Garmin StreetPilot Onboard 1.0 (for iPhone)

Garmin has released its new StreetPilot Onboard app, and it’s a significant update. if you’ve been waiting for an iPhone app that works just like a Garmin navigation device, this is the one. It’s an easy, safe purchase for current owners of older, standalone Garmin units, and it costs less than competing apps from TomTom and Magellan.

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Version Breakdown, New FeaturesStreetPilot Onboard is available in two versions: a $39.99 app that covers the lower 49 states, called U.S.A.; and a $49.99 app that adds Canada and Alaska. They’re otherwise functionally equivalent, and each app works with any iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPad, or iPod touch (3rd and 4th generation only) running iOS 4 and with 1.61GB of free space. For this review, I tested Garmin StreetPilot Onboard U.S.A. on a Verizon iPhone running iOS 4.2.9.

This isn’t Garmin’s first iPhone app; earlier this year, the company released the original StreetPilot app. The major difference with Garmin StreetPilot Onboard is that it now stores maps locally (hence “onboard”), instead of streaming them over your cellular connection, TeleNav GPS-style ($21.99/year, 3 stars) although TeleNav, too, has been moving toward local storage as well. As the U.S. moves to tiered data plans, this can save you money, and it’s also more reliable in areas with poor cell phone signals. The Onboard app also packs some other new features, including 3D buildings, multi-segment routing, a trip planner and trip computer, a Detour button, a turn list view, and data field toggles for the map view.

Frustratingly, there’s no upgrade path for current StreetPilot users. if you want the new app’s features, you have to buy the new one at full price. Needless to say, in an age of ever-evolving iPhone apps with regular, free updates, this isn’t a good way for Garmin to reward its current customer base.

User Interface, POI Search, and Address EntryIf you’ve ever used a Garmin standalone device, you know what to expect. The main interface resembles that of recent Garmin products. Two large icons, where To and View Map, dominate the home screen, with several smaller ones in a toolbar along the bottom. Tap where To, and you’ll see an array of choices for entering an address, running point-of-interest searches, and Google Local Search, plus an array of options for favorites, recent destinations, intersections, cities, and address book contacts.

I’ve always preferred Garmin’s POI database, just because it arranges categories more sensibly than the competition. For example, it breaks down Shopping into subcategories, and has separate top categories for recreation, attractions, and entertainment, in addition to the usual food, lodging, fuel, ATM, hospital, and transit destinations. Even so, the best was Google Local Search, which lets you put in anything, anywhere, just like a Google search on a laptop. if you don’t mind typing on the on-screen keyboard, I found it faster to do this on occasion.

Entering street addresses is a little different than with other apps: first you enter the house number, and then the street. if there are only a few choices, it will display them in a type-ahead mode; otherwise, you choose the city next. To change the state, you do it at the beginning, before you enter the house number. it works fine in practice, and my iPhone never “hung up” or froze for several seconds while the app figured out the next step.

Map View and Routing PerformanceOnce on the road, Garmin StreetPilot Onboard’s map view looks good, with crisp fonts and smoothly drawn roads. it displays the current road speed limit as well as the current speed. That said, it doesn’t approach the standalone Garmin nüvi 3790T’s ($449.99, 4 stars) 3D terrain mapping; that’s a surprise, since the iPhone 4 is easily capable of such detail. Garmin includes a 3D lane assistance view in addition to the usual set of small arrows showing you which lane to be in for the next highway exit; this setup mimics our Editors’ Choice, TomTom 1.8 for iPhone ($49.99, 4 stars), and is a little more sophisticated than Magellan RoadMate’s still-useful, oversized road signs.

I tested StreetPilot Onboard all around the Greater Boston area in Massachusetts. As expected, routing performance was excellent; while it doesn’t quite “adapt” the way TomTom’s app does, with the latter’s IQ Routes feature, Garmin has been at this long enough that its routing choices are usually spot on anyway. It’s also easy to stop navigation en route; simply drop back to the menu and tap the Stop button. (TomTom’s app requires some contortions and aiming your finger at just the right spot, which is tough, if not dangerous at full spead.) There’s no pedestrian mode, but that’s not really a con on an app like this; iPhones come with Google Maps, which is perfectly fine for pedestrian navigation, as you don’t need voice prompts while walking.

Some Bugs, In-App Purchases, and ConclusionsI saw a few bugs during testing. Once, the route overview screen showed a trip that was different than the one I was currently on. The trip computer screen displayed a number of bad data fields, suggesting that I’d traveled more than 80,000 miles with the app.

But the worst bug was one that I couldn’t reproduce: Once, while navigating to a destination, somewhere along the line, the app switched to a random set of coordinates, and began sending me there instead. Normally, you can force this behavior during navigation by tapping the screen, moving the overhead map around, tapping a new location, and then selecting “Go.” But that’s an awful lot of taps to perform by accident, and the chosen coordinates weren’t anywhere near my current location at the time. Regardless of what happened here, Garmin should reverse this process so that the app first asks if you want to choose a new destination by selecting a location on the map, and then letting you select the coordinates; not the other way around. Otherwise you could end up driving in the wrong direction, like I did, without realizing what had happened until my passenger and I figured it out on our own.

Garmin sells two extra-cost plug-ins for StreetPilot Onboard, both of which are in-app purchases: Traffic, for $19.99 per year, and Fuel Prices, for $9.99 per year. we were unable to test these add-ons. Regardless, I’m not a fan of the “per year” approach, as it adds a hidden subscription-like element to what initially appears to be a one-time app purchase. Granted, TomTom does the same thing, at least for traffic reporting. There’s a difference, though: TomTom offers its regular traffic reporting for free; TomTom’s HD Traffic plug-in adds a much more granular, detailed view with updates as often as every two minutes. With Garmin StreetPilot Onboard, you get no traffic reporting at all without the plug-in.

The latest crop of iPhone navigation apps are a lot better than they were when they first appeared two years ago. All the major players have text-to-speech conversion, 3D maps, smooth interfaces, and accurate routing for the most part, and all support the iPhone 4’s much sharper Retina display. It’s down to the details now. TomTom for iPhone remains our Editors’ Choice; that app’s IQ Routes, free basic traffic reporting, and more informative display during navigation are useful plusses, although Garmin’s POI search and menu and icon layouts make more sense. Magellan’s app arguably sports the most attractive interface from a visual standpoint, and it’s also quite easy to use in its own way. Garmin recently acquired Navigon, so it remains to see what happens with the latter’s MobileNavigator app; we’ll review the next version if and when it comes out. For now, Garmin fans can rest assured that they can get the same navigation they know and love on their iPhones now.

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