nDrive: Worldwide, on-device (and pricey) navigation comes to webOS 2.0 53
With all the controversy (we're looking at you, Verizon) and carrier-specific options for GPS-based navigation, one feature that has been missing from the webOS App Catalog has been full on-device navigation, where both the software and maps are stored on the webOS device itself. This capability (available via homebrew via Navit, although using open-source rather than commercial maps) would permit the webOS device to serve as a GPS navigator whether or not a data signal was available, as long as the GPS radio is on and the GPS signal itself is strong enough for a lock. Last night, after a long period of "coming soon" announcements on Twitter and beta testing, nDrive, a popular cross-platform choice, finally came to the webOS App Catalog (as nDrive USA for US users). Whether it's the right choice for you will depend on your particular needs, and budget.
Read on for the full review!
nDrive is at its heart a basic point-to-point navigation app, providing spoken directions (although not street names) through the phone's speaker or via an audio device plugged into the headphone jack or connected via Bluetooth. Users input the destination or select it from a stored address book, and nDrive calculates the route (based on a few user selectable options) and leads the user through it, automatically recalculating if the user diverges sufficiently from the instructions. If no destination is inputted, nDrive displays the user's position, showing street names, direction and velocity. The app does a nice job of automatically adjusting the zoom level for readability on the phone's screen (either portrait or landscape), and can display user-chosen points of interest, speed limits (with optional alerts) and traffic cameras. It also adjusts its standard units based on the user's language selection (e.g. U.S. English gives directions in miles rather than kilometers.) If a data signal is available, the app integrates weather, Foursquare check-ins and Facebook Places and route sharing.
Although nDrive uses commercially supplied map data (such as the Navteq maps for the United States), the application is not without its quirks. In my testing, some streets (notably my home address) did not show up when I tried to navigate based on my town's name, although it did when I searched via zip code. Some features (such as Foursquare integration) are a bit confusing; I managed to disconnect nDrive from my Foursquare account, and could not figure out how to relink it. It offers a database of traffic cameras, but not the realtime traffic data provided by navigation apps like Google Maps and the carriers' own choices. While nDrive provides a Favorites option, it does not allow users to search for and navigate to addresses directly from the webOS Contacts app; happily, webOS' multitasking makes it at least possible to switch back and forth between the two apps to search for and enter data. It also shares the problems that many webOS apps have in waking the GPS chips on some devices; I frequently needed to avail myself of GPS Fix to get a usable fix for nDrive.
Where nDrive shines is its international scope. The app is not only for sale around the world, but the publisher offers a variety of (free) language choices and (not-free) maps. A user who makes a trip to another country can simply buy the relevant local map, and receive directions in her own language whether or not the phone is connected to (or compatible with) the local cellphone system. This can be a great boon for both frequent and occasional travelers.
We've been testing the nDrive beta for some time, and while earlier versions of the app were somewhat rocky and had not yet adopted webOS UI conventions (especially gestures), the app has come a long way. The release candidate, while still looking unlike most webOS applications, incorporates enough standard interface elements that it will be easy enough to use. Another potential challenge is file size. nDrive maps can be quite large (the U.S. map alone is 2.3 GB) and take a long time to initially download especially on a cellular data connection, and storage space used for maps will obviously be unavailable for photos, videos, music and the other types of files users may keep on their webOS devices. Then again, the same is true for the homebrew Navit solution; it's just the nature of an on-device versus streamed navigation solution.
What may not be so easy to accept is the pricing. In the U.S., the nDrive app itself sells for $49.99, quite a bit higher than most webOS applications (in fact, it may be the most expensive app currently available), [UPDATE: For U.S. users, this includes a feww download of the United States maps] but that's just the beginning. To use the application effectively in other countries as well, users must purchase additional maps for desired locations from the nDrive store; the map for Mexico, for example, costs €24.99, or about $37, and other countries are similarly priced.
On the plus side, the maps are licensed from some of the top commercial suppliers in each region. On the minus side, though, the pricing reflects it. In fact, adding up the pricing for the app plus one additional map, nDrive's cost is roughly comparable to that of lower-end standalone GPS units, which may offer (much) larger screens, text-to-speech for directions including street names, larger point of interest databases, and other features. On the other hand, the pricing for the other webOS navigation options, which may include per month costs (VZ Navigator) as well as data charges (Sprint Navigation, Google Maps, etc.), can rapidly swell far beyond the one-time payments for nDrive, and they almost certainly will not work outside one's home country.
nDrive is certainly a reasonable option for webOS turn-by-turn navigation. Whether nDrive will be the right choice for you, though, will depend on your particular needs, and what you already have available to you. For those who travel the world, or just frequently leave good data coverage areas, having an on-device navigation app like nDrive can be a huge plus. It also serves as a useful backup or even alternative to a portable GPS, and is probably less prone to being stolen from the car (a common occurence in some regions). On the other hand, nDrive's interface is more complicated and feature set smaller than those of carrier-provided apps like VZ Navigator or Sprint Navigation, and especially for users whose carriers provide free choices and who stick to areas with good data coverage, the app and map costs and storage requirements may be a stopper.