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.


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.