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Review: Google’s In-Car Navigation

It features live traffic data and easy-to-use directions–but also has design flaws that betray a “beta” status.

There are some things, like texting, that you should never do while driving. Still, Google’s Android phone operating system has clearly been designed with drivers in mind. Both the Verizon Droid and Google Nexus One sport mapping applications that offer turn-by-turn directions with spoken street names, the best real-time traffic on the planet, and full integration with Google Street View. Android also features a “Car Home” application that provides easy access to Voice Search, Navigation, Google Maps, and Contacts–with big buttons that are seemingly intended to be pressed while driving.

This way: Android’s “street view” interface.

Motorola and Google are also selling gadgets that hold a phone to a car’s dashboard and charge it at the same time. The Motorola’s car mount is $39.99; Google’s Nexus One Car Dock is $55 and includes a built-in speakerphone connected via Bluetooth.

The Hardware

I purchased a Nexus One Car Dock last month and have been using it pretty consistently. The dock is clearly the result of thoughtful engineering. The twist-action suction cup has a much better grip than the lever-action cup that comes with most car mounts. The Bluetooth base automatically pairs with the phone when you insert it into the dock and, assuming you’ve plugged the base into your cigarette lighter, the phone immediately starts charging.

Unfortunately, in my noisy sports car, the dock’s speakerphone is not as good as the speakerphone built into the phone itself–and neither could compete with the earphone and lapel microphone that came with the Nexus One. Because the dock’s bezel obscures the phone’s volume, the dock has its own volume rocker. It’s located on the other side of the phone from the standard controls, on the driver’s far side (assuming the driver’s seat is on the left and the phone is in the middle of the dashboard), making the control hard to find.

The Software

There is clearly a need for smart-phone applications that can be used in the car. Ideally these applications would be voice-controlled, eliminating the need to take one’s eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel. For the few times that the driver needed to glance at the screen, the apps would feature big icons and easy-to-read text. And the phone would automatically change its display depending on whether it was day or night.

Google has some of this technology working today. The Navigation application’s turn-by-turn directions are astonishingly easy to use. Before I got my dock, I would typically use the program on the voice alone, putting the phone in my pocket with the screen turned off to conserve the battery. And Google’s voice search is pretty accurate, especially when searching for people who have several syllables in their names.

Unfortunately, neither of these applications is really designed to be completely hands-free or reading-free. To search for a person you need to touch the “voice search” button, say their name, and then select from several choices on the screen. And other than the Car Home application, the Android applications are insensitive to the fact that they are running in the Dock.

To be fair, the Navigation program is still in “beta,” as a spokesperson from Google emphasized, and the company hasn’t created a car phone version of Google’s Contacts program yet. Google recommends having the car’s passenger manipulate the phone when the car is in motion.

On the other hand, Google’s engineers aren’t the first to attempt an interface that’s easy-to-use while driving. Garmin’s popular nüvi series of portable automotive GPS receivers have user interfaces with big buttons, big text, easy-to-comprehend menus, and colors that automatically adjust for driving during the day or at night.

Not only does the Nexus One lack these features, but also Google Maps won’t work when I’m driving in rural areas without cell phone coverage–despite the fact that my 8GB SD card has more than enough storage for a map of the United States. Perhaps Google should have spent more time studying the competition.

Little problems with the Nexus One become more annoying when you are driving. For example, I have a phone unlock pattern because I store lots of confidential information in my phone. But seriously–is there really a need for the phone to automatically lock itself when it’s safely in the dock and the car is moving at 65 on California 101? Ditto for the screen saver–why blank the screen when the battery is running off the car?

Many Nexus One users have complained about the touch screen’s lack of responsiveness and the phone’s tendency to eat through batteries. The touch screen isn’t worse when it’s in the dock, but it’s all the more frustrating when you are driving to have incoming calls go to voice mail because the phone didn’t register a finger swipe. As far as battery life goes–a three-hour Navigation session with the phone plugged into the dock left my phone with a battery that was only 50 percent charged–apparently the dock just can’t deliver enough current to run the GPS, the screen, and Navigation at the same time.

Probably the most remarkable automotive-oriented feature of the Nexus One is the real-time traffic display. Google takes anonymous speed and position reports from every cell phone that’s running Google Maps, Latitude, or other Google applications, tabulates this information, and sends it out live to every phone running Google Maps.

My nüvi, on the other hand, downloads traffic reports of major accidents and slowdowns over an FM subcarrier that’s broadcast in major metropolitan areas. Its coverage is necessarily spotty.

My Nexus One, meanwhile, tells me if there’s congestion on Campus Drive at Stanford University. Of course, that same information is available to iPhones running Google Maps–and even a 3G laptop that you might have in your car.

The upshot? I’m still using the Nexus One in its dock, but mostly to charge it. For serious road-tripping, I’ve got my Garmin.

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