Finding your way
Some years ago, on a long drive in a friend’s car in the US, I was as fascinated by the view outside as by the voice that was giving us directions on how to reach our destination: which exit to take, where to turn, and so on. That was the first time I saw a satellite navigation gadget in a car.
It was a TomTom, a GPS (global positioning system) device that looked like a tablet, and I don’t know whether I was impressed more by its precision or by the female voice. At one point in our journey, when we suddenly decided to take a different route, I thought the voice sounded a bit irritated. But fellow passengers told me it was all in my mind.
I toyed with the idea of buying one but at around $300 (around Rs 15,600 now) it was beyond my budget, and I was also told it wouldn’t work in India. So imagine my joy when a friend asked me last week if I had tried Navfree, a GPS navigation application that you can download on your iPhone or an iPad—and, as of last week, also on an Android smartphone. He told me he had travelled from Delhi to Allahabad without missing a turn; and on his way back, when he ran into fog at night, he managed to find his way to a hotel looking at his iPad loaded with Navfree.
The ‘best’ so far: Navfree
There’s more to it: It’s free. Absolutely free. I tried it over the weekend on a drive from Delhi to the other end of Noida, an area I am not familiar with, and it worked brilliantly. Even my wife who is not into gadgets was impressed.
The navigation company Navmii, which has created the app, says Navfree is “the world’s first free ‘onboard’ professional GPS navigation software”. You download the app (called Navfree GPS Live India) from iTunes. It might take a bit longer to download than your average app because the file size is 143 MB (compared with 19.5 MB for the iPhone version of the popular game, Cut the Rope), but once you have it on your iPhone or iPad, there’s no additional setting up. You’re good to go: Key in your destination, and enjoy the ride. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the full address of your destination. So long as you know the approximate location on a map, it will guide you there.
A nice soft voice (you can choose between “Kate” and “Dave”) gives you turn-by-turn directions. If you find a right turn blocked by a barricade, carry on straight and it will tell you how far a U-turn is. You can view the display in 2D or 3D (it doesn’t show the terrain, though) and also switch to night mode. It shows your speed and distance to your chosen destination. And you can instantly share the route or your position with your friends via email, SMS, Facebook or Twitter.
If you are on a long journey, you can keep it on and also listen to the music on your iPad or smartphone. The music will fade out automatically when the voice on your GPS alerts you about the turn coming up 100m ahead.
Navfree uses map data from OpenStreetMap (OSM), a collaborative project whose aim is to create “a free, editable map of the world”. It’s an open source mapping system, quite like Wikipedia, where users can add or correct the information. Anyone can use the map data for free. The app you download has a “feedback tool” where you can report if you find something wrong with the map: a missing street, a wrong name, or even a “no turn”.
Apart from India, Navfree is available for Germany, Italy, France, North America, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and Brazil. The map you choose gets stored on your device: It’s downloaded when you first install the app, which enables you to view it even when you are offline.
I don’t know how Navfree compares with a stand-alone GPS navigation device such as MapmyIndia, TomTom or Garmin. These are sophisticated gadgets with many interesting features; depending on the model, they have an extensive, up-to-date, lane-by-lane coverage of India. In comparison, I’m sure Navfree India is quite basic. But for a casual user like me, it’s the best app I have come across in a very long time, an app that I actually got excited about. And what’s more, it’s free.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at email@example.com