For the past month, Iʼve been giving Sygicʼs Mobile Maps India, one of only two GPS based navigation applications for India on the iPhone, a test drive. I live in Noida and have used it to navigate to addresses both in Noida and in New Delhi. I now present to you my observations about how well the application worked. If you do not live in India and donʼt plan to visit us anytime soon, please take the next right turn after 200 meters and youʼll find other stories on your left.
Being a resident of India, my brushes with GPS in the past have been fleeting and rare. I have never used any of the dedicated GPS devices sold by Indian manufacturers and the iPhone 3GS I recently bought is the first GPS capable device Iʼve ever owned. I did spend a month in San Francisco last year and toured the city in a Honda Accura that had a built-in GPS navigation system but I mostly just sat in the rear seat and enjoyed the city.
All said and done, I come with a blank slate and have very little to compare Mobile Maps India to. Thatʼs a good thing too because what matters here is how good the application itself is, not whether it is superior in comparison to other GPS applications and devices, most of which arenʼt available in India. With that out of the way, letʼs get on with the review.
Upon first launch, Mobile Maps India presents you with some configuration options. Among the various settings it asks you to configure, thereʼs the option to choose from a lengthy list of supported voices. You can choose to have the application speak to you in Chinese, Deutsch, Español, Français, Italiano or in plain old English (either American or British). In total, the application has options for 33 speakers (with some languages featuring both male and female voices).
When you tap on any of the options, it plays a sample to give a feel of what the voice is like. After not much deliberation, I chose to go with Simon from Britain instead of Lucien from the United States. It is strange, however, that in a GPS application targeted exclusively at the Indian market, there is no support for any of Indiaʼs hundreds of regional languages. At the very least, Iʼd expected Hindi to make an appearance.
The user interface is pretty and well laid out, with large icons that make their purpose abundantly clear. Past versions of Mobile Maps India had a clunky interface and clearly the folks at Sygic have put in a considerable amount of effort to fix that. For the most part, their efforts have borne fruit. I do have some issues with the usability of the custom keyboard design but itʼs something that you will be able to take in your stride.
Once itʼs set up, youʼre presented with a map with the status bar at the bottom reading, “Waiting for valid signal”. Since most people try out the application immediately after installing it on their iPhone, itʼs usually indoors when it is first launched. No surprises, therefore, that the application remains forever stuck at this screen and those customers feel cheated and leave negative reviews on the App Store.
Global Positioning System (GPS), unlike cellular signals, only works when the receiver has one of the several global positioning satellites that orbit the Earth in its direct line of sight. Therefore, it will never work while you are indoors. If you try to have the Maps application on the iPhone tell you your correct location, youʼll notice that it also gets it wrong (although it does give you an approximate location by using cell-tower triangulation).
For Mobile Maps India to work, you have to be outdoors. This does not mean, however, that the application wonʼt work while you are in a car or if the phone is in your pocket. Iʼve been using the application while in a car and while riding a bike for the past month and it has almost never had any trouble getting a GPS signal. I think the folks at Sygic might be better served if they included a little note about how the application needs to be outdoors next to the “waiting for valid signal” message to reduce confusion.
When I launched Mobile Maps India for the first time, I was prepared to be disappointed. I had convinced myself that even if the application failed to work, well, I would just warn the readers of Smoking Apples not to spend their money on it and no harm would be done. It is with much trepidation that I entered the address I wanted to get to in the application and hit the Route Me button.
But route me it did and it did get me to my destination with sterling efficiency. I am situated in the heart of Noida and the location I wanted to get to was on the outskirts of the city. It was a village area and MTNLʼs 3G network was spotty there but Mobile Maps India does not need any Internet access and is always raring to go as long as you have charge in your battery (more on that in a bit).
Over the course of the past three weeks, Iʼve navigated to several places both in New Delhi and Noida and Mobile Maps India has never failed me. You launch the application, tap on the map, hit the Navigate To button and then either enter the address you want to get to or select from the applicationʼs list of points of interest, which include ATMs, bus/metro/railway stations, cafés and restaurants, cinema halls, commercial buildings, hospitals, hotels, parking spots, petrol pumps and shopping centres, among other things.
Once you point it to the correct place, which in itself is a process that could be made a little more intelligent—why, for instance, do I always have to select a city?—the map starts speaking out instructions and showing you directions on the iPhoneʼs generous screen. It informs you about turns 200 meters in advance and tells you to follow straight roads at one kilometre intervals (provided the stretch is of over two kilometres). It also tells you to keep left or right before oncoming flyovers and which exit to take on roundabouts.
As accurate as the application tends to be, there are times when the road it wants you to take is closed or is one that you know from personal experience is longer than an alternative route. In such cases, you can simply head onto another street and Mobile Maps India recalculates the route according to your change of mind and starts directing you accordingly. This feature represents one of the most convincing arguments in favour of using GPS and works seamlessly in Mobile Maps India.
Although GPS applications are usually intended to be used in cars, Iʼm a humble student in a big city and the best I can afford is a modest motorcycle. I never had to look at its screen as it stayed in my shirt pocket and kept relaying instructions into my ear through the earphones (not that Iʼm advising the use of earphones while riding a motor vehicle) and I never had any trouble with it (besides the fact that my ears would be sore at the end of the ride and refused to speak to me for days after).
Mobile Maps India also has some really neat features that I want to quickly mention. It can warn you when certain points of interest fall on your way while you are headed to a particular destination. So, for example, if you are running low on fuel, you can quickly and non-disruptively configure Mobile Maps India to warn you when a petrol station is nearby and it will obediently do so. Itʼs a feature Iʼve come to love and is particularly useful for finding ATMs, tricky as it may be to locate those little cubicles of money.
It allows you to set a particular location as your home and mark other locations you frequent as favourites so that you can get to them quickly. It can warn you when there is a speed camera or police trap on your way but those features donʼt work in India (because other users have to mark those points manually and the total users of Mobile Maps India can probably be counted on my fingers). It allows you to add restaurants and other locations to the applicationʼs points of interest database. You can plan your route with multiple stop-points in advance and make sure you have it all figured out before leaving the house.
There are, however, two caveats with the application—one serious and the other not quite so much. The less serious one is that the application often tells you “after 200 meters, take a right; then immediately, take a left” on straight roads, after having told you just seconds ago to keep following that road for two kilometres. This particular instruction is bogus and I quickly learnt to ignore it. I hope this is fixed in an update. (I meant it when I said it wasnʼt a serious problem though; there is absolutely no way youʼll confuse it with an actual instruction, specially now that Iʼve made you aware of this bug.)
The more serious caveat is that the application never gets you to your destination. It gets you darned close to it, sure, but it almost never says, “Destination is on your left (or right).” Even when it does, itʼs usually wrong. The closest it ever got to being right with me is when it told me that the destination was on the right and it was on the left at that very spot. Generally, the application tends to lead you to the wrong street once you are close to your destination (i.e. within 500 meters of it) and itʼs really frustrating when you realise that. Even after having used it so many times, I still havenʼt gotten used to this and this is something I shouldnʼt have to get used to.
If you are going to be using this application in a car, just make sure you have an in-car charger for your iPhone and you should be fine. Itʼs also worth noting that GPS applications like Mobile Maps India are extremely processor- heavy and can heat up your iPhone real good. Make sure you donʼt leave it under direct sunlight while you drive. If youʼre using it while riding a bike, it might be a good idea to buy an external battery for your iPhone if youʼre going to be using the GPS features often.
The Smaller Cities
Unfortunately, I was unable to test the application in a smaller city in India. That New Delhi and its adjoining areas are well represented on the map is not exactly a surprise for a GPS application designed for India. The real test wouldʼve been if I couldʼve used it to find my way around my hometown Siliguri without getting lost. I did try to locate my own house in Siliguri on Mobile Maps India but that was an abject failure.
The problem with the smaller cities, and even with larger cities in this country, is that we do not have a precise addressing system like in the more developed nations. Mobile Maps India asks you to select a city, then a neighbourhood, a block and then enter a house number. In USA, every address has all of those attributes, but in India, most addresses donʼt. Even in the larger cities, where addressing is more well thought out, most people do not know their house numbers and such.
Therefore, itʼs hard to blame Sygic for not being up to par in the smaller cities in India. A GPS application needs proper addresses to work. Then again, if it doesnʼt work, it does not matter whose fault it is to the consumer, does it? Thatʼs why Iʼm leaving this as an open-ended review. I think this application is absolutely fantastic and, if you spent all that money on an iPhone 3G/3GS, absolutely worth the $80. However, thatʼs quite a bit of money and I donʼt want any of the readers here to go out and buy it, only to find out that it does not work well for their city.
So I am giving you the opportunity to ask me questions. Ask me anything about the application—general questions about how it works, questions about whether specific features youʼre interested in are there or not, or even whether a certain address or point of interest you will frequently need to navigate to is present or not—and I will do my best to answer it. Since the App Store does not allow you to test drive applications before you buy them, consider me your beta tester. Bring it on.