For the longest time, my only involvement with smartphones was limited to Nokia's Symbian devices, then I bought an HTC Desire Z in February 2011 and the rest, as they say, is history. I was immediately ecstatic about most of the Android experience save for two aspects where my heart strings kept tugging back to my Nokia N8: photography and mapping. Android cameras have improved a lot over the past three years — I am amazed by the Lumia 1020's scary-good 41MP sensor, but my LG G3 does an excellent job 99% of the time — and so did Google Maps, but at no point has Google's mapping service completely levelled up with parts of the experience that I used to get through Nokia Maps, even in 2010 on an N8.
That's why, ever since the Nokia X line of devices was announced, I've been wandering around many forums looking for someone who was able to extract that HERE (the Nokia Maps rebrand) apk and make it work on other Android devices, to no avail. Luckily, the HERE team, which still belongs to Nokia's Nokia and didn't get bought by Microsoft, is now part of a company that is platform agnostic. Its most recent venture is the answer to the last itch I have from my Symbian past: HERE for Android. Well, just Samsung's Android devices, officially.
I've been using HERE for the past couple of weeks in the middle of nowhere, Lebanon — or that's what Google Maps would like you to believe. The week before that, I was traveling to London and although I had HERE on my Lumia 1020, I didn't bother with it, sticking exclusively to Google Maps. There's a reason for this insanity. Both services have their own advantages and shortcomings, which I will get to later on. For now, let's take a look around HERE.
This hands-on is based on an officially procured beta version of HERE that expired about a week ago. The app's v1.0 apk has now unofficially leaked and you can all try it on your devices, regardless of when it officially launches on Samsung Apps.
Mapping And Driving With HERE
HERE is only an Android app by name and coding, the design isn't reminiscent of Android in any way. It might even evoke iOS more than Windows Phone.
HERE's interface reminds me more of iOS than either Android or Windows Phone.
The main screen is a map of your current location with a few handy buttons we've all come to expect on any mapping app. There's a search bar, a direct button to start navigating, access to your Collections (favorites), a pin that helps you come back to your current location if you stray away, and a layer menu where you can enable Satellite, Transport, and Traffic views.
The main map screen (left) and the different overlays available (right).
A side menu lets you switch between the Maps mode and the Drive mode, essentially creating another way you can start the navigation. It also houses one more way to get to your Collections, and HERE's main feature differentiator: offline map downloading with the option to enable offline navigation use. Settings (units, voices, day/night view, and more), Feedback, About, and Sign Out are there as well.
The side menu emphasizes offline usage (left) and the settings include some useful options (right).
You pinch and zoom to see more or less of the map, pan to move around, and double tap to zoom in quickly to a specific spot — all natural interactions by now. Tap your current location and an overlay shows with one more way of starting the Drive mode — third, fourth, who's counting? — as well as options to add it to your collection or share it through Glympse. Drop a pin somewhere else to get the address along with shortcuts to drive there, collect the place, or share it.
Search immediately gives you Eat & Drink and Shopping as two categories to look for, with the option to browse for more. These are divided by subcategories too, including handy things like petrol stations, ATMs, parkings, hospitals, natural or geographical attractions, and more. You can also enter your own search terms.
Besides searching, finding nearby POIs is easy. Keep in mind the parking search screen, I'll compare it to Google's later.
If a POI is found, your mileage may vary wildly in terms of the details you get. You could get a simple address and phone number, or you may end up with an entire TripAdvisor listing, including photos and reviews.
The navigation side of the app, Drive, uses three methods of transportation: car, public transport, and walking. If you choose to drive by car, you can disable some route options like toll roads, motorways, tunnels, and unpaved roads.
Navigation includes various modes of transportation (left) and suggests alternative routes (right).
Driving, the only option I was able to test in my rocky mountain area, usually offers various route options you can swipe through to pick the best. Once navigation is launched, you'll be able to control the map with +/- buttons to avoid pinching and zooming while your hands are supposed to be on the wheel. You can also see your speed, estimated arrival time, and a traffic report (in countries where it's available). Tapping on that bottom bar offers options for alternative routes, stopping navigation, settings, and customization. For example, you could choose to see the distance remaining instead of the traffic delay.
You can exclude some route options, view your drive's stats, or focus on a map-only view with handy zoom buttons.
HERE vs Google Maps: Quick Thoughts
HERE distinguishes itself from Google Maps in two main areas. The big one is offline maps and navigation, that's the one feature you will see mentioned everywhere. The second, which is even more important in my eyes, is map data. I'll address both of them in their separate sections later.
Aside from these, HERE doesn't have a lot to show for itself. In its current implementation, the app follows a design language that doesn't fit on Android, sometimes quits when you tap the Back button thinking you'll go back one screen, and gives you the splash screen at various times when you try to resume it after switching from another app. If you see a POI marked in brown while simply panning around maps, you can't select it no matter how many short or long presses you try, or how far in or out you zoom. You'll have to search for it to be able to see its details. Ugh.
As opposed to Google Maps, there's obviously no Google sign-in, just HERE's own account or a Facebook option. Android Wear integration is inexistent — but it works on Samsung's Gear S! The two people who will buy that watch will be very lucky. There's no equivalent to Google's Street View either and no bicycle-friendly navigation.
Hit and miss: Searching for one diner yielded one common result in Google Maps and HERE, and a second different one.
POI searches seem mostly on par with Google's. If you're lucky to hit a listing with TripAdvisor details, you'll have quite a lot of information, but if you don't, you get limited details unless the owner actually bothered to register with HERE. Google's Places are a lot more consistent and often offer Street View and indoor photos.
POI details on Google Maps (left) and HERE (right). You'll be quite lucky if your place has a TripAdvisor listing.
This last point is the reason why I stuck with Google Maps while I was in London. Being able to check a street before I actually get to it or see where a store is located before leaving my hotel, they all made me feel less like a tourist and more like one of the millions of people bustling around the city. When you don't stand out as someone who has completely lost their way, you have less of a chance of being mugged or hustled.
Every Nook And Cranny
The reason I am happy to use HERE in Lebanon has nothing to do with any of the features mentioned above, but only with map data. There's no point in having bells and whistles if your street data, your very basic map is incomplete. And I live in one of the countries where Google Maps only has the main streets outside of the capital, but nothing else.
Staggering difference in map data between Google Maps (left) and HERE (right).
HERE, on the other hand, has every nook and cranny. The little alley that doesn't lead anywhere? There. The pedestrian street that's hidden to a point where you wouldn't see it unless you knew it exists? There. If Google Maps fails to even recognize a street I'm standing on as such, it will fail to navigate me anywhere. It just doesn't know where to start.
One more example of the data difference between Google Maps and HERE. So I'm standing in the middle of nowhere, Google?
Point is, when Nokia acquired NAVTEQ for $8.1 Billion in 2007, it bought the most extensive worldwide mapping data available at the time. It has also kept it updated fairly frequently. As opposed to Google that has been building its data from scratch, starting mostly with developed countries and working its way to more and more territories, HERE has a head start that Google hasn't caught up to. At least in developing countries.
Google has been stubbornly stuck on that U-turn detour for years. HERE recognizes the straight street.
Offline is HERE's cheval de bataille. Nokia knew it had an advantage there that other services oddly seemed to dismiss and built its brand to become synonymous with offline use. Want to travel somewhere and don't have a data connection? Use HERE. Underground or in a rural area with spotty reception? Use HERE. Want to save on your mobile plan's data usage? Use HERE.
Offline downloads are a godsend on many occasions.
Offline is built into HERE's Android app right in the side menu. When you head to the Download Maps section, you can narrow down the territory you want based on continent at first, then country. Some countries like the USA, Canada, China, India, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, UK, and Brazil are divided in sub-regions as well, allowing you to pick only the state or area you are interested in.
You can download maps by country or even by region in some large countries.
Once the map data is downloaded and installed, you can go ahead and switch your data and WiFi connections off. You'll still be able to browse the entire region you saved, search for POIs, and start offline navigation with turn-by-turn guidance. It works quite well, relying only on GPS to find and follow your location.
You May Need One, But You Can Have Both
I could spend hours detailing more features in HERE and going into a deep comparison with Google Maps. That won't change the end result. Depending on where you live, you will probably find that one works better than the other. But you can't dismiss the alternative based on your location alone.
Remember that Parking search in HERE? Google doesn't offer Explore Nearby in my country, so the only way to find a parking is searching for the word. 29min drive for the nearest one. Yes.
Thankfully, they are both accessible on Android now, Google Maps for everyone with a Google certified device and HERE limited to Samsung devices (again, uhm, officially). At least we got the choice and that's one thing we didn't have before.