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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tech Tuesday: N96 Navigation and Geocaching

One of the focal points of the N96 marketing campaign is it's built in GPS and mapping software. The GPS is a feature inherited from the N95, but unlike the older model the N96 comes packaged with a license for a year's free navigation. While some would argue a feature like turn-by-turn navigation should be a given for any product marketing itself as a GPS (among other things), at current Nokia navigation prices this 'extra' adds just over R900 in value to the N96 package.

The N95's GPS was notorious for taking an incredibly long time (sometimes over 10 minutes) to determine the user's current location, rendering it fairly useless as a means of quickly determining a way home when lost in some dodgy part of town. The addition of AGPS did help somewhat, but the lock on could still be sluggish. This has all been corrected on the N96, and the GPS usually finds the current location in well under 30 seconds, even with online access disabled.

Once a location has been obtained, using the mapping software (Nokia Maps) to navigate to a preconfigured or newly searched-for location is as simple as clicking the middle button and selecting "drive to". Nokia Maps will quickly determine a route according to your preferred settings (highway enabled or disabled, optimal or shortest route, etc). This routing is done on the device if the relevant maps are already downloaded (using the PC based Nokia Maps Downloader, or more direct 'unofficial' methods that unlike the Nokia software can bypass a network proxy). If the map data is not available on the device, and internet access is enabled, the route will be determined online instead. With the 16Gb built in storage there really is no reason to not download the (free) maps for the whole region and remove the need for online access altogether. Routes can be dynamically modified by adding or removing route waypoints. Points can be added from stored favorites, from the map by scrolling to the desired point or through the search interface.

While following an application-determined route, the voice prompts are clear and accurate, and the maps application quickly adjusts to any mistakes you might make by recalculating a new route. Should there be an obstruction ahead, or you wish to modify the route to avoid or prefer highways, the option to do so is literally a click away and the route is recalculated for you. One routing element that is missing in SA is traffic information. This is a real pity, as with the roadworks currently going on along all major routes, locals and particularly visitors would benefit from automatic route adjustment to avoid our plentiful traffic jams.

The maps themselves are accurate and up-to-date. In addition to road data there is a wealth of point-of-interest data. Everything from city, suburb and street names to tourist spots, shopping malls and emergency facilities are easily available through the search bar on the main GPS screen. The search itself could definitely do with some improvement though and strangely enough when using it, less is often more. For example entering "Fourways mall" will return no results, but enter "Fourways" and you'll get a number of results including "Fourways shopping mall". This is not a major gripe, but would be worth improving.

In addition to Nokia Maps, the N96 includes (hidden in the Tools->Connectivity menu) the GPS data applican which will display current location, movement and trip distance information and a handy compass. Landmarks can also be edited manually in the separate Landmarks application. These tools are perfect for pen-and-paper geocachers that prefer to use basic GPS tools to find caches, allowing them to plan ahead by storing cache coordinates as landmarks, and when closer find them with the compass.

Those geocachers who don't mind their tools doing the gruntwork for them will find that Trimble's Geocache Navigator works beautifully on the N96, and provides a great way to quickly locate nearby caches. The application checks the geocache database for caches within a set distance of the current location as reported by the phone's GPS. For each of the resulting caches, the cache description and details can be displayed, along with the associated hint and logs. A map view displays the cache against a map backdrop (sadly the app's street database doesn't seem to include SA), and compass and radar views help to narrow down the cache location. Caches can be marked as found or not found directly from the app, and these logs can be later claimed and modified on the website.

The N96 does an excellent job of replacing a standalone GPS, both for street navigation and for geocaching, and in the latter case is probably a superior choice. The one very serious drawback is that the N96's battery gets drained at a rapid pace while using the GPS reciever, and it's absolutely essential to have a way to charge the phone as needed (the included car charger helps here) or carrying a spare battery.



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