(image from ICPC)
Ever since Republic made changes to limit roaming data, many of you are concerned that you’ll end up lost while traveling in the boonies, unable to use your phone’s navigation app for directions. The thought of dealing with paper maps or asking another human for directions can be quite daunting!
It would be nice if we had unlimited data everywhere, because Google Maps is about as good as it gets for details and accuracy, and the turn-by-turn navigation is top notch. The only problem is, Google Maps depends on access to Google’s cloud – in a word “data”. While it’s possible to save map areas to the phone, doing so for a large area or entire state is quite cumbersome, and planning a route requires data nonetheless.
Fortunately, there are alternatives known as offline navigation apps. These
apps include maps that are downloaded to your phone on a state-by-state basis, and route calculation is done entirely within the app, requiring no data.
There are a few free or inexpensive apps that use crowd-sourced maps from OpenStreetMap.org (OSM). The trouble with OSM maps is that they’re not complete - street addresses often aren’t known, and sometimes entire streets can’t be found. The apps that use OSM can accurately locate an address with a bit of data, but the holy grail is reaching your destination on zero data.
I originally was going to write about two OSM-based apps and a soon-to-be-released beta app that wasn’t officially available. But the unofficial beta has now been officially released for use by all (though still in beta), and that changes everything. The beta app is so good, there’s little reason to talk about OSM-based apps. Without further ado, the winner in the Best Free Offline Navigation category is…
The announcement that Nokia would offer an offline navigation app for free must have been a bombshell for those making money from offline navigation apps and dedicated navigation devices. Nokia’s professionally developed and maintained maps rival those of Google, Garmin and TomTom.
Although Here is still in beta, its operation is far more stable than the often mentioned NavFree app that uses OSM maps. There’s been a steady improvement in Here’s quality over several updates to the beta app.
The downloaded maps are large – with just one state installed (Virginia), the app’s stored data was 340MB – about twice as much as OSM-based apps. Moto E users will definitely want to invest in a MicroSD card and instruct Here to use that storage rather than internal memory. Unfortunately, Here requires Android 4.1 or later, so Defy XT users may rightfully be sad that it’s not an option for them.
Here can work online without downloaded maps, or fully offline by ticking a checkbox on the main menu. Online operation includes perks such as traffic delay information and satellite maps. Unlike OSM-based apps, Here can find addresses and POIs (points of interest) equally well whether online or offline - just start typing the address or POI name, and instant search results follow. There’s no direct access to contacts from within the app, but you can select Here when tapping an address in the People app. I did encounter a problem though when doing that; Here received the street address without city and state, and searched for that street in the local area. So you may need to manually append city and state when starting from a contact address. Hopefully this is just a temporary issue for the beta version.
Right after installing, you’ll want to change the speed limit warning under Settings, which is set to zero tolerance by default. While there, you can choose to download spoken voices of either gender, available in either space-saving somewhat raspy quality (4-8 MB) or “hi-fi” quality (40-60 MB).
For turn-by-turn instructions, Here gives directions for turns and exits in plenty of time nearly every time. It was a bit less accurate for the final destination, but usually not by more than a few hundred feet. Sometimes, perhaps owing to the beta nature, it would give a direction far too soon, or after the time for that direction had long passed. In one case after I drove off-route it seemed to have figured out that I was back on course, but then repeated a previously given u-turn instruction. The app continues giving directions with the screen off, which is good for battery life and your attention to the road. It also posts a notification icon that changes to show what the next turn is going to be, along with distance to that turn when you view notifications.
One concern for Here is that registration with Nokia is needed to download offline maps. I dislike registration generally because it’s a hassle and can lead to unwanted E-mails, but after several weeks, Nokia hasn’t bothered me. If you’re a conspiracy theorist, you might worry about privacy issues - but in today’s world, unexpected privacy abuses end up as headlines that leave a mark, so my take is the risk is tolerable given the benefit of quality offline maps.
Finally, decent navigation without data has come to Android, and our limited roaming data is much less a concern for the traveler than it was just a little while ago.
UPDATE Dec 10 2014 HERE for Android now available for free on Google Play - HERE Three Sixty
UPDATE Oct 30 2014: I reported a couple of issues to the Here development team, and received a very congenial reply!
From: Developer Support
Sent: Thursday, October 30, 2014 10:52 AM
To: Carl H
Cc: Developer Support
Subject: Re: Beta android app feedback
Thanks a lot for your feedback and your support, much appreciated! This has been shared with the development team (AOA-12831) and will be analyzed thoroughly.
Stay tuned for the official release in the coming weeks!
Have you tried Nokia’s Here? Post a comment below about your likes, dislikes or problems encountered.
(Please don’t comment about other navigation apps here - see this discussion instead. )