In GPS, Google Is Still a Little Lost

Where in the world am I? I thought I knew. From all outward appearances, I was at Pennsylvania Station in New York. But according to Google's (GOOG) mapping and navigation software running on my Motorola Droid phone, I was on Cheapside, a street in London. The app helpfully located nearby Underground stations for me.

When Motorola (MOT), Verizon (VZ), and Google launched the Droid in November, investors drove down shares of TomTom and Garmin (GRMN), makers of dedicated navigation systems. The reason: The mapping application built into Google's Android smartphone operating system offered spoken, turn-by-turn directions—for free. Now that Google has taken the wraps off its Nexus One phone, it's clear navigation will only grow in strategic importance.

I plan to look at how the app works on the new Google handset soon. In the meantime I've been using the program on the Droid in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area for the last couple of weeks. And I've encountered enough quirks—hello, London!—to conclude its not quite time to give up a standalone device.

In your car, the best way to use the Droid for navigation is with the optional $29.99 mounting bracket that attaches to the windshield or dashboard. The phone senses when it's in the holder and automatically displays a special interface that includes large buttons for maps and navigation. On a few occasions, though, my phone would slip back to its usual display setting, requiring me or my passenger to find and relaunch the program.

Google's app provides multiple ways to input your destination, including by touchscreen, the Droid's physical keyboard, and built-in voice search. I found the interface a bit fussy, requiring a number of pokes and prods. (Drivers shouldn't poke this, or any other screen, when the car is in motion.)

I also had an issue with the app's display. For a smartphone, the Droid's screen is a pleasure—very bright, with a higher resolution than that of an Apple (AAPL) iPhone. But its 3.7-inch size, combined with the Google app's mapping layout, makes it much harder to see than the 4.3-inch display on the Garmin nüvi 855 system I used for comparison.

Once I was under way, driving instructions were delivered in a clear voice that sounds a little like VIKI, the malevolent computer in the movie I, Robot. The system gave me plenty of advance notice of coming turns, including street names, and usually picked good routes. When I deliberately missed some turns, the Droid took longer than the nüvi to recalculate. So I often failed to take what would have been a logical alternative route. Harder to forgive were the app's occasional bouts of confusion, including the London episode.

Motorola refers queries about such hiccups to Google, which responds that they are hardware issues. Whoever is to blame, it's disconcerting to be directed the wrong way down a one-way street, something that has happened perhaps twice in five years with the built-in navigation system in my car—and happened within a week of using the Google app.

On the other hand, when I arrived at my destination, not only did the phone announce it, but the view switched from map to a Google street-view photograph. Very nice if you are prowling unfamiliar turf.

Google labels its nav app "Beta," a testing designation the company often maintains longer than its competitors do. I guess that's supposed to excuse the bugs in an otherwise fine app with a price nobody can beat.

Oh, and to get to Penn Station from Cheapside, head toward the Thames, take a right, and...keep going.

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