Europe's biggest navigation device maker, TomTom, chopped its full-year revenue forecast this week. The company blamed its weak outlook partly on the economy hurting sales of built-in navigation systems, but also on the proliferation of smartphones. Frankly, I can see why.
For one, it's pretty had to beat the convenience of a smartphone for in-car use. I find myself entering on-phone destinations in the comfort of home before descending into the rather gloomy depths of my garage.
In-dash system users, on the other hand, have to hunt-and-peck alphanumeric keypads sitting in the dark like a bat, or even drive outside for a dose of Vitamin D and a satellite fix before embarking on a trip.
Other pro-phone factors include the rapid advancement of screen resolution, graphics and app development that leaves in-car systems looking archaic -- even on brand new cars. Mercedes-Benz take note.
Volvo's Dymo embossed label-maker, rotary-style input is absolutely bizarre. Studies have shown, in fact, that built-in systems can contribute to vehicle depreciation.
I've written about getting the most GPS performance out of your phone recently. I've also written about how to dash-mount a tablet for a super-efficient experience.
One issue I've been experiencing, though, has been keeping the stock phone or tablet screen illuminated for the duration of the trip.
Stock Android doesn't allow for a greater than 30-minute screen timeout. Another niggle has been having to adjust media audio levels to suit the entertainment system.
Developer Alex Gavrishev's free, widget-oriented app lets you assign home screens specifically to be used in the car, and it lets you create large, easy-to-punch buttons for six shortcuts per screen. The buttons render well at tablet-strength high resolutions, unlike other car apps I've tried.
One area where Gavrishev's widget app differs from other in-car control apps is that it can still browse to other home screens on your device. All of the others I've tried force you into using only their screen once you've set the phone to car mode, which I think is restrictive.
After successfully playing with the Car Widget free version, I decided to check out the pro version, at $0.99 in the Google Play store.
The paid version of Car Widget brings clever in-car detection and settings not available in the no-charge version, rounding out Car Widget's simple but strong features.
If the ability to disable screen-timeout weren't bargain enough, this 99-cent app also lets you create detection routines for in-car mode. So you can set the smartphone to enter in-car mode and keep screen illuminated, for example, when a headset is connected.
The first thing I do when I get in the car is insert the accessory cable leading from the stereo into the phone's 3.5-mm headset jack. With Car Widget Pro, that action also switches the phone into in-car mode, which in turn automatically toggles the screen timeout to none, and sets the media audio output to my preferred level.
That's it -- but that's all I want. I then can swipe to unlock the screen and stab at the shortcuts to music, directions, maps, podcasts and so on. For the duration of the trip, I can safely glance at an illuminated map, or album sleeve without swiping the screen. Plus, I haven't had to adjust the volume knob. Well done, Alex Gavrishev.
Other clever, well-thought-out detection settings include functions like turning in-car mode on when a certain Bluetooth device connects. Less usable is turning in-car mode on when power is connected to the device.
Other action-oriented features, along with screen and volume, include auto-answer, and route all calls to speaker.
I'm hard pressed to think of many other utility-style apps that have gone so far to solve such a simple problem.
Swiftkey's thumb-typing for tablets logic -- where the QWERTY keyboard is split into left and right thumbable sections, with less-used numbers down the middle -- makes tablet typing highly functional and comes close to Car Widget Pro's brilliance.Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.