Popular search layers for Maps Navigation (image courtesy Google)The last time I got into a vehicle with a GPS navigation system, it was a rental car with a group of people, and it about drove me batty to watch them listen slavishly to the “Navigation Lady” for when to exit, and seemingly forget to look out the front windshield and notice the giant doggone highway sign that told us to EXIT HERE….until we were already past it.

I almost crawled over from the back seat to take the wheel.

When I get directions, I like to see a visual representation of where I’m going, also known as a “map.”

I do keep updated paper maps in both of our vehicles; they always boot up and don’t require a cell network/satellites/WiFi, but when I’m the lone driver, it is a bit of a pain (oh, OK, and pretty unsafe!) to try to unfold, refold and read one while hurtling down the road, while also fumbling with reading glasses.

The Google Maps function on my Android phone is pretty handy, of course – when it is accurate – but a new feature on it really saved my bacon on a recent trip to San Antonio.  I don’t see how standalone car navigation systems like Garmin and TomTom can stay in business much longer, because I found that the latest Google Maps update to my phone includes a beta version of turn-by-turn voice navigation.

It’s free, but you’ll need Android OS 1.6 and above. It’s not available yet for iPhone or BlackBerry (not something I get to say very often.) My phone is an older Android model so the software gummed up a little a couple of times, but it helped me find a residence in a large subdivision, at night, in a completely unfamiliar area of town, with sight lines obscured by lots of trees.

When I enabled Maps Navigation, it showed me a computerized, “bird’s-eye” sort of elevated view with a big fat line for me to follow. The darker blue arrow in the image above blinks and represents your continuously-updated location and direction. I could have added Street View imagery to the route, but since it was nighttime they wouldn’t have helped much, so I stayed with the basics.

The Navigation Lady’s guiding voice suddenly burst from my phone, saying, “Turn right in one quarter mile at X Street!” and I nearly jumped out of my skin since I wasn’t expecting it. A box popped up saying that for voice-guided navigation, I’d need to install text-to-speech software from the Android market, but I didn’t feel a burning need for voice control of my phone so I didn’t take the time to do that.

Ms. Phone guided me right to the curb of the friend’s house that I was looking for; I liked the simple, clear graphics better than the voice, but the whole package impressed me, especially since it didn’t cost a dime and worked on my older phone.

Maps Navigation also has Transit guidance (for when you’re taking public transportation – currently covers 400 cities) and walking directions (the phone vibrates when you’re supposed to turn.)  You can also add “layers” like the previously-mentioned Street view, Satellite view and the super-handy Traffic view, which shows green/yellow/red along your route, based on traffic conditions. Avoid those pile-ups!

Here’s a quick look at what Street view looks like, in case you’re unfamiliar with it….direct link on YouTube here.

My next purchase is some sort of dashboard mount for the phone, since it looks like me and the Navigation Lady are going to be good friends.

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