December 2010 Issue  Volume 11  Number 8

Independent Travel Issues

GPS on Your iPhone

Until the introduction of Apple's VoiceOver screen-access utility, an off-the-shelf GPS solution wasn't a practical reality for blind and visually impaired individuals. As it has in so many other corners of the technology arena, Apple's iPhone/VoiceOver combination has turned GPS access on its ear.

The availability of a powerful processor, GPS receiver, and an easier-to-read screen in a small handheld unit has significantly affected manufacturers of specialty GPS navigation hardware. TomTom, Magellan, and others have all reported dramatic sales losses as downloadable applications (apps) replace dedicated hardware offerings.

So as not to miss out on the action, TomTom and the lesser-known Navigon have entered the GPS app market.

What Do They Do?

The TomTom and Navigon apps emulate the appearance and behavior of their respective hardware-based products. The primary function of each app is to route a motorist or pedestrian from point A to point B automatically. In doing so, a number of features, such as route preferences and display options, can be configured to meet specific preferences or requirements. Entering destination information creates opportunities for each product to offer features. Points of interest (POI) can be viewed by category--for instance, "ATMs," "Restaurants," and "Automobile Services." The app can display the relevant information according to distance from your current location or proximity to your destination.

Along the route, these apps provide voice guidance to prompt you to make necessary turns in order to reach your destination. In addition to these automated functions, some information regarding route and real-time location can be revealed using VoiceOver.

The Apps

Navigon Mobile Navigator is available at several price points depending on the size of the region or country you wish to explore. Regions of the United States (East, Central, and West) are priced at $25 each. All of the United States is available for $49. TomTom USA is priced at $49.95, and like Navigon can be downloaded from the App Store using iTunes.

In comparison with other apps, these are large files and may require iTunes to download and install. If you are using the iPhone to download the file, a Wi-Fi connection is strongly recommended.

How Well Do The Apps Work with VoiceOver?

Both Navigon and TomTom are remarkably accessible. In addition, the products are also remarkably similar. Differences are subtle, but may be important to users.


Navigon features a main screen with options to "Enter an Address," "Search for POI," "Take Me Home," "Show Map," and "Main Menu." Before entering a destination, it is necessary to find "Options" and select the button labeled "Speed." This is where the pedestrian or car mode is selected. The "Pedestrian with Voice Announcements" option provides the most comprehensive self-voicing directions.

From the main menu, entering a destination can be accomplished in one of two ways. Selecting "Enter an Address" opens the first of a sequence of steps you follow to record the destination address. The first screen selects your metropolitan area. Once a metropolitan area is chosen, it will appear for future entries until you change it. The subsequent screens record street name and number information. Street names are suggested as you enter street information, again based on your selection of the metropolitan area. After entering all required information, tapping the "Done" button will bring up the first screen for navigation.

Navigon will now display your destination address. A button labeled "Start Navigation" will appear, along with the current temperature, a report of parking availability, and the name of the closest restaurant. Activating "Start Navigation" begins voice prompting. As you travel, Navigon announces turns at both 200 feet and when it is time to make the turn. In my experience, the turns were precise and corresponded with the appropriate intersection. This is especially important in situations where angled streets intersect close to the position where Navigon wants you to turn.

"Points of Interest" can also be used to create a route. Several options display POI near the current location as well as by category. Typical iOS4 and VoiceOver navigation is used. We found all controls and options to be accessible and announced clearly.


This app will appear on the screen as "USA." An important quirk of the TomTom app is the labeling of the main menu function as "Driving View Image." Selecting it from the TomTom home screen opens the main menu.

On the main menu, options include "Navigate To," "Mute Sound," "Day Colors," "2D Map," "TomTom Traffic," "Advanced Planning," "Browse Map," "Help Me," "Manage Favorites," and "Change Settings."

Before using the TomTom app for the first time, it is helpful to make some settings selections. "Set Home Location" gives you the option to enter your metropolitan area and home address. "Voice Select" offers several options for the voice that TomTom will use to provide directions. The recorded voices are human speech, but do not announce street names. Two computer voices, Samantha and Tom are available. Either will announce street names. Because VoiceOver is already using Samantha, selecting Tom provides a contrasting voice for TomTom instructions.

The choice to "Read Street Names" should be on. "Route Planning" offers several important options. "Always Ask Me" is helpful if you plan to use the TomTom both in a car and while walking as you will not have to reenter "Settings" for each trip.

We found that the menus and choices on the TomTom were generally a bit easier to understand and were a bit more logical in layout than those on the Navigon. However, navigating with the TomTom was somewhat less precise than with the Navigon. TomTom did not announce street intersections as consistently in advance as did the Navigon. Each app uses different maps, so whether this is a consistent behavior could not be determined.

At the same time, if your use of a GPS includes car navigation, the TomTom may prove to be the more convenient option.

The Bottom Line

Although both the TomTom and Navigon can accurately route a pedestrian from point A to point B, some subtle but important differences are noteworthy. The TomTom provides an option to preview the streets along a walking route. Both apps have a "Help" option that provides a description of your location, with the TomTom having the better text description. The availability of Tom as a contrasting voice may be a convenience that only the TomTom app provides. Navigon's more consistent turn prompting may outweigh TomTom's subtle control niceties.

Neither app is cheap, but for just $25, you can purchase the Navigon U.S. region that includes your area. If you use the car at least some of the time, spending $49 on TomTom USA may be money well spent.

LookAround a Helpful Addition

The name Sendero may be familiar to AccessWorld readers. The technology from this company is generally associated with specialized note takers. An inexpensive and simple-to-use iPhone app has recently been added to the Sendero product list. LookAround ($4.99 from the App Store) provides very basic information about your current location and up to five points of interest in your immediate vicinity. A compass function is also included.

Sendero recommends considering using LookAround at the same time as Navigon. Based on our experience and reports from several users of both products, this appears to be an intriguing option.

By using the three primary controls on the LookAround screen, your iPhone will report "Where Am I," "Nearest Cross Street," or "Nearest Five Points of Interest." For more detailed information about the app, consult the well-organized and clearly written information on Sendero's iPhone support webpage.

Kapten: The Not-So-Successful Navigator

Although Navigon and TomTom are closely matched in both their interfaces and capabilities, a third GPS app has been mentioned as offering good performance with VoiceOver. Kapten is a large application that should be downloaded using iTunes. It can be purchased in one of two ways. For $7.95, you can activate the app for a month. For $79, you can purchase Kapten outright. We suggest that you give the monthly option a try to evaluate the usefulness of the app for yourself.

The Kapten feature we found of most interest is its stated ability to include public transit in a pedestrian route. Public transit includes rail services only as that is the data set that can be accessed by apps such as Kapten at this time.

I tested Kapten on a sunny afternoon in New York City. My starting address was at the intersection of Grand Street and FDR Drive, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. My destination was 1972 Broadway, the soon-to-be shuttered Barnes and Noble store at Lincoln Center.

I am reasonably familiar with the Lower East Side, at least that portion of it near Grand and FDR. The route that most locals choose includes walking approximately a half mile west on Grand to Essex, then turning right for two blocks to enter the subway at Essex and Delancey streets. The uptown F train serves this station and most people would take it, transferring at 4th Street for an uptown A or C train, to Columbus Circle.

I entered my information in the Kapten app. The destination entry process is familiar if you have used other iPhone apps. Choosing the public transit option was easy to do. With the Kapten in hand, I headed west on Grand. To my surprise, the voice prompted me to make several turns to the south. It was soon evident that rather than routing me via the Delancey and Essex station, a smaller station on Rutgers was the probable destination. This appeared to be the case, at least for a few more blocks. Suddenly Kapten told me to enter the subway at Jefferson, a full block short of the actual subway entrance. Given this strange and inaccurate routing, I investigated the screen to realize that my next steps would include leaving the F train at 14th Street and walking along Union Square, only to reenter the subway several long blocks further west. Remember, a same-station transfer is very easily accomplished at 4th Street.

Fortunately, my knowledge of New York geography saved me from a frustratingly long and overly complex route. If I had not been aware of the area, and if I had had to pay for each subway ride, using Kapten would have placed me at a distinct disadvantage.

Bottom Line

Kapten was somewhat more useful in a moving car, reporting basic information about speed and distance to the next maneuver in a route. However, a price of $79 for poor pedestrian directions when using the New York subway, and only slightly more useful information in a car, places this app at the bottom of my list.

NYC Transit Info by Phone

After my experience using the Kapten, I wanted to check out transit directions from the source. A call to Goog-411, a free call-in, voice-activated directory-assistance service offered by Google (now discontinued) connected me to 718-330-1234. This number appeared to be a main contact point for several agencies providing transit in New York. After selecting a travel information option, I was connected to an automated system.

A number of airlines and transit agencies use interactive voice technology to provide automated information. My experience using the New York transit system placed it in about the middle of the pack. Overall, the system was slow to respond. Voice prompts were also slow, with many dramatic pauses between pieces of information. I was able to speak my starting and ending locations and select bus preference, subway preference, or no preference.

The route from FDR and Grand to 1972 Broadway used the B train, a longer walk from my starting point than the F train. Still, this is not an unreasonable route, and when I asked for directions using the bus and subway system, correct routing, with departure and total travel time, was provided.

The bottom line is that while not the most elegant, the automated directions were accurate, reasonable, and free of charge.

A Cautionary Note

When traveling using a navigation app, it is important to position the iPhone in a manner that allows you to manipulate the touch screen safely and conveniently. Additionally, keep in mind that the device is small and may be difficult to hear on a busy street. A small speaker may be an alternative to using earphones.

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