Maps 2.0 (P)review

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Nokia announced the availability of a test version of Maps 2.0 around two weeks ago. Now, it's tricky to review an application that's firmly in a beta phase, so I'm calling this a Preview instead! Read on to find out what's good, what's not and what's changed.

Back story

The Nokia Maps story starts over two years ago, with the purchase of German navigation specialists Smart2Go. They were a very minor player in the overall market, but Nokia has taken the product, heavily revamped and extended it and, most importantly, is pushing it for 'free' with every one of the ten million smartphones they sell in each quarter. Nokia has even announced an upcoming Series 40 version, meaning that Maps will be available on every other Nokia phone, too, taking the market for Maps into the hundreds of millions. An impressive opportunity all round.

Smart2Go, or Maps 1.0, has been used by myself and others for almost a year now and is quite well known. The business model is sound, with basic route calculation and junction-stepping for free, but with voice guidance and real time GPS tracking a paid-for extra, on a per day/week/month basis. It's a system that works well and I take advantage of it whenever I'm off on a short trip, paying by the week. The main minus points about Maps 1.x have been its inconsistent routing (though later versions seemed better, anecdotally) and its sometimes confusing interface.

Maps 2.0 seems to be a complete rewrite of the product and, like most things with Nokia (and indeed with the computer world in general) is a case of four steps forward and one step back. And that reverse count may be higher if you're someone used to using the 'free' functions in Maps v1.x, since even basic route calculation now falls within the 'pay-for' domain. But I don't think it's fair to fault the Maps development team on this issue. They have as much right as the next programming house to try to make a profit and there were probably far too many people trying to get by on the free junction-by-junction keypress routing in v1.x and driving very dangerously as a result. With in-car navigation, voice guidance and automatic real-time route recalculation is the only way to go, if you want to stay safe.

In fact, Maps 2.0 expands the remit of its navigation focus by including not only pedestrian route calculation but also a dedicated pedestrian mode, in which things work very differently. The cost, by the way, is less if you only sign up for pedestrian use, at 4 Euros for a month (say, for use on a business trip to a foreign city), and it's also worth noting that pedestrian routing is included in the 'drive' routing package, i.e. by signing up for the more expensive package (8 Euros for a month), you also get help when not in your car. (Note that these prices vary according to your region and that lesser prices are available for a week's use.)

To the test

So let's put all of this into practice. Out on the roads, in car and on foot. In the course of preparing this preview, I've covered about 500 miles of driving with Maps 2.0 and two hours of walking, hopefully enough to have discovered most of the good and bad points.

Getting the big question answered first, Nokia Maps 2.0 is now good enough in terms of routing and interface to be first choice when installing/using a satellite navigation application on your smartphone. Not that it's necessarily the best - I've not seen anything with the routing intelligence of the TomTom software, for example, nor is it the most fully featured, but Maps 2.0 is slick enough, good enough, cheap enough and, perhaps most importantly, omnipresent and instantly activated when needed on any S60 device.

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Some typical 'driving' views. Note the new style trip information, the GPS/net inidcators, the improved junction instruction arrows, the night mode and the toggle to 3D maps

In terms of routing, no software ever calculates routes as well as the human brain with local knowledge. I was pushed along a local estate road with 15 minutes of queueing traffic, when there was a slightly longer bypass that was car-free. I was told to turn right into a road that had been blocked off with bollards for the last 5 years. I was told (at my test junction near Sonning - the one I use for all software tests) nothing at all when in practice I needed to stop at a major A road (the A4), turn right and then turn off it, left, again after about 20 metres.

A clutch of driving navigation mistakes. Left to right: taking me through a bollarded off no-through road; bear left when I actually need to go right on a roundabout; and taking me straight over a very busy A road without even acknowledging the junction

But these quibbles are common to most computer-aided navigation packages - what's more important is that 99% of instructions were spot on, with good routing decisions and timely voice instructions. I've heard reports of users in other parts of the world having problems with maps - it's worth noting that Maps 2.0 uses a different map set to the v1.x code, in part because of the extra detail needed for the pedestrian functions. In any case, it's likely that there are some teething troubles with some country maps and I'd assume these will be sorted in due course.

Opening screen; zoomed out in map view; and the optional 'arrow' view

What's new

The chances are that you've installed and tried out one of the versions of Smart2Go or Maps 1.x in the past year. So what is actually new for v2.0 and how well does it work?

'Navigate to' has been replaced by two options, 'Drive to' and 'Walk to'. And, as hinted above, there's now no separate, free 'Calculate route' option. So if you want any help routing, you're going to have to pony up for a day?? or week or month, etc. As already mentioned, from a safety point of view this can be argued to be a good thing.

About to 'Drive to' a match; Searching for a specific address; some new functions in Tools - offline, GPS off, a built-in semi-screenshot utility

'Walk to' introduces a whole new model for mobile phone navigation. In the past, choosing a 'pedestrian' mode in any navigation software simply meant 'choose a route with no regard for one way streets and other traffic rules'. In Maps 2.0, being a pedestrian is taken to the next level. Not only do you get freedom from traffic rules, you get higher detail maps with some (but not all) footpaths and an intelligent orientation system, wherein the software senses which direction you're walking in (by integrating and smoothing the way in which your GPS position is advancing, not trivial at walking speeds) and rotates the map to keep 'forwards' as 'up'.

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Some typical walking views. Note the (temporary - gah!) breadcrumbs, the turn instructions on the roads themselves, the accurate compass, etc. Also note that there are no voice instructions in pedestrian mode, as you'd look silly...!

The pedestrian mode works rather well, but is limited by the map data, with enough footpaths and walkways not shown to really annoy. Local knowledge again triumphs handsomely, but, dumped in a strange town, the pedestrian mode would get you back to your hotel with little fuss.

Also new is a Google Maps-style satellite view, plus a photo/map hybrid. This, as with Google, is more a novelty than a useful mode, and it's worth noting that in Maps 2 .0 beta the photos available were somewhat patchy - for my home, 30 miles from London, zooming beyond town level produced an empty green display - but I daresay the gaps will all be filled in by the time of official release. In any case, while truly mobile, even with a decent 3G connection and data tariff, the bandwidth needed by the satellite images will often frustrate attempts to actually navigate and you're better off with the standard map view.

In satellite view, note that the photos aren't as good as those from Google Earth (yet) and that zooming in too far just leaves a blank screen in many places

Search is now more prominent in Maps 2.0 and works well, with only a few UI quibbles. You can start typing in clues and matches are shown categorised by Favourites, Addresses, Walking destinations, Guides, etc. You can then drill down to the one you want, choosing 'Show on map', 'Drive to', 'Walk to', etc. One change from Maps 1.0 is that all searching now happens online, rather than from a local database. This has the big advantage that Nokia can fix/update the database and extend it in real time without you having to lift a finger, and the slight disadvantage that there's an extra few kilobytes of data transferred for each search. I'm all in favour of over-the-air searching though, POI (Points of Interest) sets are notoriously badly populated when products like this launch, so at least this way Nokia can keep adding to them on their servers and we'll all reap the benefits.

Plenty of POI categories, though as usual they're poorly populated. BUT - with searching now online, Nokia can at least stock them up ready for when people come a-looking

Also new is 'Real time traffic information (RTTI)'. Except that it's not working for me at all in the Maps 2.0 beta version. So I'll just quote from the initial documentation: 'Nokia Maps 2.0 Beta offers real-time traffic feeds and dynamic rerouting in 18 European countries. Real-time traffic feeds inform you of collisions, roadworks, and traffic jams. After the feed is received, the device can dynamically re-route you to avoid a traffic event. RTTI is a feature that can be purchased separately.' So there you go. More in a couple of months once they've got it all working!

Finally, there are (purchasable) extra 'city guides', some apparently featuring 'photos, videos and audio streams', although Rafe and I couldn't spot any. I opted to buy one of the AA city guides, which turned out to just be a collection of POIs with phone and address details, albeit a super extensive one. The Berlitz and WCities guides seem to be more of the same - I doubt you'd need to buy more than one guide set for any given city.

Grabbing, browsing and searching one of the AA guides...

I'm not going to get into any discussion of license issues to do with upgrading from Maps v1.x to v2.0, by the way, for any FAQ-type issues, please see the official Nokia PDF document on the subject. And note that all versions of Maps now come with a free 3 day trial of all navigation features, so everyone's able to try it in their area before parting with cold, hard cash.

Beta, beta, beta

In addition to the absence of traffic information, the patchy satellite photos and the occasional map error, Maps 2.0 is beta in other ways: the UI buttons are the wrong way round on the Nokia E90 (in open mode), the application terminates occasionally for no good reason, the views are labelled the wrong way round (Manoeuvre vs Birds-eye) and the 'tutorial' doesn't do anything yet. But these are all to be expected from a 'beta'. And, if you'd upgraded a version of Maps that had been built into your firmware, you'd have to reflash the device from scratch if you ever wanted to get rid of the beta.

What's missing?

Several things, in addition to the purposeful removal of free route calculation and the stuff that's obviously beta-related. Adding a 'stopover' (on the menu when 'driving to' somewhere) to an existing route is incredibly convoluted at the moment and I'm not sure whether this is a UI issue or a bug or simply that I've misunderstood how the application is supposed to work. 

There's also no way to view the route that's been planned, either graphically or with a text listing, which is very disappointing for all those 'I wonder which way it's going to take me?' moments.

Route Info, Graphical 'TomTom-like' options when driving, and adjusting the volume of guidance

When 'walking to' somewhere, breadcrumbs appear behind you, for a short distance. This is apparently 'to orientate you', but they'd be 100 times more useful if they persisted, so that at any point you could look back and see where you'd been, retracing your steps to your car or hotel, etc. Nokia, please note - stop those darned virtual crows pecking away all my breadcrumbs - if I drop 'em, I want 'em left alone!

Verdict on 2.0 Beta

There's a load of potential here and there's no doubting that the core driving and walking navigation is better. But as betas go, this one's quite early and I'll be interested in trying it in a month's time, when more of the functionality has been added, tweaked or fixed.

But with Maps v1.x already on a huge number of S60 smartphones, with Maps 2.x about to appear on all the new ones and with a Series 40 variant in the wings, PLUS the free Google Maps for Mobile getting better and better, you have to ask yourself the question "Is there still going to be a market for third party navigation software?" If I were TomTom or CoPilot or Wayfinder or Navicore or Route 66, I'd be getting very, very worried for my medium to long term sales on S60....

Steve Litchfield, AllAboutSymbian, 24 Feb 2008