March 9, 2006

Right now I'm at 1177 North Highland Avenue in Pittsburgh. How do I know? My phone told me.

Actually my phone, a Motorola v325, is wrong. Enrico's Tazza d'Oro is located at 1125 North Highland, not 1177. Nevertheless, if I wanted to go somewhere else, it could probably navigate me there pretty well.

Two weeks ago I decided to switch from T-Mobile, my wireless carrier of 2 1/2 years, to Verizon Wireless. Neither carrier has particularly strong coverage in the coniferous caverns of Highland Park, where three-story houses are common and trees seem to outnumber residents. I switched for two reasons: the hope that Verizon Wireless will cover my family's home in Syosset, New York and the promise of GPS navigation on a phone that's not much larger than my previous Motorola v180.

I've always wanted a GPS but couldn't justify the hundreds of dollars that I would spend on a car-mounted unit. Verizon offers their navigator service for $3 for 24 hours' usage or $10 per month. The initial setup is a bit cumbersome: download two applications, one for "Location Management" and one for the actual navigation. The former lets you manage privacy settings and exists to assuage fears that the GPS feature will let Big Brother spy on Verizon customers. The v325 ships with the GPS settings at the most paranoid: out of the box you'll be prompted every time VZ Navigator wants to check your current position. At Verizon's suggestion I relaxed the security to allow approved applications (like Navigator) free access to my GPS location. (When dialing 911 with this or any GPS-capable phone, your location is transmitted to the police no matter what your settings say.)

The first day I had the phone I bought a 24-hour license for Navigator. I was pleased to note that the application stayed on my phone after its usage license was expired; to renew my license took only a fraction of the initial download time, and none of my settings were lost during the time I was without a valid license.

Navigation is quite simple. Just like most navigation systems, you tell Navigator where you want to go by address, intersection, or point of interest (such as "gas station" or "Chinese food restaurant") and it determines a route. I have my home and work addresses saved and there is a "My Places" repository for saving frequently-used addresses. One downside: although you can specify a phone number for each address (enabling a useful "call destination" function while en route) there is no integration between VZ Navigator and the phone's internal address book.

There is virtually no storage in the v325 so all the searching and map retrieval happens over the air. Deviating from the route requires a call to the network to retrieve alternate directions. This hasn't been a problem in Pittsburgh but I can see this presenting a problem in areas that don't have Verizon's CDMA2000 1x high-speed access. If I wanted to start navigation from outside a 1x area or if I needed to recalculate my route while outside a 1x area, I wouldn't expect the v325 to handle such a task.

Verizon's detail page for VZ Navigator has many screen shots and a Flash demo of the user interface. The demo is accurate, though the loading steps can take longer than indicated. The speakerphone even at full blast is pretty tinny and hard to hear over music. I got better results with an earphone plugged into the phone. Like many recent-model GPS receivers, the v325 actually attempts to read street names: "Turn right onto North Negley Avenue" instead of just "Turn right," for example. Some roads are referred to by names that confuse locals -- Navigator once referred to Butler Street as "PA-8" but people around here don't use that term. I am impressed with the accuracy with which the text-to-speech system understands proper names like "Negley." Like most automotive GPS interfaces, you can request that Navigator repeat the most recent instruction and read upcoming turns before they're announced. The small screen means that any view is necessarily simple; I'd recommend having a passenger on hand if you want advance directions read to you.

All this gadgetry takes its toll on the battery and your service plan. I bought a car charger on Verizon's advice that on a long trip, GPS usage may kill the battery before the trip is over. That warning is pretty well-founded: even an hour of GPS usage knocks a bar or two off the battery meter. Also, all those little data calls to fetch map information count as at least one minute each. Don't play with the "follow me map" or the ability to pan around a map: each button press or movement will result in another call to the network to fetch more data. After just a day of experimenting with Navigator I had already used some 70 minutes of my monthly allocation. Airtime is charged on top of the Navigator software license fees, something that didn't occur to me until I checked my account on-line.

Overall I have no complaints about the v325 as a phone. Yes, Verizon cripples many of the features out of the box with its custom branding -- features like the ability to vibrate and ring for an incoming call are inexplicably removed, and there are many outlets to buy more Verizon services over the air. However, as a phone it meets my basic needs. There's a 640x480 camera that takes expectedly-grainy pictures (example) that cost 25 cents to send. Text messages are ten cents in each direction and there is a predictive-input system called iTAP that auto-completes typed words as best it can. I can call my Verizon-Wireless-using friends for free but unlimited "in" text messaging costs a few bucks per month. Mobile Internet usage appears to cost at least $5 a month and I'm not inclined to start hacking the phone lest I be slapped with a per-kilobyte charge for data usage.

I'll give this phone a real workout at the end of the month when I travel to New York to see Spamalot with friends. Until then I'll just annoy the crap out of my friends as I punch in the address and navigate to every place we go.