Nokia Drive offline navigation review: taking the Lumia 900 for an off-the-grid spin

I've sung praises about it for years, but it seems like only now the industry is getting on the same train of thought. It could be my unnatural adoration of travel, or just an entirely healthy fear of getting lost, but offline navigation has long since been a top priority for me when choosing a mobile device. Or, more importantly, a mobile operating system. For the longest while, iOS forced my hand to Android due to Google Maps Navigation being available only on the latter, and while even that wasn't offline, it still far surpassed any other routing app in terms of system integration, map updates and general silkiness.

Even dating back to our 2010 mobile GPS shootout, Nokia has been a player. At that time, it was the outfit's Ovi Maps leading the pack, offering the only legitimate offline solution amongst a legion of ho-hum alternatives that required bits of data to keep you on track. But frankly, there wasn't a Symbian device in Nokia's stable that could show up my Nexus One in terms of overall utility, so begrudgingly, I pushed it aside. Eventually, Google came around and added caching to routes, which effectively downloaded all routing guidance along your path as soon as you plugged in a destination. The killer, however, was that it wouldn't take too kindly to veering far from that path should you ever drop signal. Close, but no cigar.

Fast forward to today, and we've got Google Maps already working in offline mode for Android 2.2+ devices. Furthermore, the company's Brian McClendon confessed to us at its June 2012 'Maps' event that it's "committed" to bringing all of the app's features to iOS (and potentially other platforms). But in my haste to find something in the here and now, I recently turned to the Lumia 900 for guidance. Literally. Back in late March, the Lumia-exclusive Nokia Drive application gained full offline access, and I sought to use the handset exclusively to navigate a 1,900-mile trek through some of America's most remote locales. How'd it go? Join us after the break to find out. %Gallery-159721%

Introducing Nokia Drive

For those unaware, Nokia Drive is currently an app that's exclusive to Nokia's Lumia line. No other Windows Phone 7.x handset outside of that family is able to get it, making it a powerful differentiator that may indeed sway buying decisions. Much to Nokia's chagrin (we're assuming, anyway), that's changing with Windows Phone 8. Once codename Apollo rolls out this fall, WP8 devices of all creeds and origins will be privy to Nokia Drive. On one hand, that means Nokia's software will soon be seen by a much larger audience. On the other, that incentive to choose a Lumia over a product made by Samsung, Huawei or HTC vanishes.

Based on the most recent mobile OS marketshare statistics, it's no shock that Nokia Drive hasn't found a great deal of fanfare. Until Windows Phone manages to grab a larger piece of the pie that Android and iOS are currently hogging, I'm guessing it'll remain that way. But the point here is to introduce you to what may indeed be one of Windows Phone's most compelling exclusives -- it's an app that's so well-designed, and so well-implemented, that it could be enough to pull hardcore argonauts from the clutches of one of those other ecosystems.

Pre-trip setup

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

Nokia Drive is about as simplistic an app as you'll find in the Windows Phone Marketplace. Not just simplistic for a navigation app; simplistic, period. And that's a good thing. Avid road warriors will tell you that time is precious when pulled over on the side of the road -- the last thing you need when frantically trying to reroute or find a nearby eatery is confounding menus tripping up your progress. What I did, and what I heartily recommend, is to sit down with a solid WiFi connection and an hour or two of time. Oh, and plenty of free internal storage space.

I was downright shocked at just how fast everything operated.

If you pop into the Settings of the app, you'll be able to 'Manage Maps.' In there, you'll find a list of countries all over the globe. Nokia has mapping data for 190 nations, and it collects information from Nokia Drive users and local authorities to provide traffic alerts in 26 countries. I downloaded pretty much every country I could ever imagine visiting, just for kicks. It's stupendously simple to do so; just find the country in the list, and start the download process. For the United States, you can download individual states or the nation as a whole, with the latter option requiring 1.8GB of storage. (In case you're wondering, that's why you don't need to try this over 3G / 4G.)

Once it's downloaded, you can honestly think of your Lumia as a PND, or one of those Personal Navigation Devices of yesteryear. Nokia even includes an option to force Drive offline in the event that you're on a flaky connection, and you simply want to disregard cell tower triangulation and get right to business. I'd leave this off by default, but if indeed you roll into an area only partly covered by GPRS or EDGE, flipping that toggle could save you some frustration. The only other pre-trip setup I'd recommend is managing the speed alert option. I set the device to alert me whenever I cruised 8 mph over the posted limit, and it worked incredibly well in practice. Over the course of 1,900 miles, I only noticed the programmed speed limit to be incorrect twice -- and in both cases, it was only off for a few miles.

The (offline) drive

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

It started at Gallatin Field, just north of Bozeman, Mont. I landed, hopped in a rental (happily declining the optional GPS unit, mind you), and dialed up Gardiner, Mont. Locals will tell you that's a pretty easy place to find from Bozeman, but that's beside the point. I wanted a plug-and-play navigation solution, and this was its first test. As it turns out, that 1.8GB of information includes more than just roadways. It also includes restaurants, town names, fuel stations and oodles of other points of interest. That means that even without a nearby signal, you'll be able to search for plenty of destinations. In my testing, Drive managed to find pretty much everything I searched for, save for one or two hotels that forced me to go back online in order to search the web. (And yes, it found both hotels once I did that.)

Of course, leaving a smartphone's display on for multiple hours as you traverse Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and California isn't wise without a power source to sustain that type of abuse, so it's worth mentioning that I traveled with an AC inverter in order to keep a constant power connection to the Lumia 900. It's hard to say if it reveals more about the Lumia's display or the app itself, but while navigating, the phone barely gained any charge at all; it was all the thing could do just to hold steady. For what it's worth, I left the brightness to its own devices, automatically adjusting itself based on ambient light available. That's well and good if you're starting with plenty of charge, but I did run into one instance where I had so little juice in the phone itself, that I had to let it charge in the vehicle for a solid five minutes before I could get Nokia Drive to open up and stay on the screen. Moral of the story? Don't leave home with a drained navigation device.

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

Using the app, as mentioned prior, was drop-dead simple. Tap the screen, pull up a search box, enter your destination, and tap the 'Start' button. Prior to taking off, it shows a zoomed-out overview of the route it's planning to use, along with the amount of miles and the estimated time of arrival. In my experience, that estimate was accurate within 10 percent on either side, even on seven-plus-hour hauls. Impressive. I'd also say that it chose my preferred route roughly 80 percent of the time; for occasions where I intentionally wanted to take a more scenic route, I worked around the 'fastest time' limitation by simply searching for one of the scenic points prior to my arrival, and sort of "piecemealed" things. That's a tactic I've long since used to avoid interstate highways, and it seems to work well regardless of device.

Nokia Drive is a beautiful app to look at.

I also appreciated a subtle software decision that few other nav alternatives offer. As I was cruising, I'd often want a zoomed-out view of where I was headed -- just to satisfy my curiosity, and also to get a visual on any potential alternate routes. A simple pinch-in gesture pulled things out, and a few more zoomed to a view where I could see hundreds of miles ahead. Once I was done pinching, pulling and zooming, I simply sat the phone back down. Within seconds, Drive automatically returns to the stock routing mode, zooming into the road you're on and placing useful information -- the current speed limit, distance to your next turn, the road you're on, etc. -- around the vehicle icon. No more attempting to zoom back in once you've zoomed out. Splendid.

In offline mode, I was downright shocked at just how fast everything operated. Even under deep forest cover in the California redwoods, the offline navigator managed to get a GPS lock within a few seconds. In fact, over the 1,900-mile trek, it only lost signal on two occasions: a 20-mile stretch of the Central Oregon Highway and just as I was driving onto the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In the latter example, it reacquired a fix by the time I hit the toll booth on the other side. Mind you, I forced the phone to use Drive in offline mode for every single mile outside of the times where I had to temporarily connect to AT&T to search for a specific address.

Software design and usability

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

I relied on the "Male (U.S.)" voice to guide me, and it's without question one of the less robotic navigational voices I've ever used. He's as suave as a humanoid gets, and he didn't even get overly perturbed when forced to reroute me following my decision to take the Avenue of the Giants instead of continuing on Highway 199 in California. Thanks, Male (U.S.).

As with pretty much everything in Windows Phone, Nokia Drive is a beautiful app to look at. The icons are big, bold and polished, with fonts that are pleasing and easy to view from afar. You aren't inundated with useless information, and in my humble opinion, Nokia provides the perfect amount of data -- it's just enough to take advantage of at a glance. The app also does a reliable job of reminding you of your next turn when you're 10 miles out, and then once again when you're inside of a mile. Even after a week with this guy, I never found myself annoyed with an abundance of updates. You may chuckle at such a notion, but let's be honest -- is there anything worse than a GPS box that talks too much? No. No, there's not.

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

Rerouting, while I'm on the subject, was never a chore. I didn't encounter a single missed turn that took over four seconds to reroute. That's a feat. I'm guessing that having 1.8GB of roadways stored locally helps hasten that process, but still, that's significantly faster than even Garmin's nüvi 3790T from just two years ago -- a product that retailed for $449.

If you're an avid traveler, and you haven't given Windows Phone a chance, you should.

It's also safe to say that Drive knows more than just main thoroughfares. In 1,900 miles, I only spent a couple of hours on true interstates; the rest was spent on backroads, scenic byways and stretches of asphalt that the majority of Americans would seek to avoid in the effort of reaching their destination in a more timely manner. Truthfully, there wasn't a single road that I passed that wasn't loaded in the app, and honestly, that's something worthy of laud. Lots of it, in fact. Not once did I hear something akin to "Your destination is located in an area where turn-by-turn guidance cannot be provided." And not once was I led to an incorrect locale.

What about offline Google Maps?

Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

A fair question, indeed. Offline Google Maps Navigation for Android (and soon for iOS) is a formidable opponent, but it lacks one major feature that road warriors, road trippers and traveling salespeople will end up needing: the ability to download entire states or nations. As mentioned in my review of Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), Google has bizarrely given users the option to pinch-and-zoom into a section of maps that they want to download for offline use ... and nothing more. Once you zoom out to ~86MB of roadways, you hit a wall. Not even a WiFi connection can save you. There's no option to download entire states, and certainly no option to download entire nations.

That may not bother urban dwellers or infrequent travelers, but those with spontaneous aspirations may find more security in being able to have every possible road in an entire country at their disposal -- offline -- should they need it. To me, that's a shortcoming that cannot be overlooked. I admire Google's sexy solution to selecting small portions of maps, but why not also include the option to download far larger chunks? I can only assume that such an option will come in an update down the road, but for now, it's Nokia Drive with the winning hand on this front.


Nokia Drive offline navigation review taking the Lumia 900 for an offthegrid spin

If you're an avid traveler, and you haven't given Windows Phone a chance, you should. Nokia Drive is honestly reason enough to consider switching if you use your phone for navigating as much as you do texting or calling, and I've reason to believe that it'll only get better with age. After all, the company now shares hallways with a few folks from Bing Maps -- folks who have designed some pretty impressive travel tools themselves. The only legitimate gripe I had with Drive after 1,900 miles was this: when you're searching for something generic -- 'Starbucks in Bend, Oregon' for example -- it'll often find four or five like-named destinations. But at a glance, there's no street address listed in the results, so you have no idea which Starbucks you're about to head to. A minor niggle that we hope is corrected in future updates.

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All in all, however, I can confidently say that Nokia Drive is the best purely offline navigational tool on the market, on any mobile platform. If you count yourself a Lumia owner already, there's no reason to not take advantage of the power within -- it's a free download, after all. For those considering a switch, the timing couldn't be weirder. A Lumia 900 is still a bargain, even at $99 on a 2-year AT&T contract, but Microsoft has already confirmed that it'll never (ever!) get Windows Phone 8. If you're about to embark on a rural road trip this summer, having a Lumia with Nokia Drive would surely be of assistance, but the pragmatist in me says it's wiser to hold out for the impending rush of Windows Phone 8 devices this holiday season. After all, who wouldn't want to make that Christmas trip to grandma's house using a WP8-powered offline navigational tool?

This article originally appeared in Distro Issue #50.