Navicore Personal 2006/1 smart phone GPS
Review It's only been around eight months since Navicore launched its GPS-driven smart phone-based route-planning and navigation application in the UK, but the company has already updated Navicore Personal with the latest maps and a handful of new features, some making it easier to use, others providing more travel information to the driver...
As before, Navicore runs on Symbian-based phones that use Nokia's Series 60 user interface. It operates exactly the way you'd expect it to if you've used a Series 60 handset before. Every option is available from an Options menu linked to the right-hand menu key - push the joystick to the right, or whatever navigation control the handset uses, to select sub-menus. Almost all the phone's keys are used for shortcuts. It's a system that's ideal for one-hand usage.
At the top of the list is Find, from which you plot a path to a single destination, plan a multi-stop route or display a specific location on the map - and, if you've already programmed in a pathway, force it to calculate a shorter route or detour round a hazard. Choosing one brings up the customary location selection screens, now improved with support for full, seven-character UK postcodes - by no means a unique feature - and the ability to interrogate the phone's on-board contacts database.
This was absent from the first Navicore Personal release, I was told at the time, because of the difficulty in tapping into Symbian's personal information data structures. From my experience with the new Navicore Personal, I can only assume it's not a problem the company has successfully solved. Yes, you can look up a contact, but getting their address is another matter. First, names are all listed surname first, whether that's how your Contacts book lists them or not. Names are treated as a single field, so pressing 'F' to zero in on, say, 'Bar, Foo' doesn't find anything. The only way to find Mr. Foo Bar's address is to type 'B' and as many extra letters as it takes to filter out other contacts from the list. My Nokia 6600's Contacts app search both surname and first-name fields.
But let's say you've found the individual you're after. Selecting his or her name should bring up their address, but of the dozen or so folk in my Contacts list with addresses entered, the app couldn't read any of them. For me, then, this much-vaunted new feature was useless. The full postcode search doesn't quite make up for it, but it's welcome nonetheless, as is the way the software remembers all the locations you've visited and makes them available for quick access another time. Frequently-visited places can also be saved as favourites, of course.
Also welcome are the software's traffic information and safety camera databases. Navicore is bundling subscription-free access to both - much better than forcing consumers to cough up every year for access to the same information, as many rival suppliers do. There is a cost: both databases are updated via GPRS, so you have to pay the network every time you update them. When I checked for updates, they weighed in at 42KB and 58KB, respectively - not exactly pricey downloads, and at least I'm free to update as frequently or as infrequently as I want to.
Navicore will automatically re-route you around roadworks and other traffic-impeding events, though I was lucky enough not to have any on the roads I tried, so I can't say how well it works. Certainly, taking the wrong road deliberately failed to throw the software's route-calculating algorithms, and I wasn't once asked to make a U-turn, as I have been in the past. I was asked to "drive closer to the road" at one point, but since I was walking at the time, on the far-side pavement, I didn't take the implicit criticism of my motoring skills personally.
Navicore prides itself in the speed of its software's route-planning and, yes, it is quick. Scrolling around maps is reasonably smooth, but Navicore Personal is rather slower at other tasks, like looking up locations you've keyed in. To be fair, I was trying the software on a two-year-old Nokia 6600, not exactly the world's fastest smart phone even when it launched. But the relative speed of the route calculation suggests it will be a lot faster on a more modern handset.
The new version includes the latest TeleAtlas UK and Ireland maps using which I was able to see streets that have been around for a few years now but have yet to turn up on a number of other GPS offerings. The software's points of interest (POI) database remains poor, as so many of them are. Why are so many popular tourist spots missing? The maps also lack new road layouts made around London's King's Cross as part of the Channel rail link work, all of them four or five months old, so the maps may be new but some of the cartography isn't. There were other inconsistencies: a road I marked as blocked was listed as being in the a different village from the one it was actually in.
Routes are displayed in the usual 2D, 3D and direction-only 'safe view' displays. Navicore eschews separate car, cyclist and pedestrian modes for a single mode that makes it simple to plot a motoring run to another town and just as easily find the path to walk from the car park to the office you're visiting. I used it to guide me to a number of locations in and around central London. It guided me almost flawlessly.
The map view has two modes, Browse and Navi, chosen by pressing the select key on the phone's keypad. Browse uses the handset's navigation controls to steer around the map; Navi switches the left and right controls to zoom in and out. You can also display a cursor - invoked using the 3 key - used to select points on the map as destinations, to see what an icon is referring to or to mark out sections of road as blocked.
Clicking on a location with the cursor also provides the option of sending the site's longitude and latitude as a text message. Navicore continues to offer the opportunity to send a snapshot of the map on display as an MMS and to send regular location data messages to nominated mobile phones. Again, moving the cursor around was a slow business, really needing a faster phone.
Navicore is bundling the same highly sensitive SiRFStar III-based GPS receiver that it offered with the previous version of the software. It connects to the handset using Bluetooth and proved easy to pair and to link up to the navigation application. It got a satellite lock quickly, too. It's small, can be recharged with a standard Nokia AC adaptor and was able to get a decent, navigable signal despite being kept in a rucksack placed on the lower floor of a London double-decker bus. Car roofs? No problem, I'd say.
Speed issues aside - and the PIM integration problem, of course - Navicore is a competent GPS package. There's increasingly less to choose between applications from different vendors - when one rolls out a new feature, the rest are usually quick to follow, and they all have the occasional mapping oddities and POI consistencies. But Navicore wins points for the bundled traffic hazard information and safety camera updates.
Smart phone, PDA or dedicated unit? Well, that decision depends on your usage pattern. For me, since I'd use a GPS system for both driving and street-level navigation, the portability of the phone - especially since it's something I carry anyway - win out over the larger screen size the other devices offer. Driving, you shouldn't be looking at the screen, so screen size doesn't matter so much. A mid-range dedicated navigation system at least has a hard drive so there's no messing about swapping memory cards and installing new maps if you're someone who travels across continents.
With increased competition in the Symbian smart-phone GPS application market from TomTom and ALK's CoPilot, Navicore has had to up its game. It's rolled out a number of tweaks, almost all of which improve its software, but it's the bundled traffic information subscription that puts Navicore Personal ahead of the pack. ®