ALK CoPilot Smartphone
Top notch sat nav for Windows handsets
Reg Review ALK CoPilot Live Smartphone
The PDA may have made the low-cost GPS navigation package possible but like many of its more traditional uses, this is yet another PDA application that's in danger of being taken over by the smart phone.
Sensing the shift, navigation software specialist ALK Technologies earlier this year announced a plan to step across from the PocketPC platform to Windows Mobile for Smartphones, with the result that last month it began shipping a version of its CoPilot code for handsets. And, borrowing UK network Orange's Windows Mobile 2003-based SPV c500, I decided to take it for a spin.
Functionally, CoPilot Smartphone replicates the PocketPC release, which I reviewed last April, very closely. The big differences centre on tailoring the code for the phone OS' smaller display and key-based - as opposed to stylus-operated - user interface. The results is, oddly perhaps, that the phone version looks better than its PocketPC sibling and is easier to control, since it's designed to be operated one-handed.
ALK ships CoPilot Smartphone on a MiniSD card rather, allowing you to start using it almost immediately. Just turn off the phone, remove the battery (in the case of the c500), slot in the card, put everything back together and switch on. There's no messing around with CDs, PCs and synchronisation software - it's all ready to run.
Restarting the handset installs the CoPilot application from the card. Running the installed software requires registration with ALK, but this is handled automatically by the app, communicating with its maker via the Internet and a GPRS connection.
Setting up the Bluetooth GPS bundled with the software is a little more involved, but ALK provides clear instructions, and I was getting a fix from the GPS satellites in no time. The antenna unit is very compact, being fractionally wider and thicker but somewhat shorter than the handset itself. It's very easy to slip in a pocket or briefcase, or tuck somewhere safe in the car. It's powered by a built-in Lithium Ion battery recharged using a bundled car ciggie lighter adaptor.
CoPilot provides four operational modes: Guidance, which takes you from A to B with spoken instructions; Navigating, which is the same thing minus the voiceover; Walking, which plots an 'as the crow flies' route rather than one that follows the roads; and Guidance, which is the only mode that can operate without the GPS antenna and lets you plot a route in advance.
In each case, you can add a number of stops on journey by entering an address manually, taking it from the handset's Contacts database, by highlighting the intersection between two or more roads, or by selecting a location from the software's extensive 'points of interest' database. CoPilot also maintains a list of ten Favourite locations, along with two others, Home and Work, to make regular journeys easier to select. Ironically, you'll probably end up not using these so much since by definition they'll become familiar routes if they're not already.
A neat touch is the stop optimisation facility, which re-orders the stop list to eliminate or reduce doubling back on yourself. Not always successfully - coming into London down the M1, it routed me first to a stop south of the Thames then back up north again. Still, in such instances you can easily re-order the stops manually.
Entering an address yields, after a short pause, a list of possible matches from which you select the one that most closely matches where you want to go. CoPilot will work with post codes, but it really needs a street name, which is handy for those of us who can never remember post codes.
It's pretty good at coming up with the right location, but it's not bright enough to parse complicated addresses, usually those stored in Contacts. That database's limited number of address fields can leave the Street field populated with a floor number, building name and so on, all of which confuse CoPilot. 'Suite 410, The Bon Marche Centre, 241-251 Ferndale Road', for example, yielded dozens of street names beginning 'Su'...'
With a journey entered, CoPilot calculates the route and tells you where to go. The software provides the obligatory but unnecessary 3D view, along with views of where you are, where you're going and a 'safety' view which simply lists the next turn alongside a suitably pointing arrow. Planning mode provides and additional view of the entire journey and a list of directions.
Even on the smart phone's small screen, the maps are clear, as are the POI icons. Driving, this is even less of an issue, since for obvious safety reasons you should watching the road not the handset. The spoken instructions - choose from male or female - given you plenty of warning, or you can set the software to tell you to turn when you're practically on top of the junction - the choice is yours.
There's one flaw here. CoPilot will flag up POIs, including the UK's notorious array of speed... sorry, safety cameras, but they're only highlighted on the screen, not over the speaker. Well, there's a buzz, but I didn't hear it, and so I missed two long-established GATSOs. Quite apart from the fact I shouldn't be looking at the screen, unless you're using the car power socket, you'll almost certainly find your phone's screen has long since blacked out on you. Even with the backlight dimmed, it can be hard to see what's going on. These screen time-outs can be adjusted, of course, but expect you phone's battery life to suffer.
The bottom line: in-car software needs to make better use of the voiceover and rely less on the display.
Ditto voice control. CoPilot offers a neat detour facility to get you around jams and so on. Using Bluetooth to eliminate some of the wiring, not to mention Windows Mobile 2003 for Smartphones' one-handed operation, makes it easier to select these options than doing so with a PocketPC, but should you really be fiddling with a phone when you're on the move? Even were you stationary, I suspect a passing policeman peering in through your window would take a dim view of it.
That said, the screen does work well when you're walking, and I amused myself using it to guide me the short distance from my local back home one evening.
Guidance will driving was generally accurate, though my attempts to throw the software's ability to cope with wrong turns, although unsuccessful, nevertheless generated some worrying 'turn around in the road' instructions. Some of the routing was unusual, too, in one instance taking me well out of the way of the route I usually take between north and south London. Until I realise I had the Congestion Charge avoidance system switched on.
Unlike the PocketPC software, which uses voice-synthesis technology to read out the name of roads and streets into which you're about to turn, CoPilot Smartphone appears to use pre-recorded WAVs, so you get a lot less spoken information - memory limiting how many WAVs can be stored - that you do with the other version.
Beyond portability, another advantage of adding navigation software to a smart phone is the ability to use the handset's network connection. CoPilot provides an optional link to the AA's Trafficwatch service, which pulls real time traffic incident updates across the network, filtering out anything that's not on your route. Usefully, it ties in with the software's detour facility. One (small) downside: Trafficwatch costs £50 extra.
And then there's CoPilot's own Live service, which hooks into the SMS system to provide easy to read and respond to messaging, and allows other people to monitor your progress from any PC.
ALK has done a fine job of cramming its PocketPC navigation software - already one of the better PDA navigation applications - into a smart phone form factor. If anything, the move has improved the package, yielding a good-looking feature-rich navigation tool that makes use of the hardware's network connectivity and the OS' one-handed operation. Only the voice directions suffer by providing less directional information than the PocketPC version offers.
And the beauty is, when the software's on your phone, it's always with you. The Bluetooth receiver saves you having to drape wires across your dash. Both phone and receiver fit conveniently in bags, pockets or glove compartments. At £220 for the Bluetooth receiver and software (£150 for the software alone), it's one of the cheapest navigation solutions around - particularly since you can get a rather nice c500 from Orange for next to nothing these days. That's excellent value. And you can add maps for the whole of continental Europe for just £100 more.
The only downside - for me - is the Windows Mobile 2003 for Smart Phones requirement - only an issue if you've already invested in an alternative smart phone platform. But ALK tells me there's a Symbian version in the works, so soon me and my Nokia 6600 need never get lost again. If you're happy to go with MS' OS, or already have, CoPilot is an excellent add-on. ®
|ALK CoPilot Live Smartphone|
|Pros||— Well integrated into smart phone form factor, wireless solution, one of the cheapest, best value GPS solutions on the market|
|Cons||— Voice feedback limited, still no voice control, inevitable smart phone battery life issues|
|Price||£220 with Bluetooth GPS receiver and in-car kit; £135 software only; Trafficwatch support £50; Complete European add-on map pack £100|
|More info||The ALK Europe site|
Visit The Reg's Review Channel for more hardware coverage.