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I recently heard (via Lifehacker, probably) about Skobbler, a free turn-by-turn navigation app for the iPhone. Wanting a turn-by-turn navigation app (and wanting one for Skitten when she's away as well), and not willing to pay a lot of money for one, I decided to try it out.

Skobbler works reasonably well, but it has quirks.

Skobbler acts similar to other in-car GPS units I've used. You give it an address, and it computes a route to get there, displaying either a 3D (sort of, it doesn't seem to have altitude information) or 2D (top-down) display of the route and surrounding roads. In 3D mode, it shows a view of what the route looks like in front of you, with some decent auto-zooming (I can usually see the next turn, but when it's far away, I'm limited to what is local). The bottom of the display shows the distance to the next turn, a graphic indicating the turn type (left, right, fork, sharp, etc) appears in the lower left, the name of the road you will be turning on across the top, and in the lower right, indications of distance to destination, time to destination, and estimated time of arrival.

Also active is a voice speaking the directions. The voice is good about giving ample warning about upcoming turns so you aren't surprised: "In 1.2 miles turn left onto NY13....In 600 feet turn left...turn left here...continue on this road for 54 miles...". It is, however, a bit quirky.

The first major quirk with Scobbler is the difference in timing between the vocal directions it gives and what the map display says. Routinely, Scobbler would vocalize distances somewhat shorter than reality. The display shows 900ft and I'm told "in 600 feet, turn...". I get to 100-300ft away, and I'm told to "turn now". It took me a while to realize that when it says "turn now" is a good time to turn on my signal and start looking for the turn to make. However, in some places this is still too early, sometimes over a block before the actual turn. When doing a test-drive through an area I was unfamiliar with, I did find myself taking a wrong turn because the voice directions were early. Looking at the map can help, but I still occasionally found myself on the wrong road.

This is a good segue into it's navigation and error-handling. Skobbler can be configured to find either the shortest route or the fastest route, with the fastest route the default. When you miss a turn, it recalculates the route -- probably beginning with a U-turn, since the route you just missed is probably faster or shorter than going the way you are. Personally, I would prefer to avoid U-turns unless there really is no other way. Especially since U-turns tend to trigger another quirk of Skobbler.

Skobbler seems to assume that as long as the desired route is within the error of the GPS signal, you are following that route. I watched the map carefully as I (intentionally) missed a turn and I saw Skobbler assume I had taken it -- until I was far enough past it I couldn't have taken it. At which point, it started calculating another route, one which began with going to the next possible turn and taking a U-Turn. But since the two arms of the route (to the U-turn and back) were right next to each other, Skobbler would get confused about which arm I was on, tell me to turn in X distance (behind me), go out of range of where it thought I was, recalculate, tell me to take a U-turn, etc. This was annoying, and potentially very confusing if I had been in an unfamiliar area.

One promised feature of Skobbler which didn't seem to work was speed limits and warnings. If Skobbler has the data (from OpenSourceMapping) as to what the local speed limit is, it will both display it and warn you when you exceed it. Presumably this works, but it is very dependent on available data, and it seems my local area doesn't have the data. The good news is OSM is, well, open, and I can add the data myself for this town.

One potential major problem with Skobbler is that it is not a fully off-line system. It relies on having net access to download map data as needed (and perhaps to route recalculations). On the one hand, this means that it doesn't have to use up a lot of space on the iPhone. On the other hand, this means that in areas without good reception, it won't work as well, if at all. I have not had the opportunity to try to navigate with it to a location I know has no local coverage, so I don't know how well it handles it. (note to self: upgrade Skitten's data plan to 30GB/m before she leaves on her trips with Skobbler).

All in all, it's a good piece of software with some quirks and caveats. I think it's probably worth the price.

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I'm surprised that the iOS doesn't ship with a turn-by-turn nav app. I'm finding that Google Navigator is the "killer app" on my Android phone. I'd suggest that Apple develop one, except that the lack of one isn't stopping iPhones from selling like hotcakes.

It's bad marketing on Apple's part. iOS ships with a Google mapping app that will do directions, tie in with GPS to show your position, etc, but not turn-by-turn, 3d, or voice (and no automatic route recalculation). So using it for solo navigation while driving is difficult and dangerous.

My understanding is that Apple resisted attempts by Google, TomTom, etc to put turn-by-turn navigation on the iPhone. By the time Apple relented, Google was no longer interested in doing so on the iPhone, and didn't bother to port Google Navigator (written for Android) to iOS.

I think Apple doesn't want to face the potential liability that SatNav companies feel when people rely on then in the face of bad data. Does Apple want to deal with "Hipster drives off cliff due to his iPhone telling him it was the way to Burning Man" headlines? Note that Google Navigator is officially Beta and is covered with disclaimers which basically say "don't use this satnav app as a satnav device; we won't be liable if you do".

Waze is a nifty crowdsourced navigation app. It's unfortunately still quite flaky, but I love the concept. It's limited to routes of 200 miles or shorter, and sometimes can't even accomplish that, but when it works, its ability to figure out routes on the fly and warn you of traffic and speed traps is nice.

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