My love/hate relationship with the N95 GPS

I have a fair amount of experience with GPS devices, going back over more than 10 years. My first device was an Eagle Explorer (I still have it) and I’ve used countless GPS systems since. I also developed a GPS-based vehicle tracking system. So I can speak with some authority on the technology.

Compared head-to-head with modern dedicated GPS devices, the Nokia N95 falls well short. The drawback that surprises me the most is the time it takes to get a fix. This is of course an area where early GPS devices were highly criticized, so it was a key area of research over the years and is now rather well known technology. Nokia seems to be back in the 90’s with the basic ability to obtain and keep a fix. Typical time seems to be about 10 to 15 minutes whereas a modern dedicated GPS typically gets an initial fix (the first time you turn it on) within 5 minutes and subsequent fixes within 2-3 minutes (often far less).

That said, the N95 is not a dedicated GPS device – it is a cell phone. As a cell phone, it is a pretty nifty GPS device. Let’s put aside the matter of the length of time it takes to get a fix and focus on the GPS once it has a fix (although this alone often makes the GPS worthless, since you are already where you want to be, or hopelessly lost, by the time the N95 GPS is ready to use). The N95 pulls maps down over the air (using your data conection), so without an unlimited data plan, you might want to steer clear of the GPS feature. It also means the N95 is useless as a GPS for hiking or use anywhere that you cannot get a data connection. On the other hand, it means you do not need to have a lot of internal memory for maps, use CDs/DVDs, or pre-load specific maps for a specific region. As a device that pulls map data in dynamically as needed, it is one of the slickest I’ve used. The user interface in general, however, is difficult to use, a bit slow, and missing many features of a real dedicated GPS. Things like waypoints, routes, track-logs and such are nowhere to be found.

On the other hand, if you are lost, and the N95 is all you have (and you can get a data connection), it’s a godsend, even if a horrendously frustrating one. What I found particularly frustrating is that the N95 requires you to subscribe to a “service'” to receive navigation capabilities. You can search for a location on the device, but if you click ‘navigate’ you get a screen requiring purchase. In practice, this purchase experience is very awkward so I have never actually purchased it. It felt like the phone was running an extortion scheme, saying “buy this or get car-jacked when you get lost in the wrong neighborhood.” Supposedly, you can buy one week for about $10 or three years for about $100, and it works. But I wouldn’t know, and here’s why: It’s not a good enough GPS to justify using it all the time as a replacement for a “real” GPS (which provides navigation without any additional fee). If the rest of the GPS features worked really well, and if the purchase experience were simpler, and clearer, I might be a bit more inclined. But there still is this fundamental hurdle that those of us that have used GPS systems for years have come to expect navigation to be a feature of a product, not a service we subscribe to.

The one-week navigation subscription is probably worth it, if you are really stuck somewhere and perhaps sometime I’ll try it and report on it. Without it, what you have is a live map that shows your position in real-time. That’s a pretty clunky way to navigate, and certainly not something a driver should try to alone – leave it to a passenger.

As a close to this post, to illustrate further the love/hate nature of my experience with the N95 GPS, I have used the GPS to help get “un-lost” and for that I’m grateful for it, but it has also crashed (the entire phone) mid-navigation which really screwed me up. So there. 🙂

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