Review: Navigating by Cell Phone

Driving around a rapidly growing city on unfamiliar streets is not fun.

A wrong turn can land you in a maze of construction detours and bumpy roads. Some residents in Las Vegas' newer communities say stop signs and street names seem to change by the month.

So I tried navigating around town using cell phones loaded with Global Positioning System software. The programs _ VZ Navigator, TeleNav, Garmin Mobile and MapQuest Navigator _ can be downloaded onto phones with GPS chips and cost $9.99 a month.

With up-to-date maps and a comforting, computerized female voice telling me exactly where to go, what could possibly go wrong?

A few things.

First, I expected that because I was using the systems over the air in real time, I would be getting the most up-to-date maps. I was mistaken.


One day, I tried to locate a new bar that was opening at 1205 South Ft. Apache Road, on the west side of town. "Martinis" was giving away, well, free martinis, as long as I could find the place.

While the invitation included a rough map, I could not find the address on any of the systems I tried.

Oddly, MapQuest Navigator could not pinpoint the address, even though it came up on the Web site.

So what's the point of paying $9.99 a month for a navigation system that can't find addresses?

It's a fair question, especially when you can pay $1.79 a call for 411 service at Sprint PCS for a real human being to give you turn-by-turn directions over the phone.

But this is a new, growing city. I suppose these navigation devices are good for places that have been around for a while, right?

Not so fast.

Recently, I used TeleNav to browse by name for the Primm Valley Golf Club in Primm, Nev. (opened in 1997) and the Mountain Falls Golf Club in Pahrump, Nev. (opened in April 2005).

Neither appeared, so I found them the old-fashioned way _ by asking for directions. (Later, when trying out the Garmin Mobile program, I was able to locate both.)

All of the companies said they used map data from Navteq Corp., which Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Jenny Weaver said updated its database quarterly.

Among other hit-and-miss features were the cheap-gas finders (either the prices were different or the location was wrong), Wi-Fi hotspot locaters and TeleNav's traffic detection service.

After raising concerns about missing or incorrect data, TeleNav spokeswoman Mary Beth Lowell said the company was looking at working with more data providers to keep its information updated.

In one instance, I was disappointed by two things at once.

I drove across town to find cheap gas _ and was directed by TeleNav to drive north on the Las Vegas Strip in the evening. As a somewhat experienced local, I knew such a route was insanity _ the Strip would be clogged with taxis, limo-length Hummers and motorists. Overriding the chosen path, when I got to the location, there was a dark, apparently abandoned building where a gas station was supposed to be.

TeleNav's traffic system also was a bit of a mystery. Once, when I was stuck in traffic, it took so long for the information to download to the phone, by the time I cleared the jam it was too late. I also was annoyed at the estimated time of arrival indicator, which simply inched forward as the minutes crawled by and I was at a standstill.

For all the complaining, when an address was actually found, the systems mostly worked fine.

VZ Navigator performed the best on a $149.99 enV phone on the Verizon Wireless network. The directions were clear and the sideways flip phone with full keyboard was the easiest to use with the exception of being unable to toggle between the map mode and the "nav" mode, which gives turn-by-turn directions. (I found out later this could be done using the "CLR" key. Go figure.)

It also was easy to call locations that had listed numbers (say to make reservations), although it took some thumb work to get back into navigation mode.

The next three services I tested out on a Sanyo Katana flip phone, on the Sprint network, which retails online for $29.99 after rebates.

The TeleNav program was the best of these, as its 3-D view and toggle between turn-by-turn directions and the viewer was fairly easy. The grammar used by the computerized female was wonky, however. She insisted I "turn to" an avenue, rather than "turn on" it. A minor point but annoying nonetheless.

As for Garmin and MapQuest, I could not recommend them as tested. The main problem was the power-saving mode that made the screen darker after about 10 seconds. Even with a phone cradle that suction-cupped to the windshield, turning my attention to touching the phone every few seconds was a recipe for disaster.

Then there's the question of whether your phone will work with any of these programs.

I found out my Motorola V3 RAZR on the AT&T network lacks the necessary GPS chip, which means I would have to buy a $100 Bluetooth-enabled GPS accessory that would connect to my phone.

For that price, I'd rather just Google or MapQuest before leaving home.


On the Net:

VZ Navigator:

TeleNav Inc.:

Garmin Mobile:

MapQuest Navigator: