Technology

TeleNav: Driving Directions by Phone


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This affordable cell-phone GPS navigator tells you when you're approaching a traffic snarl and helps you find your way around it

Sometimes the fastest route to a destination is blocked by a crash, emergency vehicles, and two lanes of rubber-necking drivers merging into one. Many car navigation systems—especially older GPS devices and some of the GPS services offered on cell phones—have no way of knowing about accidents and other delays when they're giving you directions. To them, the fastest route is simply the one with the best ratio between speed limit and miles traveled, regardless of whether it's temporarily doubling as a parking lot.

Thankfully, TeleNav GPS Navigator knows its way around a traffic jam. Available for $10 per month through wireless carriers including Sprint Nextel (S), AT&T (T), and Alltel (AT), the service turns a regular cell phone into a one-stop shop for driving directions, traffic alerts, and finding local businesses.

Avoiding Trouble Ahead

The service, which works only with phones equipped to pick up the signal from Global Positioning System satellites, provides turn-by-turn directions as you drive, reading them aloud from the handset speaker. I tried it out with a Motorola (MOT) Razr phone on Sprint's network. When you turn on the application, the phone's screen can display either a text version of the directions or a map highlighting the route, color-coded to indicate mild (yellow), moderate (orange), or severe (red) traffic problems.

But in addition to guiding you along, TeleNav helps you avoid the salt in the wound of listening to a radio traffic report about the jam you're already sitting in. The service alerts users to traffic conditions 15 miles ahead of a problem area, giving them time to react before it's too late. If you want an alternate route, you simply press a button on the keypad to get TeleNav to calculate new directions. That option isn't available on competing services such as Verizon's VZ Navigator (BusinessWeek.com, 9/5/07). But even if it's too late to avoid a slowdown—or you don't want to take another route because you don't know the area well—it's nice to know how long a delay you're facing.

Users should be aware that TeleNav does not instantly deliver new directions. The service takes a minute or so to figure out alternative roads. That short delay may lead you to blow by a necessary turn while the service is recalculating the route. TeleNav's safety warning encourages drivers to pull over when requesting revised directions or inputting new information. But finding a place to pull over, particularly on two-lane highways without a shoulder, is not always a simple task. Still, TeleNav's recalculations don't take noticeably longer than competing mobile-phone services, or even more expensive GPS offerings such as the Garmin (GRMN) StreetPilot.

Meandering Is Harder

That said, there are advantages to pricier GPS systems, whether standalone devices or those built into a car's dashboard. One is the ability to program multiple destinations or points of interest into a single set of directions. For example, if I wanted to travel to upstate New York this fall by way of a leafy, scenic road, I could easily instruct the system to find a route with multiple detours. With TeleNav Navigator and other phone-based systems, you'd need to request directions to the next destination after each stop.

Fortunately, if you don't want to waste time double- and triple-tapping the number pad to spell out street names, TeleNav offers voice recognition for users who prefer to use it—another nice feature that's not available with Verizon's (VZ) VZ Navigator. Using this option, you place a call to an automated system that's surprisingly adept at identifying English words. In fact, the system struggled to understand me only when I deliberately overemphasized syllables to make my words clearer, but it never missed a beat when I spoke normally. You can enter multiple addresses during the same phone call, then retrieve them when needed from a menu on the phone.

Nifty Local Search

Like VZ Navigator, TeleNav also features quick local-search capabilities. With the push of a button or two, users can locate nearby gas stations, eateries, ATM cash machines, Wi-Fi hotspots, hotels, parking lots, movie theaters, car rental agencies, malls, grocery stores, and hospitals. Another tap on the keyboard gets directions from your current location to the chosen address. The service also lets users search for the cheapest gas station, listing the price per gallon.

Although you'll need a wireless data plan to use the service with most carriers, you can subscribe to TeleNav for just a month at a time (Sprint and Alltel even allow you to pay just $3 for a day of use). Overall, for very occasional drivers like me, it's a real plus to spend just $10 a month during the summer, when I do take some road trips, instead of $300 to $1,000 on a standalone or built-in GPS system. Actually, TeleNav's ability to quickly pinpoint the nearest service provider in so many categories is almost reason enough to recommend this service to car-less city dwellers. TeleNav is clearly aware of this potential audience, as it includes "pedestrian" directions as an option. Just don't expect TeleNav to notify you of crowded sidewalks. There are limits, even to this solid GPS alternative.

Holahan is a writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York .

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