Finding an alternative to Apple Maps: Nokia Maps on Mobile
So you excitedly upgraded your iDevice to iOS 6 yesterday, thinking that your world would be perfect and filled with pretty butterflies and cotton candy. Now, if you’d read my review of iOS 6, you obviously wouldn’t have thought that way, and if you tried to use Apple’s brand-new Maps app on your morning commute today you’d probably agree with my take on it from last week.
Thankfully, while an official Google Maps for iOS app remains absent, there is a very good free alternative known as Nokia Maps, which you might have heard of at one point or another in the past. In fact, I filmed a little comparison video between Apple Maps and Nokia Maps last week, but after having had more time to play with Nokia Maps I thought it was deserving of a proper article here on UnleashthePhones.
Unlike pretty much every mapping or navigation utility on iOS, Nokia Maps is not an iOS app available for download in the App Store. Instead, it is a mobile web site that can be accessed by entering maps.nokia.com in Safari, which you can then save as a bookmark or add to your home screen as an icon for one-touch access. I’ve found that the best way to use Nokia Maps is by going for the latter option and then manually closing its card in Safari when done; that ensures you always get a fresh instance of Nokia Maps each time you tap on its icon on the homescreen and you don’t end up with a bunch of duplicate Nokia Maps cards slowing down your web browser.
While nowhere near as feature-rich as Google Maps on Android or a paid navigation app, Nokia Maps manages to match and exceed the utility and functionality of the old Google Maps app that was a part of iOS since its inception. Although it does not offer turn-by-turn drive navigation, fancy 3D maps, Street View and support for the built-in digital compass in the iPhone, it does provide detailed maps where buildings are represented, a relatively mature points-of-interest database, a usable search function, a variety of map views, driving, walking and public transport directions, turn-by-turn walk navigation, the ability to save specific map areas for offline use (much like how Google Maps does it), live traffic information, the ability to save and view favourite places (if you sign in to your Nokia account) and categorized lists of locations in the vicinity of your current location. While the maps for my country are not as detailed or as accurate as what Google Maps has to offer, and Nokia’s points-of-interest database is nowhere near as rich, Nokia Maps still represents a very clear step up from Apple’s half-baked Maps app if you care about being able to get around unfamiliar places with your iPhone and don’t want to spring for an expensive navigation app.
Nokia Maps probably won’t meet your needs if you drive a lot, but as someone who relies on public transport and walking to places, I’ve found that it’s mostly up to the task of showing me where I am, where locations are and telling me how to get there. I’ve been rather impressed with how fluid and responsive Nokia Maps is despite being a mobile site; it’s able to pinpoint my location just as instantaneously as Apple Maps and it almost feels like a native app. I still don’t feel like Nokia Maps is at the point where I can punch in any search term or vague building name and have it deliver accurate results all the time, so I’ve had to fall back on manually entering addresses in order to obtain directions. There is clearly still room for improvement here, because if a place actually exists in Singapore I could probably locate it with a simple search on Google Maps no matter what it is. I also wasn’t too impressed with Nokia Maps’s ability to display nearby places because what it brought up often weren’t really useful or near my location, and the selection seemed a little random to me. I also found the resolution of the map tiles to be slightly lacking; they are seemingly not made for the iPhone’s screen resolution and appear slightly blurry as a result.
With those flaws out of the way, we can pay a little more attention to the map and location data that Nokia Maps provides. You get a choice of map views (standard, satellite, public transport and live traffic), and you can choose whether you’d like traffic incidents such as accidents, road works and congestion to be displayed on the map. Most buildings are displayed along with their block numbers, with the points of interest overlaid on top; water bodies and parts are shown, as are subway stations and bus interchanges. I was pleased to see the locations of unused and planned subway/light rail stops represented on the map, but individual bus stops are strangely nowhere to be found. Also, even though an entire segment of the Circle Line (that’s the yellow line you see in the screenshot below) has been completed and in operation for months, it is not highlighted at all in the public transport view in Nokia Maps. There isn’t a great deal of information provided with points of interest, but you sometimes get a phone number that you can call. If you were hoping for photos of the location or restaurant reviews, you’re out of luck.
Things improve in the routing department, however. Nokia Maps is impressively quick at calculating the fastest route from Point A to Point B if you opt for driving directions, and it even adjusts the estimated journey time based on the traffic conditions at the moment. The routes provided if you’re walking, however, often aren’t the quickest because Nokia Maps forces you to follow the roads when in reality you can often cut across parks and walk through alleyways and between buildings when walking to your destination; if you’re roaming around in an unfamiliar city, however, Nokia Maps will always get you to where you want to go.
Public transport directions are unfortunately limited to providing routes for the subway system in Singapore, so I’ve had to grab a separate app that deals with buses. Regardless of what mode of travel you choose, the routes provided by Nokia Maps are presented in a clear and concise manner, either as a step-by-step list or directly on the map. The driving directions seem useful only if you’re travelling with a passenger who is able to read the directions to you, but that isn’t really a fault with Nokia Maps as a product. However, it does have an extremely cool trick up its sleeve in that it is able to do turn-by-turn walk navigation with large glanceable instructions and clear voice prompts, perhaps hinting at the sort of user that Nokia Maps is aimed at; I’ve tested this for myself and have been really pleased with the presence and implementation of the feature. It does need to download a relatively small audio file each time you hit the navigate button from the route display, which means you need to be online, but that is probably not an issue if you’ve bought a local prepaid SIM card with a data package when travelling in foreign countries.
To round up Nokia Maps’s feature set is its ability to save map areas to local storage so that you can view them while offline; while this isn’t something I would personally use, I can definitely imagine it being useful to many people. Its implementation is similar to how Google Maps does it; you can zoom in on the map area you’d like to save as opposed to downloading maps for entire countries or regions. Because of restrictions on how much data a website can store on the iPhone, the amount of detail saved decreases the more you zoom out on a map in order to capture a larger area. It’s not an excellent solution in this department, but at least the functionality is there.
All things considered, is Nokia Maps perfect? Not by a long shot – its search features and points-of-interest database don’t quite match up to what Google Maps offers in my country, I wish the maps weren’t vaguely blurry and having a feature like Street View is clearly out of the question. Is it an improvement over Apple Maps? Definitely, and it’s even more remarkable that it’s just a mobile website displayed in a web browser. If you’re on iOS 6, are unhappy with Apple Maps and are searching for a decent free alternative, it’s a no-brainer to give Nokia Maps a shot. I think you’ll find yourself liking it.