By Dave Lee on February 20, 2012
Road Ninja is designed to show what points of interest lay ahead at upcoming freeway exits. Think of it as a virtual “At This Exit” sign with food, lodging and other highway stops illustrated on a crisp smartphone screen instead of a dingy sign on the side of the road – which you can easily miss if among semitrailers.
What distinguishes it from other location-based applications is it is designed only to display what destinations are ahead of you as you travel, as opposed to what’s surrounding (or even behind) you. Once you select a place, you can dial its number, fetch directions, write a review or even read its Twitter feed. Road Ninja also lets you search for destinations and browse what’s nearby, and you can keep a list of your favorite spots.
What you need to know: Because of its multilayered interface, Road Ninja should be used by passengers, not drivers. It’s available only for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, though an Android version is in the works. As is the case with many location-based apps, signal strength and phone carrier can affect how well the app works. You also should know that Lamar Advertising, the owner of Road Ninja, can collect any personal data (including your geographical location) from the app.
What works: Road Ninja does a good job at telling you what’s nearby, just like any other navigation app. When I tested Road Ninja along the beltline in Madison, Wis. — a busy stretch of U.S. Highway 12/18 — it did a reasonably good job showing me nearby places where I could eat, where I could crash for the night and where I could pick up a caramel macchiato. When it comes to basic navigation functions, Road Ninja gets it right.
If you’re someone who likes to wait until your favorite fast-food chain is approaching Road Ninja may seem like a godsend because you can look much further ahead than just the next exit. That’s right, if you like Culvers you know just how long you’ll have to wait until you hit one. We’re looking at you, Kelsey Mays.
What doesn’t: Road Ninja’s distinguishing feature — browsing through freeway exits to find out what’s coming up — is made for interstate exits only. Even though Madison’s beltline is full of exits and points of interest, Road Ninja would only let me choose from exits along I-90, I-43, I-39, I-794 and I-894. (Some of these interstates are in Milwaukee, which is more than 70 miles east of Madison.) When I was on the interstate, Road Ninja worked only when it could accurately track my location, which happened about half the time. When I (cautiously) tried the app along I-90 in suburban Chicago, heading toward the city, Road Ninja thought I was heading in the opposite direction and became confused (and crashed) when I asked it to switch from westbound to eastbound. I did experience some lag between button presses, so if you want to reach a destination that’s less than a quarter-mile away, you might get there even before the map directions load. Or you might even pass the exit if you wait too long.
What’s the verdict? When it works, Road Ninja is a fine road trip tool. The app’s added features — alerts, reviews, Twitter integration and online promotions — are nice perks, but when I’m on the road, I only want to know what’s nearby and how long until I get there. If you just want a mobile version of the “At This Exit” sign than Road Ninja is nifty — again, when it works. Otherwise, stick to Google. Or ask Siri.