahontas Road through the eastern flatlands of the county to Summitville to end at Highway 55. It is a particularly difficult road for cartographers because of the unruly turns that appear to continue on with a different name.

Google Maps desktop shows 5805 Summitville Rd., our test destination, a mere 11.3 miles from the Times office by way of Maple Springs Rd.

Following the user defined faster route setting, Garmin and TomTom advises taking the Woodbury Highway to Maple Springs and then turning on Summitville Road for a 15 mile trip estimated to take 20 minutes.

TomTom shows the route 14.9 miles and taking “0:26 hrs.”

Interestingly, the mileage is slightly different between Goggle Navigation and Garmin. Garmin has the distance traveled on Summitville Rd. as 2.7 miles, while Navigation says 2.9 miles. Both, however, accumulate the same total distance of 15 miles, but Navigation sees the route taking three minutes longer.

Later, driving the route, the Garmin unit’s voice undershot the Maple Springs intersection by about 200 yards, while the displayed map was spot-on.

Garmin’s shortest route recommends a turn onto Maple Springs Road at New Union Elementary School, to run through a series of twists and turns onto S.P. Anderson, Bodine and an assortment of picturesque country roads. The trip should take 23 minutes and cover 11 miles. This is the same route Goggle Maps desktop can be set to take.

IPhone Maps likes the back road route, turning at New Union, but offers a third and completely different new route that goes 4.7 miles on Petty Rd.  This route is estimated to take 28 minutes and is 11.8 miles.

About halfway to New Union, I decided on the back road route rather than the faster route, and turned down Maple Springs Rd. Both navigators were quick to alert me to my erroneous turn. The Garmin quickly intuited my change of plans and found the appropriate way after I ignored two more suggested turns. Google Navigation didn’t have the Wi-Fi access needed for a new route so it gave up a little before my S.P. Anderson Rd. turn. Google Navigation would have stayed helplessly lost until I reached the destination, but its battery gave out (only because I forgot to charge it last night).

One major issue with driving alone with a cell phone navigator is finding what to do with the device. The Nexis 7 kept trying to slide off the seat. When it stayed put, it was still distracting and almost imposable to steal a glance at my upcoming turn.

On the other hand, my dash-mounted Garmin actually prevented me from missing a road hidden between to cornfields.