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Hands on with Nokia’s HERE Maps … You may want to take a detour

When Apple decided to try to pave its own road into the navigation apps market with Maps in iOS 6, it was assumed the Cupertino company would have something ready to go right at launch that would compare with the previous default option, Google Maps. What Apple ended up putting out into the world was an unfinished product with the direction-giving capabilities of a dementia patient. With a clear hole in the market to be filled, Nokia recently stepped up with it’s offering: HERE Maps.

Announcing its arrival with an all-caps name, as if one is to shout it out, HERE builds upon Nokia’s recent fascination with transportation. The Finnish phone maker has been working hard on different aspects of its navigation apps on the Windows Phone platform, and has balled that up into a mobile app and web-based client with HERE.  That combination of web and app access allows you to use the cloud to create and save collections of maps and destinations that you can then access anywhere through your HERE account. It’s a great way to keep track of interesting places you’ve come across during your travels. Unfortunately, though, the services pretty undistinguishable and HERE feels mostly like the browser service placed in the packaging of an app. This makes it a little less user friendly than one would expect, as taps and finger glides aren’t as responsive as mouse clicks and scrolls.

As a whole, the maps don’t look great. For the time being, there is no Google Street View-like option or anything equivalent to it either. A 3D view is on its way with Nokia’s recent acquisition of 3D mapping company Earthmine, but until then even Apple Maps has a leg up in that department. You can take a look at your local streets in four different ways: Map view, Satellite view, Public Transit view, and Live Traffic view. For the most part, they all function the way one would expect. Satellite view was a little slow and images from my city were at least a year or so old–as were some addresses.

In general, the search service functioned and one can plug in general terms or specific locations and yield mostly accurate results. Just don’t expect them to be extremely up to date. I plugged in a restaurant in my area that relocated about 6 months ago and its old location still comes up. In comparison, Google Maps’ web client had updated information. Similarly, a grocery store that has been in town for several years now didn’t even register on a search, no matter how general or specific I made it. Nokia says HERE uses NAVTEQ mapping data, the same system that nearly all in-car GPS systems use, which makes one wonder just how good those things really are.

Also worth noting is that when you’re looking up information about a specific destination, reviews and ratings and provided by Trip Advisor. This comes with its pros and cons. On the plus side, Trip Advisor is a great service and also provides other nearby stops that may be worth your time while you’re in the area. However if you’d like to read anything past the first sentence of a review, you’ll be pushed out of HERE and into your web browser or into your Trip Advisor app. Either way, you’ll have to leave HERE just to get basic information.

Public Transit view and Live Traffic view both appear to function in major cities. Even then, there are some areas in heavily populated locations where traffic data just seems to disappear. Transit data is sparse almost everywhere. There’s no bus data, even in cities like mine where the running times and stops are well documented and monitored. Places like San Francisco and Seattle had its rail systems included so some of these features do exist in specific cities, but as a whole it appears to be a work in progress. The app even warns users when the features are turned on that they are in beta.

Even without traffic or public transit available, one would assume that the streets would be easily navigable with the help of turn-by-turn voice directions. That would be a correct assumption to make, as long as you only plan on walking. Walking directions are currently the only mode where spoken navigation is available, which seems like the least useful place for it to be. It’s not like turns exactly sneak up on you while you’re walking. Turn-by-turn information is available for nearly every trip but if you need to spoken aloud, make sure to provide your own co-pilot.

HERE Maps probably shouldn’t be viewed as a finished product. There are some parts that are in place, some that are still coming to fruition, and some that are lacking completely. It’s a beta product, but Nokia pushed it out like a finished and polished app so it’s hard not to treat it as such. If you’re using Apple Maps, HERE Maps is not going to add any real clarity to your navigation experience. In fact, there are some areas where the service even trails Apple’s poorly received transport app. Nokia has proven itself to be more than capable of providing what it promises in its Windows Phone navigation apps. We’ll just have to wait for it all to filter into HERE Maps. The real fault is with Nokia, as it promised it was streets ahead and turned out to be attempting to tail the lead cars. HERE Maps functions, but just doesn’t live up to all the promise yet.

You can download HERE Maps for free in the Apple App Store.