Review: Skobbler, a free GPS navigation app for iPhone

Version 3.0

Skobbler, a free Internet based GPS navigation app based on the OpenStreetMap project’s crowsourced maps, has been updated to version 3.0. This upgrade adds interface improvements, iOS 4 Background Navigation support, and improved search. To be completely honest, I hadn’t heard of this app before Patrick let me know about yesterday’s update. The company is based in Germany, and the app is evidently pretty popular there, but doesn’t appear in the Top 50 Free Apps in the US App Store’s Navigation category. I love a good GPS app, and seeing that they are a former subsidiary of Navigon, whose MobileNavigator I reviewed last week, piqued my interest. Reading that Skobbler had to survive a lawsuit from their former parent company also got my attention. It just so happened that I had a 230 mile drive home ahead of me yesterday, so I downloaded Skobbler and decided to put it to the test.

The first thing I noticed when I started up Skobbler was a login. You can skip this, but unlike many subscription based apps in the App Store, there is no way to set up an account from the app itself. You can go to Skobbler’s US website here and set one up. The web site allows you to set locations and push them to the app, which is a nice feature. The only problems I see with the website are that you can’t report map problems, and you can’t see the same maps as the app. This is because, for some reason, the Skobbler team decided to use Google’s maps for their website, rather than the OpenStreetMaps used in the app. I’m not sure I completely understand this decision, but it isn’t the end of the world.

I regularly use Navigon’s MobileNavigator and I have also been using Waze in preparation for a review (coming soon), so Skobbler was an interesting contrast. Most of the turn by turn GPS apps out there are heavy on the features. Even free ones like Waze, or subscription model apps like Motion-X Drive tend to boast a rich feature set. Skobbler, however, is much more simple and to the point. There are only a handful of settings, and the interface is very clean and easy to understand.

You can select a destination address, use the search interface for points of interest, which is new in version 3.0, select from favorite or recent locations and contacts, or change the settings.

Settings include choices between 2-D or 3-D maps, between fast or short routing, enabling display of POIs and Sign Posts on the maps, showing Speed Limits where available, and setting up Speed Warnings. You can also choose between manual or automatic Day or Night mode for the maps.

While Skobbler’s settings are kept to a minimum, they cover the most important requirements of a good GPS app. I also found the map display to be clean and easy to understand. Your location, speed, distance from the destination, time remaining, and time of arrival are all displayed in one location, and are large enough to easily see.

Guess how you report map bugs. It's a nice touch to put it right on the map.

Tapping the information display box brings up some in-route options. These include buttons for Day/Night Map toggle, route synopsis, replaying the last voice instruction, muting voice instructions, bringing up the iPod interface, reporting map bugs, and expanding to full screen map with zoom and re-focus buttons.

Like I said before, Skobbler just focuses on the basics, and it does a good job of implementing them.

As far as the navigation performance goes, I was pretty pleased with Skobbler overall, especially for a free GPS app. The routing made sense, the instructions were clear, and the voice guidance was easy to understand and sounded good.  I was very impressed that the app included text to speech with street names, as most free GPS options are limited to turn instructions only, or include this as an in-app purchase. My 23o mile trip included some remote rural areas with limited data speeds, but I never lost map or routing access. Skobbler was also capable of re-routing me when I didn’t follow instructions in these areas without too much trouble.

There were a few issues of note along the way yesterday. First, the use of the on-screen keyboard in the app needs to be addressed. For some reason, the Return button does not initiate a search in the Address Entry or Local Search screens. You have to tap Return to retract the keyboard, and then tap the Search button on the screen. In an app that is clean and clear everywhere else, this implementation is counter-intuitive and unnecessary and should be fixed.

Second, Skobbler works off of the OpenStreetMap project’s maps, which means that there can be some accuracy issues in areas where active users aren’t reporting problems or making changes. Fortunately, it is very easy to report a bug right from the map while navigating, and you can even edit them yourself from a computer with some free software. Using open maps also means that POIs and Speed Limits are only available where users are adding them. The Google search interface helps in this respect, because it can feed Skobbler the address information of a desired destination. However, you won’t see many POIs on the map as you drive along your route.

I’m not sure if it was the maps, the app’s GPS implementation, or my iPhone, but I found my position indicator jumped off the map several times. Skobbler recognized this as a turn or stop, and would issue a turn instruction and re-calculate my route. I have driven this same route with other GPS programs without issues, and the terrain is very flat and open, so I know I should not be losing GPS lock, and feel pretty confident that it isn’t the phone causing the problem. Considering how many times it happened, it was probably caused by slight inaccuracies in the maps.

My main issues with the were, again, related to the map information, or at least how Skobbler interpreted it. There were two instance yesterday where Skobbler took correctly drawn Interstate and Highway ramps, set a navigation path that did not exist, and called out the direction as a turn, not an exit. One of these was easy to get through, but the other was actually very confusing, and could have caused me a problem if I were unfamiliar with the area. Another routing problem occurred right after the exit issue, where Skobbler instructed me to turn the wrong way down a One Way street. Fortunately, these are usually clearly marked, so if you are paying attention, you can avoid making what could be a very wrong turn.

I’m not really sure what the Skobbler team can do about these problems. A GPS is only as good as its map data, and in some spots the OpenStreetMap project’s maps leave something to be desired. Even where the roads are drawn correctly, if they don’t have complete information as to direction and connective paths, any GPS program would have trouble interpreting them. I guess the moral here is that, even free has its price.

Despite the flaws, however, I think Skobbler has a lot going for it. First of all, it’s free. Completely free. There are no hidden subscriptions or in-app purchases here. The clean and simple interface and no-frills approach is a wise one. Skobbler does what it sets out to do, and it does it efficiently.  The fact that you get text to speech for free is also a first for iPhone GPS apps, as far as I know. Also, for an Internet based GPS app, the routing and map data update pretty quickly, even on slower EDGE networks. Yes, I did have problems with the maps in certain areas, but they were actually pretty good, overall. The other good thing about the map data is that users can get as involved as they want to be in making it more accurate and detailed. The more popular Skobbler becomes, the better these maps should get.

There are aspects of an app that you can’t necessarily cover in just a one day test run. I didn’t get to do any downtown driving, so it would be interesting to see if Skobbler’s routing speed is good enough to work well in a densely packed downtown area. Also, it would be interesting to drive through an area where there is an active group keeping up the OpenStreetMap, adding things like POIs and Sign Posts, and see how that looks. However, based on what I did see yesterday, I am pretty impressed. As a Navigon MobileNavigator user, I won’t be dropping my current solution to go with their free former subsidiary’s product, but I would definitely recommend Skobbler to those looking for a free solution to add to or replace the use of the iPhone’s native Maps app or other free GPS apps.

Skobbler is available for free in the App Store here.

The press release for Skobbler is included below:

Berlin, Germany – After a solid seven figure investment by angel investors and fending off a lawsuit by former parent company Navigon, Skobbler releases an update to its popular and free turn-by-turn navigation system for the iPhone that incorporates a completely new user interface, full iOS4 compatibility, and significant stability improvements.

Coming into an established industry like the world of GPS Navigation companies and trying to make your mark is a difficult challenge, one that upstart Berlin development company Skobbler took on with a vengeance. With little initial funding and nothing but a good idea, Skobbler went out and rocked the navigation establishment by giving away the golden goose, a free turn by turn navigation application for the iPhone that rivals the core features of the $20+ apps already on the market.

After more than 350,000 downloads worldwide, a resounding win in a lawsuit against former parent company Navigon and a fresh round of venture investment, Skobbler has put its positive momentum to good use by further developing and significantly improving its free iPhone navigation app. As well as offering full compatibility with Apple ‘s iOS4 firmware, Skobbler 3.0 now delivers new levels of performance in a number of key areas.

Added to its features is an update to the user interface for the US market which includes a more intuitive format for the input of destinations. The Skobbler Navigation app has been upgraded to utilize the full set of iOS4 features including the ability to multi-task, allowing drivers to run other useful apps while driving running Skobbler in the background. For safety reasons, Skobbler recommends that multi-tasking is only used while the vehicle is stopped, or by passengers.

In addition to the Apple versions, Skobbler is set to release in the Android Marketplace within the month and is continueing to develop additional features into the Skobbler navigation app. Besides, skobbler will release several completely new geo-related apps during the upcoming weeks.

About OpenStreetMap (OSM)
OSM is a free open source project that follows a crowdsourcing approach (it is often called the ‘Wikipedia of maps ‘). The OSM mappers constantly add new free information to the map and continuously improve its quality. New streets and points of interest are added by the minute and displayed on the OSM map. There are currently already more than 250,000 registered mappers around the world and numbers are rapidly increasing. Since 2004, the number of registered mappers has increased ten-fold every 18 months.

Supported Languages:
* US English, French, German, Italian and Spanish

Device Requirements:
* iPhone and iPod touch
* Requires iOS 4.0 or later
* 3.5 MB

Pricing and Availability:
Skobbler 3.0 is free and available worldwide exclusively through the App Store in the Navigation category.

Skobbler 3.0: http://www.skobbler.co.uk/
Download From iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id370144231?mt=8
Media Assets: http://photobucket.com/Skobbler

Berlin-based Skobbler has been independently developing navigation software for mobile phone platforms since 2008. Skobbler ‘s management team has a wealth of industry experience due to their former management positions at renowned navigation provider NAVIGON AG, a company which was founded by current Skobbler CEO Peter Scheufen. Skobbler focuses on creating smart products for mobile phones which provide their users with both orientation and fun on the OpenStreetMap. The Skobbler navigation app has been one of the top-selling applications in Germany since its market launch. Skobbler switched to using OpenStreetMap data in March 2010. Copyright (C) 2010 Skobbler. All Rights Reserved. Apple, the Apple logo, iPhone, iPod and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.

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  • guest

    "available worldwide exclusively through the App Store" This is not true. I have only an account in the Dutch app store and this app is not available there.

  • http://skobbler.com Philipp Kandal

    thanks for giving skobbler a shot and an extensive review.
    regarding the idea that skobbler should send the address form when pressing "enter" in the street field: Great idea and I don't know why we did not think about that in the first place. Just added it with high prio for the next version to our bugtracking system.

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  • Jack Donohoe

    Would it be possible to have Coordinate input, we need it big time in Ireland, no post codes .

  • http://hoistline.com Selaws

    I have a ipad, if I go on holiday and use Skobber will I be chartered for roaming, or is there a GPS receiver in the iPad, ?

    • jhrogersii

      The 3G models have GPS chips. The WiFi only models do not.

  • Anthony

    Would be very helpful to have an avoid highways or select a route button. I enjoy riding off the beaten path and tend to try to avoid highways. Just a thought.

  • Mihaela

    Skobbler applications are VERY EXPENSIVE and full of bugs. They are NOT FREE at all.