New direction: satnav comes to mobile devices

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Location, location, location – the three golden rules for house buying – has also become the obsession of technology companies selling us gadgets and services.

Satellite navigation, commonplace in car dashboards, is now embedded in our smartphones and jacket pockets.

GPS is being used not just to tell us where to go, but also to pinpoint where we are for marketing purposes.

A colleague in San Francisco picked up a free pair of jeans at the local Gap this month in a Facebook deal offered to users who “checked in” at the store using GPS and Facebook’s mobile phone app.

My Android smartphone has become my satnav whenever I rent a car. The Google car navigation app allows me to speak where I want to go and shows a Google map with spoken directions, just like any normal satnav system. I can also add layers to the maps, such as satellite pictures and traffic conditions. When I arrive at my destination – my home, for example – the app zooms into Street View and I am greeted by an image of my garage mirroring the one that is, in reality, in front of me.

Nokia’s latest smartphones also have free turn-by-turn navigation and are hard to beat in their global reach. On the latest N8 smartphone I tested, I was offered spoken directions in every language from Afrikaans and Basque to Urdu and Vietnamese.

The Ovi Maps app also comes with free location-aware Lonely Planet and Michelin guides as well as local weather forecasts, data such as movie times, and Trip Advisor in the US, which reveals places to see, eat and stay.

Nokia also grabs anonymous user data on drivers’ positions to calculate traffic speeds and offer information on congestion.

With phones offering such strong competition, the makers of personal navigation devices are resetting their product compasses.

Garmin has taken on the handset makers with its own Garminfone a handset that is a navigation device first and foremost but also incorporates an Android-powered smartphone complete with camera.

Garmin also melds its service with Google features such as Street View and Voice Search, and includes a car-mount kit that usually comes as an extra with other phones. There are services such as local fuel prices and flight status updates, and a Voice Studio feature that allows you to change the navigation voice to that of a friend or family member.

The latest TomTom devices released in the US focus on the driving experience. On the TomTom Go 2405, many improvements were noticeable over the built-in satnav in my six-year-old Toyota Prius. However, the car-mount against the windscreen and the power cable trailing to the cigarette lighter were not the most elegant of solutions.

But I liked the way it was able to pronounce street names and could figure out which lane I needed to be in at complicated highway intersections. Filling stations and points of interest showed up in timely fashion on the 3D view of the road ahead and the display told me my speed and the local speed limit, showing this information in red when I was going too fast. Putting in directions to my downtown office brought up a list of the nearest parking garages, anticipating where I would choose to park.

Tablet computing could pose another threat to personal navigation devices. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab has a much bigger display area with its 7in screen and has a car-mount accessory as an optional extra. Navigation is provided by Google’s Android 2.2, and Samsung encourages usage of the Layar app for an augmented reality experience.

Using the device’s camera, I was able to pan around while walking and see icons appear on screen pointing out restaurants, stores and other places of interest ahead, with a circular radar icon at the top showing their direction and proximity.

It was an interesting experience, until walking and holding up the large tablet screen in front of me meant I failed to spot a fire hydrant just below its vision, with unfortunate consequences.

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