Lost at Home, Part One: Nokia Maps vs Google Maps

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As regular readers will recall, I decided a few months back to buy a Nokia Lumia 920 and use it as my new daily driver. When launch day rolled around a little over a week ago, I dutifully reported to my local AT&T retailer and did the deed, being sure to pick up a companion JBL Power Up speaker dock as well, because what’s a smartphone without a $300 accessory?

Since that fateful day, a steady hail of new devices to unbox and evaluate has kept me from getting to know my new polycarbonate friend. Now that the holiday rush of reviews and comparisons is nearly over, though, I’ve finally had a chance to get some hands-on time with the Lumia 920. Combined with the time I spent with the Lumia 810 a few days back, I’ve had about a week of cumulative hands-on exposure to Windows Phone 8.

Moving from Android to Windows Phone has been a mixed bag. I’ll elaborate on the transition as a whole in a future piece, but for now I want to talk about maps. Specifically, Nokia Maps, and how it, more than almost anything else, makes me miss Android.

We’ve talked about this for the last two weeks on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, so frequent listeners will have to excuse a bit of repetition. And no, I’m not going to mention iOS’ manifold mapping issues in this piece, since I don’t carry an iPhone — but rest assured, we’ll touch on Apple’s offerings in a future installment.

As I discussed in my Lumia 810 review, my Nokia Maps woes began in New York City and continued up the coast:

Searching local results for pizza shops on both the Lumia 810 and a Galaxy Note II delivered wildly divergent results, with the Android device handily beating the Windows Phone in speed, accuracy, and usefulness. One tap on a local result on the Android device yielded information on the shop’s hours, its contact information, and a glimpse at user reviews. Getting similar results from Nokia Maps was possible after a few swipes to left and right, but the information provided was nowhere near as detailed.

The app also isn’t terribly “smart,” in a broad sense: searching for specific business names routinely yields a result with the right name, but in a location nowhere near the device. In New London, Connecticut, we tried searching Nokia Maps for “Cross Sound Ferry,” whose Connecticut office we could see through the window of our train, about 500 feet away. Our Lumia 810 dutifully returned a result for the Cross Sound Ferry offices … sixteen miles away, at the other end of the ferry route in New York. No local results were returned. Meanwhile, our Galaxy Note II had no trouble finding what we were looking for on the first try.

NBD. I know how to doggy-paddle.

Just to get something out of the way: yes, I know about Local Scout, Windows Phone’s built-in local-search functionality. Adam Lein touched on the feature in his in-depth Windows Phone 8 review, and I’ll be covering it in a future installment.

This story is confined to the raw maps functionality on Android and Windows Phone. After experiencing several instances similar to the above fiasco, I decided to spend a night playing the part of a clueless visitor to the Boston area, searching for as many local results as possible, and logging the results. For devices, I used a Galaxy Note II on Sprint, alongside a Nokia Lumia 920 on AT&T.

Here’s how that went.

The Log

My odyssey begins on Tuesday night, with a search for the Factory Theater in Boston. This is no softball lob, either: the Factory is a tiny hole-in-the-wall deeply in need of renovation. But, it’s also the nexus of Boston’s vibrant fringe theatre scene, which is bigger than it sounds. Point is, the building should absolutely be identifiable by a smartphone’s on-board mapping solution. But though both Google Maps and Nokia Maps give me a long list of results (some relevant, many not), neither finds the theater. The result is a draw. As a side-note: shame on you, society; go out and see more theatre.

For real. It needs you.

Vexed by this failure but undeterred, I decide to search instead for The Parish, a local bar/restaurant I know to be adjacent to the theater (this being Boston, bars will always be more popular than theaters). So I enter the search string into Nokia Maps … but I misspell the destination as “Parrish.”

Let this be a lesson to you, folks: the concept of “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is still quite relevant today, because neither device knows what the hell to do when I ask it to find “Parrish.” Nokia Maps directs me to an art gallery on Eastern Long Island -remember, I’m in Boston- but Google really goes the extra mile, deciding that I’m asking for directions to the town of Parrish, Alabama.

Pictured: not the bar next to the Factory Theater.

I manage to un-roll my eyes long enough to finally get the damn place spelled right, and tell Nokia Maps to go fetch. To my surprise and delight, it finds the location I’m looking for — but it’s not the first-listed result. No, the number-one spot, the point it centers the map on, is on the Parish Café … in Parish, New York. Over 300 miles away. A distance the device helpfully informs me will take just over five hours to traverse by car. Thanks, Nokia. Fortunately, the result I need is the second one on the list, but why Nokia Maps thinks a location three miles away deserves to play second-fiddle to a location 300 miles away is beyond me entirely.

Seriously?

I have better luck with Google Maps … but only after changing the search string from “Parish Cafe” to the less-specific “Parish.” I wonder if I’d have this much patience were I an actual out-of-towner.

Anyway, apparently this Parish franchise features more than one location, and the one it directs me to first isn’t the one I’m looking for, so I have to click down to the other results until I find the proper result. So ultimately, it’s a success, but only after more effort than I should have had to exert. Again, the result is a draw, with neither one of these platforms making me terribly happy. I begin to wonder why I miss Android at all – the competing platforms are starting to seem like two different flavors of the same kind of awful.

But here’s where I’ll touch on navigation details again. The amount of in-depth information Android offers on Google Maps is absurd. It paints a rich tapestry of information right on the screen; it’s more than you might ever need, but it’s there. It makes Google’s purchase of ratings specialist Zagat seem genius in retrospect. When an eatery is marked on the map, it’s accompanied by its Zagat score, how many reviews it’s received, and its price range. Tapping on the location’s icon unleashes an avalanche of much more information, collected onto one screen for easy scrolling.

As I mentioned above, getting a semblance of the same information is possible on Windows Phone, but it’s nowhere near as convenient. Swiping to the left and right after tapping on a location provides the skeletal essence of the information – phone number, website, address, and so on – but so many of the fields are barren. Wherever Nokia’s getting its location information from, it’s not as good as Zagat.

Another example: calling up the results for Snookers Pool Lounge in Providence, RI -which, by the look of the place as I roll past on the train, I’m not sure I’d visit- took me two tries on Google Maps but only one attempt on Windows Phone. Good for Nokia Maps. But Google’s search result for Snookers gives me a photo, three reviews, and links to sixteen other reviews around the web, none of which my Lumia 920 offers me. Oh, and Google is kind enough to tell me the establishment is “Permanently Closed.” Something that might be nice to know.

Except that’s not true. when I call the number listed on the contact entry, a cheerful voice answers, “Hi, thanks for calling Snookers! How can I help you?”

What I’ve learned from all this -and this is only a temporary wrap-up, as there’s lots more map learning to come in the weeks ahead- is that while mobile navigation is a critical part of the smartphone experience, it’s far from perfect. And it’s easy to lose sight of the shortcomings of a mature platform like Google Maps when you’re comparing it to a less-fleshed-out one like Nokia Maps. At the risk of sounding flippant or crude: they all suck, to a degree.

On the bright side, the example I used in my Lumia 810 review to demonstrate the unpolished nature of Nokia Maps no longer entirely applies. As I finish this column, I’m waiting for a boat to arrive at the Cross Sound Ferry terminal in New London, CT. While searching for “Cross Sound Ferry” while standing in front of the building still returns a result only for its Long Island offices, confining my search to the less-specific, more-common term “ferry” delivers the goods, and navigates me right to the front door in front of my face. The moral: when switching platforms, sometimes it’s best not to over-think your interactions with your new software.

Stay tuned for more dispatches from the mobile mapping arena in the coming weeks; until then, may you navigate your respective roads, sidewalks, and ridiculous retail holidays safely.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!