AA Sat Nav app: Get where you’re going (though not in central London)

I have to admit that I am a big fan of the AA – ever since they sent a massive lorry to transport our little camping trailer to our Peak District campsite, and the lovely lorry driver drove it through a farmyard and actually deposited the trailer at our pitch. It earned us a certain standing among our fellow campers and my four-year-old still gets excited when he sees an AA van.

AA-sat-nav

So, when I found that the AA (which, incidentally, is also the nation’s top-selling road atlas provider) had launched a new AA Sat Nav app for the iPhone I was looking forward to trying it out. My first impression, however, was that it looked pretty much like the Co-Pilot app I already have on my iPhone (and which costs a quid or so less), albeit with an AA-branded skin on top.

The new app – entitled AA Sat Nav UK & Ireland – offers 3D map displays, lane indicator arrows and speed limit alerts as well as ‘safety camera’ warnings.

On the plus side, it’s really easy to use – determining whether you’re on foot, car, bike or motorbike can be done simply in settings or from an icon on the side of your map – which is very useful.

I was also rather excited about being able to find the nearest petrol station/tourist attractions and so on – really useful when you’re away from home and missing your internet connection – and as we often are in quite remote locations where you need to know where the next place to fill up on diesel is, I thought this would be a bonus.

But I found it a bit of a let down. My first two attempts, which I tried at home, pinpointed a petrol station five miles away, when I know our local garage is less than two miles – and the nearest church it could find was nearly five miles away (we can see the church tower from our front garden).

However, I had no quibbles with the actual routing and sat nav functions – in fact it got a gold star because I am forever directing lost delivery drivers who have got lost by their sat nav which can’t cope with the fact that the road through our village has one name if you turn left at the T-junction and another if you turn right, but the AA Sat Nav managed just fine – so a big thumbs-up for that.

However, what was really slow was the app’s ability to lock on to the GPS location. In my little village it took a couple of minutes – but in the middle of London’s Soho it really struggled.

I checked on the app’s site to make sure I wasn’t doing anything wrong – checking my iPhone’s setting, and making sure I could see the sky – but it just seemed unable to hold on to a signal. For a penny under 27 quid that was rather disappointing.

The issue with locking on to the location in Central London aside, as a sat nav, the voice directions worked really well. I guess when a standalone sat-nav device costs around 90 quid it’s not a bad deal. But the extra facilities for finding local points of interest did not prove accurate enough for my liking.

The AA Sat Nav UK & Ireland app can be downloaded from the iTunes Store for £26.99.

Ford Focus Electric at CES 2011

It seems Ford is turning greener by the second. Not only has it announced that its first ever zero emission all electric passenger car will be available in Europe and the US by 2013, but it will be produced for the US market at its Michigan plant, itself part powered using one of the largest solar energy generators in the western world.

Ford-Focus-Electric

This is all good news of course. Even better news for those critics of electric power, is that this new car will have a top speed of 84 mph and countering one of the biggest drawbacks on electric vehicles – the 10 hour charge – a much reduced charging time of around 3-4 hours.

Until battery technology improves, extending the range between charges (it’s currently around 130 miles) interest in electric cars will remain with technology enthusiasts and conservationists. There is however a marked improvement in the number of UK public charging points (which can cost around £120 for annual use, although some boroughs offer them free), so, long distance driving is certainly becoming a reality.

The stylish 5 door hatchback Focus Electric we are assured, will ‘lose none of the dynamics and quality of driving a fuel driven car’  and it will contain one or two very clever tricks too, including off board remote access via Ford’s mobile app. So, you can check on your car’s charging status while making a cup of tea, pre set air conditioning so the car is nice and cool in summer when you first get in and snug and warm in winter and even remotely start the car and unlock the doors. The 15 spoke 17 inch alloys and nine speaker satellite radio and voice activated navigation system will appease those who pour scorn on EV’s as being dull and unstylish.

Another menace of electric cars is the loss of battery life in extreme weather conditions. This too had been addressed, with an active liquid cooling system that regulates the battery temperature, so on hot days the battery is cooled and warmed on cold days. The result is a much more consistent charge life which will make it a lot easier to drive between charging points. You also get some lovely electronic blue butterflies in your cluster display to represent your surplus range, so the more butterflies there are, the greater the range you have left. Combine these lovely creatures with the My Touch navigation system where you will be told where the nearest charging station is on your route and your bases are pretty much all covered.

So hopefully, no more electric driving at 10 miles an hour with the heater and radio turned off in order to reach your next charging point then. We live in hope.

By Andy Mossack

K100 Bluetooth In-Car Speakerphone: One giant leap for handsfree calling

Here’s a fact you that, unless you are an employee of Plantronics or a serious moonlanding buff, you probably won’t know. Plantronics provided the headset that Neil Armstrong wore when he first stepped out of the Apollo 11 and onto the Moon in 1969, and relayed his infamous ‘one small step…’ quote.

Now, to matters of relevance; them at Plantronics have left the Moon behind and developed something for use purely in Earth-bound vehicles; the K100 Bluetooth In-Car Speakerphone. It’s an ingenious little thing that clips onto your cars visor rendering, we can only hope, the demise of deluded fools that think Bluetooth headsets give them an air of importance and style.

k100-in-situ

Once in place it is designed to sync your smartphones and in car systems in what is apparently- and even a cynic like yourself can’t find too much issue with the wording- a ‘robust advancement of mobile technology’. In essence it’s a two way microphone with inbuilt digital signal processing technology. This will keep outside noise out, yours and the person on the other end of the phones clear as a window, while the apparently high quality speaker will ensure everything is being broadcast at a volume that you won’t have to shush the missus to hear.

k100

What makes it really special, though, is the fact you can now make your phone and your radio the best of friends and transmit music, conversation, GPS and anything else that makes sounds through their phone and into the car stereo. In the age of the ever prevalent iPhone this sounds like a very good thing indeed, though whether or not I’d want to hear my Uncle Hamish’s voice blaring out of the stereo is another thing altogether.

Set-up is minimal, as is the controls; their are only 3 buttons, each large and eminently pressable for even the most pudgy thumbed among us. There’s also an impressive 17 hours of talk time and 15 hours of standby so you won’t need to be charging before every journey. All in all…pretty cosmic.

The Pioneer ICE car – triumph of the Technobrains

Since the late 70s, an epic battle has been fought between Petrolheads and Technobrains – the former hoping to keep computer-controls out of cars, with the latter championing the digital cause.

And the Technobrains won.

Today, high-tech electronics have taken over most of the monitoring systems under the bonnet (you should really check your own oil, though – use the long stick bit). Commanding the engine isn’t enough for some, however, including the designers at Pioneer and Smart – they’re striving to digitalise everything underneath the sunroof.

Pioneer-Smart-Car

The latest weapon in the electronic onslaught is the smart fortwo ICE edition – a car pimped out with enough interior electronics to make even Westwood cringe. The electronics, provided by Pioneer, have two priorities: big sound and big driving aids.

To win over your ears, Pioneers has included Kevlar midbass drivers and silk dome tweeters, alongside a brand new TS-WX210A active subwoofer – audio components better suited for a studio than a smart car.

The music is controlled by the AVIC-F920BT navigation and multimedia headunit, which also connects to your iPod or iPhone to display album artwork, track listings, playlists – while you DJ it all via the touchscreen.

It also includes Pioneer’s brand new MusicSphere technology, which allows you to select tracks according to your mood or journey type. Songs are automatically analysed and categorised by tempo, rhythm, vocal line and pitch, creating up to 40 different playlists from an iTunes library.

If you’re interested in giving this a go (Samsung used to make a similar product, but it never really took off), Pioneer have a philanthropy division that allows non-Smart buyers to download MusicSphere for free from the company’s website: www.pioneer.co.uk/musicsphere.

In addition to the multimedia elements, the system also does navigation with premium features. Most interesting of all is the ECO Graph package, which works out how economical your driving performance is. By analysing your driving style, particularly your breaking, revs and acceleration, the software can estimate your CO2 emissions and guilt you into driving more responsibly.

It also offers more standard features, such as pre-warnings about traffic jams and accidents, as well as highlighting more than six million points of interest in 44 countries, such as cash machines or petrol stations.

Oh, there are electric windows, too.

If all this technology has sold you, and you want to be a standard-bearer for the Technobrains advance into Petrolhead territory, you should consider that there are only 200 smart fortwo ICE edition models created in the UK: 140 micro hybrid drive petrol versions and 60 diesel versions, so best be quick.

Auto Trader iPhone app: Number plate recognition in your pocket

Auto Trader seems to understand the point of having an iPhone app. The easy way out would have just been to make an app that let you browse their current listings in a fancy touch shell, no different to a website, but that’s not what these guys did. Instead, we’ve got a clever app that makes the most of the hardware available.

Auto-Trader-iPhone-App

Available free from the iTunes store, the famous car seller’s app first greets you with a little home screen that helpfully points out what the four menu items at the bottom of the page do. You’ve got Garage, Snap, Search and Settings to choose from.

Garage is essentially a favourites page, where you store the results of previous searches so you can easily find new cars for sale. Snap lets you take photos of licence plates, which the recognition software then reads and finds the make and model of the car. The Search screen follows on from Snap, or you can go straight there, and lets you specify which car you want to look for, where you want to find it and how much you’re willing to pay. Finally, Settings lets you tweak the app, including putting a default postcode in so you can quickly search for cars near you.

I downloaded the app and immediately started stalking random cars. You’ve got to be quite careful with the photos you take. Too far away, and it won’t be sharp enough when you resize it for the character recognition box. Fail to hold the phone steady and you’ll get the blurry picture we’re all used to from the slow shutter speeds on phones, which also won’t work. And iPhone 3GS owners will need to be careful of getting the focus right.

But! Get a decent picture and you’ll soon be bringing up pictures of the car in front of you, but more useful is the listing of sellers near you. Well, ish. When I used the GPS locator, it found me sure enough, but failed to limit the radius of results properly. Reading is not zero miles from Bath, I feel confident in saying. However, if I used my default postcode instead of the GPS it all worked properly.

Despite some slight foibles, I was pretty impressed by Auto Trader’s app. It certainly beats a website and makes great use of the hardware and software available — or, at least, tries to.