Monday, 25 January 2010

New Ovi Maps: The future is free!

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! Someone over at Nokia seems to be in an excellent mood. And it's rubbing off onto all of us. Shortly after Nokia made the v40-firmware available for its 5800 XpressMusic, they released a new version of their Ovi Maps (v3.03) through the new "SW Update" app. At the same time, they made all navigational services free. Free? Free. Forever? Forever.

Note: Possibly, I got this update only because I was already using Ovi Maps beta. At any rate, the all-new version is available on their web site.

Ovi Maps will henceforth replace Nokia Maps, which was unfortunately still included in the v40-firmware. That's a good thing: Ovi Maps has a slicker looking, easier-to-use interface and many extra features that Nokia Maps didn't have. Let's have a look.

* Amazingly fast map and UI display. Now, rolling through maps, even with many icons and 3D objects (yes, they're there), is pretty fluent on the 5800. That's an astonishing feat, given the limited processor power of that handset and the fact that all maps are vector images that are constantly being redrawn. The UI is usable, with big buttons and it responds reasonably fast.
Howard However says: I would like to see more big buttons and less menus so it becomes less dangerous easier to use in the car. Also, too much tapping has to be done to enter something (before the keyboard actually comes up), because the text area is too small. I suggest: one tap anywhere near the text field pops up the keyboard, and a big-ass button to initiate search.

* Free and complete navigation. That's right, kiss yo' ass goodbye, TomTom. All premium services that other providers - and until recently, Nokia - charge you for, are now fully fee-free. That means: fully-fledged navigation with voice-guidance (walking and driving), including traffic information. This generous act is sure to put a lot of pressure on competition (for instance TomTom, whose shares plunged by 15% already) and is bound to make a few users pretty angry that already paid good money for a full year licence. I on the other hand am jumping for joy. Cool feature: You can swipe your finger over the display while navigating to switch between 3D, 2D and Dashboard view.

* Extra services. You're in a new city and find yourself clueless as to where to head for some fun. No more. Tap the Lonely Planet icon and read up about the city you're in (automatically detected by GPS), find the nearest (listed) bars, restaurants, sights, shops, hotels ... in an instant. The built-in Michelin Guide brings you to the more exquisite restaurants and hotels and the events guide, well, gets you even more of the (often overlapping) information. When you've found something interesting, tap again to call, mail, visit the homepage or navigate right over. Urban adventurers will like the display of the nearest public transport station.
Bernard But thinks: One single way to search this kind of information would be nicer. Now, it's not always clear where which information comes from and you don't know if you should open the Michelin Guide or rather the Lonely Planet to find the nearest restaurant or hotel. It's not all that bad, but certain information is redundant, and that's not what we want in these times of information abundance.
Audrey Although adds: There's also another way to find certain places: through "Find places". This will find a lot of places (I personally tested a few bars in my 'hood) but not all. Some were listed in Google Maps but impossible to find through Ovi. I liked the way Google Maps could do "Search Nearby", type "Bar" and immediately presented a list of nearby bars.

* Tell the weather, wherever, whenever (well, in the next few days). Pretty straightforward. It auto-detects where you are, peers in its crystal ball and forecasts the weather for you. Indispensable tool for the traveller.

* Immediately share your location with friends on social networks. That's nice (although for privacy matters highly inadvisable). There's one short but, which I'm not going to devise another character for. There's only Facebook so far, which is a bit of a bummer. I reckon other networks will come soon, and I sure hope to see instant messenger integration there too.

The Verdict
So. What's bad, or ugly, then? Some remarks have already been made earlier in this post, but there's more. Of course, Nokia isn't Apple (which is both a good and a bad thing, but usually rather an ugly thing). Ovi Maps does a pretty good job on the functionality and usability levels. However, a few things definitely need improvement in future versions. To help Nokia on their way, I'll list my musings here.

- Integration with the phone's UI. They'll probably never get it right but here we go. It all looks pretty neat and I'd find it even very cool if the whole phone were like this. But it isn't so why don't they stick to the standard UI. But this is something that I can shut an eye to. Much worse is that in some lists (ie. where you select categories), when you're trying to use kinetic scrolling, you're already selecting the item you start swiping over. Further: The menus are suddenly two lines high, for no apparent reason.

- Still too many soft key menus. Nokia absolutely got it right when they introduced big, thumb-friendly buttons to do stuff, but it's not consistent, and you'll find yourself using the options button all too often to "Walk to", "Drive to" ... All of that could have been a nice button menu instead.

- Back-button lacking. Sometimes there's no back, but only a "menu" key, which doesn't bring you back in hierarchy, but rather to the main menu. For instance when you've navigated a few levels down the "Favourites" menu. Should be thought through.

- You can now instantly write Feedback to Nokia. However, it's limited to a few characters. Since I sort of wanted to include this whole blog post, that was a bummer to find out about.

- Maps and voices can be pre-loaded. However, if you use any of the extra content, such as the lonely planet, you're still depending on an internet connection. Which is not so nice since roaming costs are still sky-high.

- For the extra content, I get a slightly annoying website-in-an-app-feeling. Which means, some screen flickering and slower loading times in for instance the weather item, because graphics are being downloaded. Instead, all info should come in plaintext XML and the formatting should be done by the phone with pre-loaded graphics. This also means that when you go to search, you're first waiting for the search page to load before you actually can search.

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