Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hands on with Sygic Aura GPS app for Android

The Sygic Aura app for Android features 3D building and terrain data.

The Sygic Aura app for Android features 3D building and terrain data.
One of the first and biggest hurdles any third-party navigation app will need to clear on Google's Android platform is Google itself. While this may not be the case with other mobile OSes, Android (or at least devices running version 1.6 or better) comes more or less bundled with Google's free Google Maps with Navigation app. So, why would a user go out of their way to check out another navigation app? So, of course, this is the first question I asked when evaluating the Sygic Aura GPS navigation app. 

Aura lists for free in the Android Market and is a 3.3MB download. However, that's not the full story. After installing, users must also download the maps for their area. I chose to download only maps of California and Nevada, which occupied 263MB and 40MB of my SD card, respectively. Maps of all of the continental United States would take up to 2GB. Sygic recommends you perform these downloads over Wi-Fi, but we were able to grab our maps over 3G. Fortunately, the app allows users to resume incomplete downloads. 

The obvious advantage of having locally stored maps is that they only have to be downloaded once, which means that even if you find yourself outside of your carrier's coverage area, you can continue to navigate. This is also advantageous to users who don't have an all-you-can-eat data plan and need to closely monitor their download allowances or those who find themselves roaming in a foreign country and need to keep charges down.

The investment in the Aura app doesn't stop with a few megs of storage space. Additionally, after a 7-day trial, the app will prompt the user to purchase an activation key. For the United States' regions, that means shelling out 19.99 euro ($27.44 U.S. at time of publication). Yeah, we also see the oddity in paying for North American maps with European currency.

If you're the sort of user who falls into either of the previously mentioned categories (world roamer or data miser) and the money you could save on roaming or data overages meets or exceeds the 20 euro you'd spend on this app, then it's worth your consideration. Read on! 

The navigation experience
Upon loading the Sygic Aura app, I was greeted with a beautifully rendered map of the area around me. In downtown San Francisco, that map included 3D representations of most of the buildings around me with noteworthy buildings that serve as landmarks getting more detailed, premium models. The app, rather smartly, reduces the height of the closest buildings, allowing users to focus more clearly on the road instead of on the graphic eye candy.

POI icons litter the map screen, but not in a way that distracts from readability--of course, users can always opt to disable the POI icons in a menu. In the upper left corner of the map is a small weather widget that shows the current temperature and an icon for the conditions (for example, a sun for "sunny").

With a destination chosen, Aura gives the user spoken turn-by-turn directions, but without the aid of a text to speech (TTS) engine. So, while Aura can say "take the next exit to US 101," it can't say "then turn left on Mission Street." This led to a few missed turns when the upcoming lefts and rights were in rapid succession in dense urban areas. 

Aura also notifies you when you've exceeded the speed limit with a chime and sounds a warning for nearby traffic and speed cameras. With the touch of a button, users can also report police traps or incident locations to be shared with other Sygic users.

There are a few interface annoyances that bear mentioning. Firstly, the app runs full screen, which means that it hides the Android notification bar when in map mode, so you won't be able to monitor, for example, your phone's battery while navigating. When in the menus, there is a Sygic status bar along the top edge of the screen with battery state, GPS signal strength, and the time, but users are unable to interact with this bar. 

Aura uses its own onscreen keyboard, instead of the user's chosen input method.
Aura uses its own onscreen keyboard, instead of the user's chosen input method.
However, while I can sort of understand Sygic's need to hide the notification bar--after all, you won't need to check for e-mail while driving--there's one interface change that the app brings that I can't get past: the onscreen keyboard. When inputting information, the Aura app ignores the user's selected input method and presents its own keyboard. So those of us who've grown accustomed to using the stock Android keyboard, a custom keyboard (such as Swype or SwiftKey), or Google's voice input will be forced to use Sygic's arguably inferior input method. For some this will be a small issue, but for me it was jarring--slowing my inputs significantly.

Multitasking and the destination bug
If you leave the app (either by hitting the Home button or if a phone call interrupts), navigation is suspended. When you return to navigating, the app will have to reinitialize (about 5 seconds on my first-generation Motorola Droid), reacquire GPS position (another second or so), and recalculate its route (2-3 seconds more). This adds up to about 10-seconds before navigation resumes, which wouldn't be so bad if Aura was still pointing you in the right direction. Unfortunately, that's not always the case.

Aura seems to be rather inconsistent with exactly what destination it will grab upon resumption of routing. For example, on day one of my testing, Aura successfully got me from work to a friend's home in San Francisco. Then the next day, while following Aura's instructions to a client meeting in Cupertino, I had to answer a phone call (hands-free, of course). When routing resumed, Aura had reset my destination to the friend's house from the previous day. In fact, it continued to reset our destination to that same friend's house with every subsequent navigation session for the duration of our testing. Perhaps the app is trying to tell me something about this particular friend, but that's highly unlikely.

Proper multitasking would be the best solution to this problem, but--at the very least--that route resumption bug needs a second look.

Social networking and communication
Aura integrated with our Android contacts, allowing me to browse for friends with stored addresses as potential destinations. However, while the app could display my contacts and their addresses flawlessly, it ran into issues when attempting to translate the stored addresses into points on the map--the app would give a "no address found" error message, despite the fact that an address was visible. This meant that I was often forced to reinput the address before I was able to navigate, which sort of defeats the purpose of address integration.

Although the contact entry clearly shows an address, Aura threw a "No address found" error.
Although the contact entry clearly shows an address, Aura threw a "No address found" error.

Also rolled into Aura is Sygic's own Aura social network, which allows users to add friends with whom they can share their location, status, messages, and events. I'm not entirely convinced that I need yet another social network to manage, but perhaps other users will find some value here. For me, Foursquare, Facebook, or Twitter integration--while not necessary--would be more warmly welcomed.

Is it worth it?
I'm still a bit hard-pressed to recommend Sygic Aura over Google Maps to all but a very specific group of users: the data misers and world roamers mentioned earlier. For these users, being able to get around being tied to the cloud for map and address data could be worth the price of admission. However, for the overwhelming majority of users, Aura's bugs and quirks combined with the fact that users are being asked to pay for what many have grown accustomed to getting for free, create a huge barrier to entry.

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