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September 9, 2010 / teknolog

Ovi Maps and the Nokia 5800 as car navigator

Introduction

This summer I’ve been traveling around the UK a rental car. Since I’m pretty new to Britain outside London, I brought my trusty Nokia 5800 to use together with Ovi Maps 3.4 with free navigation for Symbian to help me out.

These are my thoughts about Ovi Maps after two weeks of pretty intense usage.

General observations

Ovi Maps is a nice looking program. The UI is well thought out, with most functions easily accessible with a few taps on the screen, which is very important when using it while driving. The map is always shown full screen, and is attractively presented. In map mode you can obviously pan around as in any map application. In navigation mode, swiping in various directions will show you alternative views, which is a little confusing but can sometimes be nice.

A great feature of Ovi Maps is that you can use the Ovi Suite on your PC to pre-load the maps onto your device. This means that your phone doesn’t have to download the relatively large maps as you are navigating, which means less data consumption and more importantly, that it works great even when there is no network coverage.

Using your phone as a navigator consumes a lot of power. With the GPS receiver chip running, the phone CPU constantly updating the map and navigation data based on location, and with the screen backlight on all the time, it will drain your phone’s battery within a couple of hours.

Luckily, I had anticipated this and bought the Nokia DC-4 Car Charger to keep it powered. This worked well, and I could use the phone normally whenever I stopped the car.

GPS signal reception is pretty good, though not perfect. Initial lock is quick, as long as there is network coverage so you can get assisted GPS. The 5800 also keeps the signal pretty well, even placed in between the two front seats. In cloudy weather or when driving along narrow British farm roads hedged so high you can barely see the sky, the 5800 did lose signal and Ovi Maps would show the message “Waiting for GPS…”.

Maps

Last year, Nokia bought NavTeq to get hold of its own map database. This is presumably one of the reasons why Nokia can give away navigation for free, since they don’t have to pay a unit cost to anyone but themselves.

I found the quality of the maps to vary greatly. Mostly, they are fine, with only minor differences compared to reality. However, the farther from the big cities you get, the more bizarre and annoying mistakes you will find: junctions that aren’t joined properly, so that instead of a T-intersection the map shows an inverted L and a road on the side that is not connected to the L. Sigh.

Also, I wonder when the maps were last completely updated. I found several redesigned road sections, where for instance an intersection had been replaced with a roundabout. Judging by the vegetation grown in the roundabout, it must have been there more than a year.

Navigation

Judging a navigation algorithm in an area where you’ve never been is obviously a tricky proposition. You typically don’t know the best way to reach your destination, but sometimes I suspected that it was taking me along, let us say, the scenic route.

As mentioned above, poor map quality was often to blame. If the map doesn’t show the intersection properly, the routing algorithm obviously won’t know it is possible to turn every which way.

Also, there seems to be a poor tracking of

the relative size of roads. It obviously prefers motorways before country roads, but when it comes to large versus small country roads, it seems to be all the same to Ovi, whether 10 m wide or single track.

Something that seems completely missing in Ovi Maps is the “turn around when possible” feature. If you happen to miss a turn, it will simply find another way to drive there, which can mean a significant detour, when just turning around and making the originally proposed turn would be the sane way to do it.

Another important factor is speed at which the navigator can adapt to changes in the environment, such as missing the turn mentioned above. The Nokia 5800 is a pretty old phone, with a measly 400 MHz CPU that can barely keep up. Preparing the route can take a fair amount of time, upwards of 15 seconds. This means that when driving around aimlessly in a city, it will sometimes never catch up. Obviously, faster hardware will alleviate this problem.

Voice navigation

Ovi Maps comes with comprehensive voice navigation in a number of languages. A nice feature is that you can download the voices directly from the mobile client, and don’t need to rely on desktop software.

The voices are pretty good. I tried out English US and UK male and female voices with street name reading, and also the “surfer dude” voice. The surfer dude quickly gets pretty annoying, so I went back to either of the English voices. Apart from a funny bug in the female UK voice, where the road called, say, A30 is pronouned ah-thirty, I have no complaints.

Final thoughts

Ovi Maps is a perfectly fine navigation solution, it takes you where you want to go, generally using sensible roads. The UI is good and easy to use while driving, and the voice navigation works very well.

But Ovi Maps on the Nokia 5800 generally can’t replace a dedicated navigation device as it stands today. Most modern navigators have a much bigger screen than the Nokia 5800, which eases navigation. Also, modern navigators respond faster, since they have dedicated hardware optimised for navigation with a better antenna.

‘Throughout my two week trip, I was very happy with Ovi Maps, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.

I can’t wait to try Ovi Maps on the significantly improved Nokia N8, which has both a much faster CPU and a larger, brigher display. And with a few software revisions, Ovi Maps could well beat most navigators on the market.

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