Smartphones: Garmin's GPS Is Ringing

Adding navigation to a wireless phone makes great sense, and turn-by-turn navigation services have long been available for smartphones and less capable handsets. The Garmin (GRMN) nüvifone G60 stands the concept on its head by adding phone features to what is basically a standalone personal navigation device.

How does the nüvifone, a joint product of Garmin and Taiwan's Asustek, compare with more conventional navigation-equipped phones? To find out, I tested it against several navigation apps running on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone.

The nüvifone ($299 after rebate, with a two-year AT&T (T) contract) is, as you would expect, a very good navigation device. If it weren't for the AT&T logo on the case, you could mistake it for one of Garmin's slender standalone GPS products. The display and user interface will be familiar to anyone who has used Garmin. Thanks to a wireless data connection, it downloads real-time traffic information, gas prices, weather, and local movie times, though these "Premium Connected Services" require a $6 monthly subscription.

The problem is, the phone part of the nüvifone is mediocre at best. It's a basic handset with a minimal e-mail program and Web browser and a camera that's merely O.K. I was glad to find I could sync my contacts and calendar with Outlook and automatically navigate to the address of a contact. On the other hand, the sensitivity of the touch display is poor, which makes typing on the on-screen keyboard difficult. That's not a big problem for navigation, where you don't enter much information, but it cripples e-mail and browsing.

Route Recalculations on the iPhone Let's look at the competing approach. There are two ways to add navigation features to an iPhone or other smartphones. The most widely used method is to download maps and directions from the network as needed. But TomTom for iPhone ($100), like the nüvifone, stores its database of maps, driving instructions, and points of interest on the device itself. This has one huge advantage: It works even when you have no network coverage. But it also has drawbacks. Route calculation is a bit slower, the data can get out of date, and the software takes up a lot of space on your phone—1.2 gigabytes for TomTom (TOM2.AS).

In my tests the iPhone with TomTom wasn't quite in the league of the nüvifone as a navigation tool. For one thing, the iPhone's GPS processing is a little slow to update your position, resulting in unnecessary and annoying route recalculations. This situation should improve with TomTom's forthcoming $125 kit for mounting the iPhone on your dashboard, which includes an auxiliary GPS receiver. Also, I never succeeded in getting TomTom to generate routes based on information stored in the iPhone's address book. (On the other hand, the cost of an iPhone plus TomTom software is about the same as the price of a nüvifone—the difference being that you take home an iPhone.)

I also tried two network-based navigation services for the iPhone: AT&T Navigator by TeleNav and Gokivo Navigator from Networks in Motion. Both cost $10 a month. AT&T Navigator looks and feels very much like the program the company offers for BlackBerrys (RIMM) and other phones, while Gokivo is much more in the iPhone spirit, sort of like the Maps app with real-time instructions and traffic info. Both worked quite well, though, curiously, only in the phone's vertical orientation, not in the horizontal setup that seems more natural for maps.

For now, I think one of these apps on the iPhone makes more sense than the nüvifone because of the limitations of the Garmin handset. That could change next year, when Garmin and Asustek plan to release a model based on Google's (GOOG) Android software. As the iPhone has proved, good navigation software in a great smartphone is a potent combination.

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