Cell Phone GPS App Smackdown

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Loaded With GPS Goodies

If you're using these GPS applications as a passenger and you don't need your eyes on the road, you can take advantage of all of their nifty built-in gizmos--and they have plenty. For instance, each model displays traffic on the map itself, showing how far off the traffic is, and the speed at the jam location.

You can also view traffic jams as a list, stepping through locations along the route and seeing what speed you'd be going. As you might expect, all of the devices offer a way to reroute you through traffic; if you're not driving, you can press a few buttons to take advantage of an alternate route.

While you're staring at the map, you might want a different view--say, a close-up of local streets. Verizon's VZ Navigator has an easy way to zoom in and out of a map: Just press the BlackBerry's pearl and scroll left or right to zoom in or out. In contrast, both the AT&T and Sprint force you to use the keyboard's # sign or plus key, a more awkward approach to zooming.

If you want to see where you are and where you're going, even if you don't have a specific route, you'll like Verizon's VZ Navigator Follow Me Map, which shows your position as you move around. While not terribly valuable, it's certainly cool and fun to look at.

Fuel Finder on AT&T Navigator
Given the state of the economy, location-based gas-price listings are a valuable feature, and all three services offer them. You can search for gas by grade of gasoline (including diesel), or by price. TeleNav-powered phones update the pricing daily for major metro areas; if a gas station doesn't send data within three days, it's dropped from the system.

If you're looking for a restaurant recommendation, you're in luck. Each device has a way to search for a spot to eat--or, for that matter, a movie, or an event such as a concert. On AT&T and Sprint models, you can search by the most popular items in a category; you can also save on using costly 411 services, as you can immediately call the restaurant, or simply use the navigation program to head on over from wherever you are. The reviews and ratings are from Yelp or from other TeleNav users, but the restaurant reviews aren't nearly as valuable as those on ChowHound.

Also, performance of the search features was spotty, depending on network traffic and access to both GPS satellites and cell towers. For instance, the first time I searched VZ Navigator for Chinese restaurants along my route, it came up with no results; subsequent searches appeared quickly. Luckily I wasn't hungry when I tried the search with the Sprint phone, because I wouldn't have wanted to wait the 2 minutes it took to deliver results.

Going Off Course

Unfortunately, cell service and satellite feeds are finicky, so not everything worked well in my tests. Traffic reports, for instance, weren't always accurate. On one trip to Costco, the AT&T and Sprint phones reported traffic alerts ahead. We sailed smoothly through the alert because there were no traffic tie-ups; both reports were too dated, despite the fact that they're supposed to occur in real time. Verizon's VZ Navigator was more accurate, as it didn't report any traffic problems ahead.

On another occasion the Sprint reported traffic problems 2 miles ahead but the AT&T said 1.5 miles ahead; the other anomaly was that the Sprint gave the alert a severity rating of one while the AT&T called the same alert a four. In this case, traffic slowed just a little bit, so the Sprint service was on target.

One neat feature: If you're a regular commuter, you'll like AT&T's Commuter Alert. It gives you a way to set up a specific route and have it automatically check the traffic, at, say, 5 p.m., just before you leave work (if you really leave that early).

Considering the Costs

Each vendor has a different way of charging for the data streams--say, downloading maps and doing searches. An average route is about 35kb.

For example, AT&T Navigator says that charges apply for route information. On the other hand, Sprint says that you'll need a data plan, otherwise you'll get hit with extra data charges. In general, if you're planning to make extensive use of a cell phone GPS application, you're probably better off with an all-you-can-eat data plan.

TeleNav's Web site offers a 30-day free trial on all supported models listed. At the company's online store, simply select a plan and give your credit card information. TeleNav says you won't be billed for the 30-day free trial. Keep in mind, however, that if you don't want to continue with the service--and the monthly fee--you must cancel at the end of the trial period.

Choose Me, Choose Me

Because of the size and portability of a BlackBerry-- or any mobile phone--cell phone navigation services are perfect for the business traveler. And I suspect that most cell phone users are in big cities, or at least big enough cities where you almost always get reception on major carriers.

But if you're a serious recreational user of GPS, you won't enjoy the significant screen-size limitation and the constant scrolling to move around the map. I'd say you'd be happier with a dedicated GPS device sporting a bigger screen. (For more information about such products, read "How to Buy a GPS Device" and "GPS Devices: Road-Tested and Reviewed.")

That said, if I had to choose one of these apps to use regularly, given that pricing for the three services is the same, it would be AT&T Navigator. While I liked VZ Navigator's zooming features and easy-to-read screen, and Sprint's bigger-than-the-others fonts, AT&T had more going for it in overall ease of use and features. For instance, AT&T's Pedestrian Mode is a terrific addition, helping me to find my way back to my car in a massive parking lot or to navigate while walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

Steve Bass is a former PC World contributing editor who now publishes a weekly newsletter at TechBite.com.

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