Thursday, 25 February 2021

Navigation and Mapping Apps Review

 

With the current interest in the future of ViewRanger and much discussion on social media about mapping and navigation apps I thought I'd post an edited review of some apps that I wrote for The Great Outdoors last year. I've left the ViewRanger review as I wrote it though it's no longer open for new subscriptions. I left out my review of MemoryMap as it's been significantly revised and I haven't tried the latest version. I've also omitted mentions of apps only available for Apple operating systems as I can't actually test these and apps that don't offer UK mapping. I've removed the prices too as these may have changed.

Mapping and route apps have proliferated in recent years with the rise in popularity of smartphones. With mapping apps, you can find your position via GPS and plan and record routes. Some apps allow you to identify features or watch 3D flyovers as well. Here I’m looking at apps designed for smartphones. There are of course standalone GPS units from the likes of SatMap and Garmin that offer the same mapping and features.

Apps that run on desktop and laptop computers are excellent for planning and you can print sheets for specific routes. I’ve been doing the latter for many years, especially on long walks like the TGO Challenge where it saves weight. On one Challenge my printouts of OS Landranger maps weighed 111 grams. The six full maps covering the route weighed 498 grams. Of course, the printouts covered much smaller areas than the full maps. However, I had full coverage on my smartphone to use if I wandered off the printed map.

One advantage of digital maps, both on desktop and smartphone, is being able to zoom in and out, for more detail or for an overview of an area. When planning routes I often do this frequently.

Route apps offer pre-planned routes to follow and often have the option of adding your own. Some are also proper mapping maps as well with OS maps, but many only have basic maps and should be used in conjunction with other mapping. For outdoor use the mapping needs to be OS or Harvey, the same as the printed ones. Street maps, Google maps and the like are not adequate.

Many apps also offer mapping for other countries. I’ve used app maps for long walks in various parts of the USA and in the Alps. Again, these need to be large scale topographic maps.

There are apps for Windows, Android, iOS and macOS. Many have versions for all four, but some are specific to particular operating systems.

As seems the case with all digital stuff (my camera has more options than I know what to do with, never mind my smartphone) these apps are complex with a plethora of features. Time is needed to learn what they can do, and which features are most useful. There isn’t the space here to cover all the aspects of each product so I’ve concentrated on those I think are of most use to hillwalkers, that is position location, recording routes, plotting routes, route information, printing maps, and share options (so you can share your location). If you use a GPS unit some apps will allow you to import and export GPX files.

Most apps are free but only come with basic mapping, if any. Pricing for maps is complicated as most companies offer many options. Subscriptions are the best value for money and a way to ensure your maps are regularly updated. Buying just the maps you want outright may be initially cheaper, but you don’t get updates and it can get expensive if you need many maps.

It is often argued that smartphones aren’t suitable for use in the hills, that they can fail, that batteries run out, or that they may not be able to get a signal. The latter is based on a misconception. If you’ve downloaded the maps to your phone a phone connection isn’t needed. GPS will show your location. Indeed, it’s best to turn the phone signal off to save battery power.

I’ve been using a smartphone for navigation for over a decade and have yet to have a serious problem. I carry a battery charger, so I don’t run out of power. I used to keep my smartphone in a protective case but last year I replaced with a waterproof rugged one that doesn't need protecting (see this review). Of course, if you only have one navigation option and it has problems there can be difficulties. That applies to printed maps and physical compasses too. Maps can blow away; compasses can break or fail. Whether you prefer to use a printed map and compass or a smartphone it’s wise to carry the other as a backup. I always do. Mapping apps usually have a digital compass. Whilst this is good for general directions it doesn’t replace a physical compass.

Most of the apps offer free trials so you can try them out and see which one best suits your needs.

 Reviews

Note: How well apps run depends in part on the hardware. I tried the Windows and Android apps on a Windows 10 PC and a Samsung Galaxy S7 Android smartphone. Both are quite old and not that powerful. The apps ran fast enough for me though.

 


Anquet  Outdoor Map Navigator      ****1/2   Best Buy overall     www.anquet.com          

Likes                 fast, print option, offline desktop app

Dislikes            only UK maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android, MacOS

Maps                OS Landranger & Explorer, Harvey Superwalker, Harvey British Mountain

Features           track recording, offline desktop maps (Premium Plus), GPX compatible

Offline             yes

Launched back in 2001 offering maps on CD Anquet was one of the first companies selling digital mapping. Since it began it has moved with the technology and now offers subscriptions for downloads to smartphones and computers, providing a service rather than a one-off sale.

When I last tried Anquet ten years ago one-off downloads had just begun and CD mapping was still available. It worked well then and it still does. Downloading the app to both PC and smartphone was fast.  The maps downloaded and opened quickly on the latter but were slow on my ageing PC.

An excellent feature with the OS Premium Plus subscription is the option of downloading the app and maps to your desktop computer for planning routes and printing. I find this more versatile and faster than using a web browser.  It’s much easier to plot a route on a large screen than a small one so this is a very useful feature. Routes can then be synchronised with your smartphone or printed out.

There’s no 3D or augmented reality feature. Anquet says it is concentrating on ‘getting more done with simpler interfaces’ and a third version of OMN will be launched later this year, available to current subscribers. I don’t miss 3D, but I do fine augmented reality useful for identifying distant features. It’s not essential though. You can record tracks and waypoints and sync them on the desktop.

I found Anquet OMN easy to learn and powerful. As a combined smartphone and desktop app it’s excellent.

 


RouteBuddy     https://routebuddy.com/                        Best for Desktop   ****1/2

Likes               route planning, printing, merging OS and Harvey maps

Dislikes          no android version

Platforms       Windows, macOS, iOS

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker, British Mountain & Summit, USA,

                       France, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand maps

 Features        route planning, map stitching, printing, track planning and recording

Offline           yes

The RouteBuddy app comes in two forms -RouteBuddy Desktop Map Software for Windows and macOS and RouteBuddy Atlas for iPhones. Sadly, there is no android version. This is a shame as RouteBuddy is one of the best desktop mapping programmes I’ve used. It’s powerful and fairly complex but quite easy to learn. Maps can be downloaded to your desktop for studying and planning and drawing routes. This gives you far more options than web mapping.

Plotting routes, even long ones, is easy. I’ve planned several TGO Challenges on RouteBuddy, printing out A4 route maps to carry with me. You can also drag and drop route files from a GPS, from friends or from websites. Routes you plot or record give elevation, ascent, descent and more (useful for the TGO Challenge route form – no need to count grid squares or contour lines).

RouteBuddy has a unique feature that I love. It can seamlessly stitch together OS 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 maps and both OS scales and Harvey maps. I’ve used both OS scales and Harvey maps for TGO Challenge routes. RouteBuddy connects them so well that the scale becomes the same, but you have all the extra details when it’s the 1:25,000 map and all the features when it’s a Harvey map. Satellite and road maps can be layered too.

I only have one problem with RouteBuddy. There’s no app for Android so I can’t have it on my smartphone. Otherwise my only minor complaint is that it’s easy to lose many hours planning routes and enjoying the maps.

 

ViewRanger  (now OutdoorActive)   *****  Best for smartphone     www.viewranger.com 

Likes               easy to use, Skyline augmented reality, BuddyBeacon, worldwide maps

Dislikes          BuddyBeacon requires a data connection, no print option

Platforms       iOS, Android

Maps              OS Explorer & Landranger, Harvey Superwalker & British Mountain

Offline           Yes

Features         Skyline augmented reality, track recording and sharing, 3D Flyovers,

                       BuddyBeacon, compass

ViewRanger is a well-established mapping app for smartphones and one that I know well, having been using it for over ten years, both in the UK and in the USA and the Alps. Mostly I’ve used it to find my location and for navigation. You can’t download maps to a laptop or desktop computer, but it is easy to plan routes on the ViewRanger website and then download them to your smartphone. You can also see and download routes created by others for any area by entering a location or postcode. I did this for the GR5 through the Alps. There are thousands of routes on the website. You can’t print from the web maps though.

A good extra feature of ViewRanger is the BuddyBeacon, which allows you to share your real-time location with friends and family. It’s pin protected so only those you choose can see the information. However, you do require a data connection so it’s not usable everywhere.

ViewRanger also has an augmented reality tool called Skyline. With this you can use your phone’s camera to identify peaks, lakes and more. ViewRanger says it knows the location of more than 9 million points on 80% of the Earth except the polar regions. This is a fascinating and useful feature, naming features in the landscape. You can even use it to guide you along a route. And of course, you can take a photo with the features named on it. Another fun feature to play with is Flyover in 3D which allows you to pan and zoom around routes.

ViewRanger is well-designed and easy to use, both on and offline. It’s an essential part of my outdoor kit.

 


OS Maps Premium   ****1/2   Recommended      www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk

Likes                 easy to use, Augmented Reality Viewer, print option, use codes from paper maps

Dislikes            only OS maps

Platforms         Windows, iOS, Android

Maps                OS Explorer, OS Landranger

Features           track recording, augmented reality, aerial 3D

Offline              yes

On a smartphone the OS Maps app works just the same as ViewRanger. Download the maps and use GPS to find your location. You can record routes on a smartphone and plan routes on all platforms or else find pre-planned routes. The last two are best and most easily done on a large computer screen. There’s an augmented reality option, AR Viewer, that allows you to identify features in the landscape for the smartphone app and an aerial 3D option on the website.

From a PC  you can print map sheets as long as you have an internet connection. If you have a big enough printer you can print to A3 size.

For UK only use with OS maps this app is fine, especially if you want to print maps as well as have them on your smartphone. There are no other map options though so if you go abroad you’ll need another app. You can’t buy individual maps either. However, if you buy a paper map it comes with a code so you can download a digital map. This is a one-off and you don’t get other features.

 


OS Locate      https://www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/os-locate     *****   Recommended

Platforms      iOS, Android

Maps             no

Features       grid reference, digital  compass, share button

Offline          yes

Costs             free

OS Locate is a simple free app that gives you a grid reference and a compass bearing. You can link it to downloaded OS maps but as your position is shown on those anyway I don’t see much point. However, it’s an excellent app to use with paper maps. If you’re not sure where you are click and there’s a grid reference. This used to be all GPS units did before they gained mapping and lots of bells and whistles. There’s a digital Silva compass too, which you can use to take bearings, using two fingers to turn the bezel, though it’s easier with the real thing. If you have a phone connection your position can be shared via email or social media.

I think this is an excellent app and worth having even if you only use printed maps and compass for navigation, especially as it’s free.


 

Komoot    www.komoot.com     ***

Likes                planning

Dislikes           maps not OS/Harvey standard

Platforms        Android, iOS

Maps               basic

Features          routes

Offline            yes

Komoot is a planning tool for cycling and walking. It’s packed with masses of routes that can be downloaded and then followed on the map on your phone. The maps are fine for road cycling and just about ok for off-road walking. For hillwalking where navigation is crucial Komoot is better thought of as a digital guidebook rather than digital mapping and just as with most printed guidebooks you need a detailed map to go with it. When you zoom in on a map more detail does appear, including contour lines, but it’s still not OS standard. The maps are inexpensive though.

There are masses of routes and you can enter  your activity – hiking, mountaineering, various types of cycling, your fitness from couch potato to Pro. Put in start and finish points and Komoot will come up with a route. I looked for one from Glenmore to Ben Macdui and back and Komoot came up with a sensible option and said  it was an “Expert Hiking Tour. Very good fitness required. Sure-footedness, sturdy shoes and alpine experience required”, which sounds reasonable. It also gave a very precise time – 9:21 – a distance of 17.5 miles and an ascent of 3700 feet. Routes are customisable and you can enter in options you’d like to see on the map – everything from restaurants to mountain passes.  

Komoot also has turn-by-turn voice navigation. I think this would drive me crazy! However, it does seem more designed for cyclists and runner than walkers as on the website it says “when you’re hurtling downhill you don’t want to fumble for your phone to know where to go”.

If you like footpath guidebooks, then Komoot may well suit you.

5 comments:

  1. Personally I wouldn't pay a subscription the national parks set of maps from ViewRanger is perfect for me.

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  2. I find the touchscreens on the phones I've had don't work in heavy rain so rely on a separate GPS. Is this just me?

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    1. I found that with my firt smartphones but not with the rugged waterproof ones I've used - both Land Rover Explore models and the Samsung XCover Pro.

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  3. I must admit I have been using Viewranger since it first appeared and it is still the best out there compared to other apps.
    The only thing that I don't like is outdooractive how it works the challenges and some forms of mapping.

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  4. You said you excluded apps that did not have UK mapping, by which I assume you meant OS maps. Everyone has their favourite, but two apps I use are OSMand and Oruxmaps. They use Openstreetmap data, which now includes OS contour data in the UK, and, in the case of Oruxmaps, lidar and satellite height data. Openstreetmap data richness continues to improve and it is now a viable alternative to OS in many use cases (even has footpaths). Oruxmaps can also download free French, Swiss, Norwegian etc national mapping (UK is unusual in not providing free mapping). The clincher for me is that both apps are free, no license issues that might cause them to stop working at inopportune moments.

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