Murray's Blog

Crappy GPS Applications

I have recently acquired a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet and a N95 8GB mobile phone. Both have GPS capability but both have quite awful maps applications. It feels like a checkbox feature – a way to list GPS as a feature on the box, but not a way to do something useful, and not something that’s been thoroughly tested or thought-through. They suffer in comparison to the Garmin device that I already had.

Both take a while to make a connection to the satellites, which is normal with this generation of GPS chips, though I’d expect the N95 to at least get an approximate position from the mobile phone network (Update: I now know that this AGPS feature is in the N95 but it requires a network connection, which requires paying for a GPS/UMTS data connection, which I try to avoid, because I know the telecommunications company will screw me). More significantly, when they actually get a lock on the satellite, they do nothing. Well, the N95 turns some circles green. They don’t show where you are, or even ask if you’d like to see where you are. And neither seem to have any way to do so even by choosing from a menu.

N810 says I am in Antwerp

The N810 has a “Show Current Location” menu item, but it just shows me its default location – a street in Antwerp, NetherlandsBelgium. I’m sure I’m in Munich, Germany. I notice now that I can change its map to “Germany-Alps”, which has Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and I guess that would work if I tried it again. But it should not just silently fail. My Garmin Nüvi 350 shows the map of your current location as soon as it has locked on to a satellite, and has all of western Europe at once without any fiddling.

N95 says I am in Antarctica

The N95 8GB has a “Find GPS Location[0]” (or similar. It was in German when I tried it, and the menu item isn’t there when there’s no satellite connection indoors, so I can’t see now). But it just showed a white screen instead of the map. I tried zooming out and then understood that it had placed me on the south pole at the bottom of the world. This doesn’t seem like a useful feature. I later found that it does put a cross over your real location, but doesn’t take you there. If you search for your location by address then you’ll be able to scroll to see the cross. Again, not very helpful.

Can’t find my way around the GPS UI

Both the N810 and the N95 show that a menu system is not a great UI for this kind of application, regardless of concerns about application consistency. There are very few things I need to do with a map and they need to be immediately available. The menus in Maemo (on the N810) are a particularly small target on an otherwise generous screen and I hate using them in any Maemo application. My Garmin Nüvi 350 has wonderfully simple button-driven menus, presumably the result of long experience making these kinds of applications. People love it.

N95 surprisingly uncoordinated

The N95 generally seems to be a mish-mash of applications thrown together with very little overview. There are even two similar, but subtly different, main menus, with their own dedicated buttons. The video player has no back/forward feature. You are repeatedly asked whether you want to connect to your wi-fi network instead of it happening automatically. The N95 can do some incredible things, it just does them in strangely arbitrary ways and hides its capabilities well. For instance, the camera’s direct upload to Flickr is wonderfully simple once you’ve set it up. The N810 isn’t perfect but you could make a far nicer device than the N95 just by adding mobile phone capabilities to the N810.

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