My love/hate relationship with the N95 GPS

August 22, 2007
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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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5 Responses to My love/hate relationship with the N95 GPS

  1. Daryl
    August 23, 2007 at 7:28 am

    It never ceased to amaze me when people miss the forest for the trees.

    True, the GPS does with v12 of the firmware take 10-30 minutes to establish a fix, but it’s also a feature packed phone, FM radio, WLAN, MP3 player, 5 Meg camera with DVD quality video, THAT FITS IN YOUR POCKET. Try that with your GPS.

    As far as a data connection for map updates goes, you *can* use a cell data connection, or as I do, use the WLAN at an access point, and/or use my laptop to copy maps with the maps application to the micro SD. Voila. It’s really a mini computer, there’s not much that can’t be done with it.

  2. MrBlog
    August 25, 2007 at 10:26 am

    Daryl, I tried to say as much in my post when I said, as a phone "it is a pretty nifty GPS device."

    How likely is one to have WLAN access point when using a GPS (say in a car on the freeway)?

    Copying maps to an SD is an interesting approach. The fact that I wasn’t even aware that was possible says something about the interface and usability of these N-series phones. In fact, your statement "It’s really a mini computer" kind of sums it up. Sometimes people don’t want a computer.

  3. Robin Sz
    August 27, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Actually, if you search onthe Nokia site, there is a "map loader" application, where you can preload your N95 with as many maps as you want. I just loaded it with all of the UK, it took up about 30M of my 2GB SD card, so no worries there. And yes, its free.

    No, you don’t have to subscribe to the service, that is only needed if yuo want the voice commands "turn left now" etc, just do options->plan route, show route, show on map, start tracking. All of that is free as far as I can make out anyway.

    Downside? oh its painfully slow to find a fix and you MUST be stationary while it gets a fix it will never find a fix on the move. On your way to a sudden urgent meeting, not had time to plan exactly where to go? No problem .. turn on the N95 in the car, set off … err, no it never found a fix, I dorve for 90 minutes and actually, arrived, it still hadn’t found a fix. I went to the meeting, and when I came out, well THEN it had found a fix, but thats a bit late, right?

    With GPS on, battery life is about 2 and a bit hours. I drove to Wales on a fully and freshly charged battery, tracking all the way. we arrived 2 hours, 10 minutes later, the phone was bleating about low battery already. Turned it off, walked up a hill, turned it on, took 5 photos, battery died.

    Yes its kewl tool, but frankly, it can’t live for long enough without power to be classed as a mobile device.

    As a phone, its close to useless. A phoen with a battery life of a day really is not worht having. Sorry.

    Yes I love all the feaures, yes it does do *EVERYTHING* it simly doesnt do them well enough or for long enough to be acutally useful.

    I love the concept, but I hate (with a passion!) the implementation. I no longer have a sim card in mine (after 2 weeks of trying) .. I use my trusty 6230i as a phone, the N95 will be a camera/gps/thing when its turned on, which will be as neeeded, not all day.

    3/10 overall.

  4. Keith
    September 28, 2007 at 2:44 am

    I’d just like to point out that you get A-GPS now with the latest firmware upgrade. I’ve been using the new version a while now and it’s got the fix time down from 5-10 minutes to under 10 seconds. And you get three days free trial for the navigation, which works pretty well provided you stay on the suggested route as it gets a bit confused when you deviate and takes a while to recalculate. To be honest, I wasn’t at all impressed with the GPS out the box, but the latest upgrades have really made it sing.

  5. Tuis
    January 7, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    I agree with Keith, mine only takes about 10 seconds, at worst, 20. So besides the resistance to accept the fact that you missed your turn and want an alt. route, I really have no complaints.

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