Thursday, August 7, 2008

ViewRanger off-road topo mobile application review

ViewRanger is a topographic mapping, navigation and tracking application for Symbian S60 mobile platform. The concept is simple. Most of us bring our phones with us when trekking or cycling anyway, so why purchase a separate dedicated GPS receiver for outdoor activities when your smartphone is capable of doing so anyway? Sure it won't replace your rugged Garmin 60CXs or SatMap Active 10 (unless you invest in a Boxit case), but for general purpose use or as a backup unit, most phones will do just fine.

ViewRanger supports built-in internal GPS receiver (like the Nokia E66) as well as external Bluetooth GPS receiver that allows the user to turn their phone into an inexpensive topographical navigation system suitable for walkers, mountain bikers and geocachers alike. Maps supported are Britain's Ordnance Survey Explorer and Landranger raster maps, Finland's Maanmittauslaitos and Slovenia. As with any standard topographical mapping programs, ViewRanger allows the user to browse through map tiles and use a GPS receiver to pinpoint their position on the map. The review is based on the recently released software version 2.5.11, which introduced new key features including improved Buddy Beacon support and Over-the-Air map downloads. You can also use ViewRanger to send text/e-mail messages with embedded date & time of GPS reading, speed and heading; useful for emergency situations.

A feature that sets ViewRanger apart from other mobile topographical mapping software like Memory-Map is the ability to view maps in panorama mode. It matches what you see on the horizon with what is on the map, based on the topographical information from Ordnance Survey including every lake, hill and POIs. This is very useful as it allows the user to easily identify the surroundings as well as any POI such as waypoints within the viewpoint. Shadings are used to simulate shadows based on the time of day, but this special effect does make drawing of the maps slow depending. Switching to simple wire frame can improve performance greatly. The top displays the altitude and the coordinates in the national grid reference or if you prefer in other formats like Lon/Lat or UTM standard.

Panorama view allows users to easily identify key points of interests.

Another interesting feature is the ability to create POI using the mobile phone's built-in camera to record photographs within the program. This is very simple, either use the GPS lock or navigate the cursor to the location you wish to create your POI, then select "Take photo & mark". This will automatically launch the camera application and will embed the picture within the POI entry. You can then name or edit the entry, add notes or web links, or view it on the map. Photos can easily be appended on other existing POIs, which can then be uploaded to ViewRanger's online TravelLog server. Licensed POIs can also be downloaded - for example the entire list of nature reserves like those operated by the RSPB. POIs, both shared by other users as well as licensed, can be searched and confined to the vicinity or through categories like tourist attractions or bird sanctuaries; and then saved on the phone for future references. Web hyperlinks can also be added.

Unfortunately, unlike programs like Memory-Map (impressions here) and Fugawi, ViewRanger does not come with a desktop client. This is both a blessing and annoying limitation. By focusing on Series 60, Augmentra has developed a very easy to use program with an abundant amount of extensive features compared to Memory-Map's Windows Mobile application Pocket Nav (which is extremely outdated now). ViewRanger is very stable and has never crashed on me except when testing the beta version. Other features includes the trip meter which is a traditional GPS read-out, similar to what you get with a cycle computer. The UI is intuitive though it will take many hours before you master the menu system, which can get a bit messy due to the number of options and features available. Keypad shortcuts can be easily assigned to suit the user's needs, and the software has been designed from the ground up to be easily used one-handed. "Nightvision" mode can also be toggled, which draws the screen with a red cast designed to preserve the eye's night vision during night walks.

Embed photos taken with your phone's built-in camera, then share it with other ViewRanger users.

Your friends and family can follow your progress on ViewRanger's TravelLog site.

Basically almost anything (and then some) that you can do with desktop programs like Memory-Map be done on ViewRanger, including viewing 3D panoramic viewpoints and setting proximity alarm (Cross Track Error) in case you deviate too far from your route. The downside on this is there are times when one may wish to plan their treks before hand, and it is always better to plan on a desktop application with an accurate mouse and large screen when plotting waypoints. Here's hoping that a desktop client will be released in the future. Fortunately ViewRanger supports importing and exporting GPX files, allowing you to easily plan your routes or view your tracklogs on other 3rd party applications or web-based mapping services. For those stuck with the device only, you will be glad to know that tracklogs can be reviewed within the program for analysis, including graphs showing GPS recorded speed and altitude.

You can analysis your track on the device itself...

...or export it to a desktop app like Memory-Map or even Live Maps.

The feature list is so huge that I haven't had the chance to sample all of ViewRanger has to offer. Buddy Beacon, for example, is a web portal that allows your mates to see your location online as well as through ViewRanger. Users can also track your position within ViewRanger on-screen and vice versa. Facebook users (heh) can also publish their tracklogs using the ViewRanger for Facebook (heh) application, though not being a Facebook user meant that I would not be testing this ever. Another unique feature within ViewRanger that I haven't tried yet is the new Over-the-Air service, a service that allows people to download small section of maps as required in exchange for money. I will definitely take advantage of their OTA service next time I travel to a location on which I haven't bought the map for yet. An optional add-on is the new GPS-triggered guide to the Hadrian Wall national trail, which comes with OS 1:25k maps of the trail and video guides which are triggered when the user enters a certain proximity.

Downloading map tiles seems easy as long as you have enough credits.

The biggest downside is the cost of buying maps. From £150 to buy the whole map of Great Britain in Landranger 1:50k, it isn't cheap - though this is still much cheaper than buying separate paper maps for the whole of the country. The cost of Explorer 1:25k maps, however borders on disgusting. £60 will get you 1:25k maps of the Lake District, which is more than double the price of their equivalent paper maps. The price of maps is likely out of the hands of the developers Augmentra as Ordnance Survey, charged as the sole monopoly in the UK, has always been notorious when it comes to licensing maps to prevent competition. Check out the price of OS maps by other providers like Anquet and Memory-Map and you will find that the maps are equally as expensive (or sometimes more!). You do have to wonder why the government is not willing to take one small step in encouraging fell walking.

Map Chooser allows for a la carte purchases.

Amazingly the software has only a minimal impact on battery life, at least on my E51. I was able to connect to an external Bluetooth GPS receiver and leaving the application on for nearly nine hours on the coach from Glasgow to London and by the time we reached London there were still five bars on the battery meter. Which is pretty darn impressive. This despite ViewRanger recording tracklogs constantly, me editing POIs, checking e-mails and websites and leaving the screenshot application running in the background. The program will continue running in the background uninterrupted even while the screen saver is activated. Of all their products, I personally think that their GB National Parks 1:50k (470MB) bundle provides the best value for money as it comes inclusive of all the National Parks in Great Britain, including the proposed South Downs, Norfolk Broads, Snowdonia and Ben Nevis (despite it not being a national park).

All in all, ViewRanger is a must have application for outdoor enthusiasts. The very fact that it uses standard Ordnance Survey raster maps is a huge positive (have you seen Garmin's Topo GB maps? - they suck). Even the support is excellent as every single question I've put forward to the developers has been answered within a 12 hour period, often within a couple of hours. The primary limitation (apart from costs) of the software is mainly the device it runs on, for example some may not be comfortable with the E51's smallish screen (I did not) or the lack of waterproofing on the majority of commercial phones. Despite the potential for spiralling cost, I would not hesitate to recommend it to keen walkers, outdoor hobbyist, geocachers and mountain bikers who happen to own a Series 60 phone to use either as a backup or a main mapping tool, again provided you invest in a Boxit case. Paired with an external Bluetooth GPS receiver, I am finding the software to be incredibly convenient.

ViewRanger can be obtained from their online store or Amazon UK. Some outdoor and travel stores also sell their products, including Stanfords in Covent Garden. Product selections includes GB National Parks 1:50k from £25, GB Country 1:50k from £45 and YourMap self select mapping from £20 for both 1:25k and 1:50k maps. OTA token is priced at £15 and allows you to purchase either 3200 sq km of 1:50k OS maps, 350 sq km 1:25k OS maps, 700 sq km Finnish maps or 500 sq km Slovenia 1:25k maps. The size of maps varies but a 16GB card will comfortably allow you to fit the entire Great Britain 1:25k (price permitting obviously!).

Updated (24 April 2010) with some new screenshots.

ViewRanger as of April 2010, is compatible with all Symbian S60v2 (e.g. Nokia N80), S60v3 none-touchscreen phones (e.g. Nokia E55, Nokia E72), S60v5 (Symbian^1) touchscreen phones (e.g. Nokia N97 Mini, Sony Ericsson Satio), Apple's iPhone and Android phones (e.g. HTC Legend, Motorola Milestone Droid).

1 comment:

Colin said...

Great review... I've just started using the product on a Nokia E71. There are compromises compared to a dedicated device for walking / navigation but for the occasional walker, it really is great. I got southern england 1:50k (Norfolk to cornwall) for £50 or so! Must agree with your comments on service. had to exchange my E71, so needed new licence key. Rapid feedback and new key provided on a saturday afternoon!
Colin Kemp