Garmin’s nüvi vs. Navigon’s MobileNavigator for iPhone: The Ultimate Showdown

In a recent article, I asked the question: How well does the iPhone’s Maps app stand up to separate stand-alone GPS devices (such as a Garmin nüvi 760)? That is, if you already have an iPhone, would it be also worth your money to buy a separate GPS device? I concluded that, while Maps is a superb piece of software and even offers a few features not present in stand-alone GPS devices, a separate device is still worth getting — assuming you do a significant amount of driving in locations where you need help with directions.

However, supported by the release of iPhone OS 3.0, the iPhone’s navigation options go beyond Maps. There are now several third-party apps that much more closely mimic the features of stand-alone GPS devices. The first of these apps to arrive was Navigon’s MobileNavigator, currently at version 1.1.

For this article, I am asking: Is MobileNavigator, as an example of the current crop of iPhone navigation apps, good enough that there is no longer a reason for iPhone owners to consider the purchase of a separate GPS device? [Note: Currently, MobileNavigator’s major competition is TomTom. A Gizmodo article concludes that the two apps are about equally good.]

How does MobileNavigator stack up to the Garmin nüvi for basic navigation?

Very well indeed.

They both feature the same sort of 3D route view, continually updated as your car moves along. With both products, if you deviate from the recommended route, the software recalculates to give you new instructions based on your current location. This is an essential feature missing from Maps.

However, I found the Garmin’s maps to be clearer overall. I especially found it easier to read street names on the Garmin when driving, as compared to the often nearly unreadable MobileNavigator street listings. [Note: This might be different with other iPhone navigation apps.]

Both devices speak directions as you follow along a route. A 1.2 update to MobileNavigator, expected very soon, will add true text-to-speech — speaking the names of streets (saying “turn right on Elm Street” as opposed to just saying “turn right”).

Both MobileNavigator and the Garmin 760 allow you to include multiple destinations in a single trip. Both products save recently selected destinations and allow you to select destinations as favorites. With MobileNavigator, you can even select an address in your iPhone’s Contacts list as a destination.

MobileNavigator includes Reality View Pro (showing roads not as just lines, but with road markings and signs) and Lane Assist Pro (indicating whether you need to change lanes for upcoming turns on major roads). Similar features are found in current high-end Garmins, but not in my 760.

The biggest annoyance I had with MobileNavigator’s navigation is that, on several occasions, the directional information did not keep pace with my actual movements. Most often this happened if I decided to deviate from MobileNavigator’s recommended path — such as when I decided to exit a freeway one exit beyond the one MobileNavigator suggested. MobileNavigator did not become aware of my independent decision until after I had already gotten off at the next exit. On other occasions, MobileNavigator did not recognize that I made a recommended turn until well after I had turned; the delay was sometimes so great that it didn’t catch up until after I needed to make the next turn. This didn’t happen often, but often enough to be annoying. My Garmin 760 never takes that long; it typically recalculates within seconds.

[Tip: If you’re having trouble getting Mobile Navigator to display street names, or even show a map at all, go to Options. From here, make sure you’ve enabled Show Street Names and check the Route Profile to make sure the desired road types are set to “Allow.”]

What about finding POIs (Points of Interest)?

Both the Garmin and MobileNaviagtor offer a rich list of POIs (e.g., restaurants, gas stations, banks, etc.). MobileNavigator makes it especially easy to find and select these destinations entirely by tapping buttons; there is almost never a need to invoke the iPhone’s keypad. Although some typing might be required, the Garmin does a good job here as well.

MobileNavigator automatically shows POIs along your route, via small icons. This allows you to notice, for example, if there is a gas station nearby, even if you had not specifically requested a gas station as a destination. The Garmin has no comparable feature.

Overall, MobileNavigator seemed somewhat less likely to find what I was seeking. For example, when I asked it to find the nearest Peet’s (a coffee chain here in the Bay area), it initially came up empty. Both the Garmin and the Maps app found it with no trouble.

Any differences of note in the more minor features?

With MobileNavigator, you can’t get a turn-by-turn text listing of your route. The best you can do is tap the screen to bring up MobileNavigator’s alternative map views. One of these views shows an overhead of your route from start to finish. The Garmin 760, in contrast, does have a text list option.

MobileNavigator keeps track of speed limits and warns you when you exceed the limit. The Garmin does not give these warnings.

The Garmin includes an option to show traffic levels. This option is absent in MobileNavigator.

I preferred MobileNavigator’s more realistic-sounding voice. Speaking of voices, when I connected the iPhone to my car’s audio system, via the radio’s USB port, the voice boomed through the car’s speakers. The Garmin offers no directly comparable option. There is a way to wirelessly play the sound via an “empty” radio frequency; but implementing the feature is awkward and the sound quality is not as good as the wired MobileNavigator sound.

Coming in the 1.2 update, the Navigon app will integrate with your iPod, allowing you to listen to music while continuing a navigation.

How good is the GPS reception?

The most frequent complaint I have seen regarding MobileNavigator is that it too often loses its GPS signal. This happened to me a few times (in situations where the Garmin maintained its connection), but it did not happen often enough nor long enough to be a significant issue.

If you do have problems here, Navigon recommends removing your iPhone’s case (assuming you use one), as this may interfere with a GPS connection.

What about battery usage?

Both the Garmin software and MobileNavigator are a significant drain on their respective hardware. The advantage of the Garmin is that, if it loses its battery power, you still have a working iPhone. If MobileNavigator eats up your battery, you have a dead iPhone.

That said, for any extended use of either device, I would strongly recommend keeping it attached to a power source. In a car, this is easy. The Garmin comes with a charger that works via your car’s 12 Volt power outlet. For the iPhone, you can get a charger, such as Griffin PowerJolt, for as little as $3.00!

What about mounting devices?

Using a car mount, such as a suction-cup windshield mount, makes it much easier to view the navigation screen (and occasionally tap a button if needed) while driving. The Garmin includes a car mount as part of the basic purchase. For MobileNavigator, you can buy an optional car mount. While this adds to the cost of MobileNavigator, I recommend getting it. The downside of a car mount for your iPhone is that you is that it is incompatible with virtually all iPhone cases. You’ll have to remove the case before you can insert the iPhone.

Do you need to purchase map updates?

Yes. This is a downside shared by both products, as compared to the iPhone’s built-in Maps app. The need to purchase periodic updates makes the continued use of these products more expensive than just their initial cost.

What about phone calls?

With MobileNavigator, answering a phone call means quitting the app. Yes, when you later return to MobileNavigator, your selected route, if any, will still be showing. But you won’t be able to see the map while talking on the phone. With the Garmin, you can take a phone call (via the Garmin’s Bluetooth connection to your iPhone) and still see the map.

For making phone calls, both MobileNavigator and the Garmin nüvi list phone numbers for most POI’s; you can dial a number with just a tap.

So what’s the verdict?

Given that you already own an iPhone, the biggest advantage of MobileNavigator over a separate GPS device is that it doesn’t require a separate device. MobileNavigator adds no weight or space to what you’re already carrying around. It’s also cheaper than a separate GPS device (although at $70, and especially if you buy a charger and a car mount, not much cheaper than low-end GPS units).

On the other hand, the separateness of the Garmin can be a plus. In my case, the Garmin remains set up in my car, ready-to-go automatically within seconds of turning the key. There’s no need to remove the iPhone case, install the phone in a mount, and launch the Navigon software. And then undo it all when I leave the car.

At more subtle levels, I slightly prefer the Garmin. Its maps are a bit easier to follow, its screens are a bit easier to navigate, and its GPS signal is a bit more reliable.

Beyond that, your best choice largely depends on your need for a GPS device at all. If you rarely have use for such a device, stick with Maps. It will be good enough for those few times when you want help. For those who have moderate needs and want to save a few bucks, go with MobileNavigator or a competing iPhone app. For those who expect to use GPS navigation on a regular basis, you could get by with MobileNavigator, but will probably be happier with a separate GPS device.

However, bear in mind that iPhone navigation apps have only been around for a few months. Significant updates have already been announced, with additional ones undoubtedly on the way. As these apps improve with each update, and as the iPhone itself continues to mature, the advantages of a separate GPS device will diminish. The day is not far off when navigation apps for the iPhone will fully match, if not exceed, what a separate GPS device can offer.