Roadnav User report - A Free GPS solution for the Mac
I just returned from a 300 mile trip and decided to give Roadnav, the open source GPS solution a try.
[Edit: There might be a problem with linking the pictures. Either click on the box with the question mark in it or go here for the album: http://picasaweb.google.com/tberry0916/Roadnav]
I'll cut to the chase and give you the conclusion first. Roadnav works, it is free, and you can actually use it to navigate with. It's slow, doesn't always work correctly, and isn't as advanced as the for purchase Windows software. It shows great promise and I hope it will continue to be developed. Oh yeah, the price can't be beat.
I used two packages for back to back comparisons of free GPS solutions on the Mac. First, I used Google Earth with the GPS2GE program. This works fine but you can't cache all the maps you need to and you have to preplan the route to cache the data. See my report here for more detail.
On the return trip, I used Roadnav. My setup is a PPC Mac Mini, 512mb RAM, bluetooth/WiFi, generic Royaltek Sapphire GPS, 8" Xenarc screen.
The course was from Herndon, VA to Corning, NY, approximately 290 miles and 5-6 hours driving time.
Setting Up Roadnav
Below is a screenshot of Roadnav running in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn in Chantilly.
Why would I be in the parking lot of a Comfort Inn 'borrowing' their net connection? Well, one of the things you must do with Roadnav is download the maps necessary for it to work. If you live in the USA, this is easy. Built in to the Roadnav software are links to the Tiger road mapping data that is maintained by the government and is freely available from a server. All you do is select the data you want (by county) and download it. It takes a few minutes, but it worked easily for me.
Getting my GPS connected to Roadnav was fairly easy, but there was one trick. My GPS is a generic device. It has a driver for it and it connect via a USB to serial port connection. I've installed a product called GPSD that allows you to share the GPS with several applications, as long as they support GPSD. Since GPSD is open source, products like Roadnav support GPSD. Since I had already configured my GPS to work with GPSD, I checked the box in the preferences that said GPSD.
As soon as I did that, Roadnav complained to me that my version of GPSD was old and that it had failed a query test with Roadnav. I unchecked the box that said "test compatibility" and Roadnav found the GPS and it showed up on the map! Whatever the issue was, it wasn't fatal. During my test, I shared GPS output with Roadnav and Kismet, a wardriving program that uses GPSD to log locations or hotspots. This worked great, as you can see from the image below. I used Kismet to output a KML file to Google Earth and you can see that a lot of my neighbors need to secure their networks.
As you can see, Roadnav has an easy to use interface that is set up for touch screen use. Most of what you need is onscreen and you can zoom in and out easily, if you wish.
However, Roadnav also has a nice auto-zoom feature that will zoom the map out as you go faster, and zoom it in as you slow down. Here's an image of it zoomed in as I refueled at a gas station in Thurmont, MD.
Note that the detail level is 10 and the location is accurate. The location box is a nice feature of Roadnav that basically lets you know where you are at all times. It's good if you are talking to someone on a cellphone and they ask where you are. Rather than saying, "I'm on route 15," you can say, "I'm near Thurmont."
Roadnav also has a 3D mode, like the big boys do. It works reasonably well, but after using it for awhile, I preferred the 2D overhead view. As you can also see, the map moves along with the GPS location. It is a little jerky, but it isn't hard to follw or anything.
Roadnav also has a night skin that you can automatically set to change at sunset. The sun set during my trip and Roadnav switched over to the night skin at 4:57. Nice.
Roadnav also has a window you can open that shows all of the nearby locations. The image below shows the window in use
The nearby locations window is cool but it flashes continuously as it updates, so it's a little annoying. However, it has lots of locations and stuff nearby, although there is no search function so you could, for example, set it to show gas stations or restaurants.
This is a FREE software product that is essentially beta. I tried using the 'Get directions' function to map out a route to my house so I could get turn-by-turn directions. Supposedly, Roadnav will pop up a window telling you when a turn is coming up and it can also use the speech generator to verbalize the instructions. Unfortunately, when I tried to route to my street address, it would work on it for awhile with the progress bar getting about 1/3 of the way across the screen, then hang. I tried it several times and at different points in the route, but got the same results.
Roadnav also has an option for using aerial photos from the USGS online archives. About 2/3 of the way through my trip, I got curious about using this feature and enabled it. I got an immediate syntax error that would reappear the second I clicked "okay". Then it would reappear endlessly, over and over and over so quickly that you couldn't shut off the aerial photo view before the error reappeared. I had to pull over, close the program, and relaunch it. That didn't fix the problem, so I dove into the prefs file and found the AerialPhotos=1 line and set it to zero. That fixed it, but I'm not sure the average user would know how to do that.
Roadnav is slooooow. But not so much that it isn't worth using. However, the updates to the screen sometimes take the form of a simple road display followed a few seconds later by a full display of the nearby rivers and so forth. Sometimes those details will inextricably disappear for a few seconds, then reappear.
The interface is pretty ugly and the graphics don't look as nice as some programs I've used. On the other hand, I paid zero for the program and I know this app is a major accomplishment, so I'm not really complaining about the appearance other than to say that it would be nice to be able to set the size of the labels and route signs so you could see them better.
Also, the zoom feature worked pretty well but sometimes it would zoom way out for no apparent reason other than it may have been busy when I passed one of the speed zoom out thresholds and it was trying to catch up. It just seemed a little inconsistent. However, it wasn't really any worse than my old Delorme Street Atlas program.
I'll use Roadnav again. It worked well, particularly in 2D mode and I was able to follow my progress pretty easily with it. I'd recommend allowing users to adjust more of the map display elements, but I'd say it's a usable program right now. If you want a native Mac GPS moving map solution, Roadnav not only does it for you, it does it for free.
However, Roadnav is not yet competitive with the professional offerings such as iGuidance. Map movement is a bit jerky and the graphics could use improvements. Also, make sure you've downloaded the maps ahead of time or you'll find yourself driving on a black background!
Roadnav shows great promise. I'll be following its development closely.