Very few location based applications focus on users who want to venture off the tarmac. ViewRanger is not just a GPS application with maps; it is more like a countryside information system. Richard Bloor explores this application.
First, I must say that I was not able to test ViewRanger to the extent I had hoped. Blame British Airways. They lost my bag and GPS unit on the way into the UK to attend the Smartphoneshow. So I ended up with only two days to put ViewRanger thought is paces. As a result this review is not as comprehensive as I had hope, but I believe it still provide a reasonable picture of what this application is capable of.
ViewRanger is designed to fulfill the needs of anyone who gets off the beaten track and out into the countryside. It currently provides coverage of Great Britain, but Augmentra has plans to expand this coverage into Europe and eventually further a field. The application relies on Ordinance Survey maps and gazette information to provide map, points of interest, and topographic data. Users can choose from a range of 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 scale maps, as well as a 1:1,000,000 scale map of the UK. Maps can be purchased as specific sets or selected for any particular area of interest. The whole of the UK at 1:50,000 requires 2.8Gb of memory, but can be loaded in sections to fit the available memory. Typically around 200Mb of storage would provide useful coverage.
ViewRanger delivers a comprehensive set of navigation features. These include: track recording and editing; route creation, either from a track or manually defined; route editing; definition of points of interest, which can be displayed as icons in a map overlay; setting of bookmarks; import and export of points of interest and routes; navigation of routes or to points of interest; server storage of photographs and note; and a panorama feature.
The main interface is the map display, which can include details of the location and altitude, a scale bar and, when navigating, a navigation arrow.
The display is scrolled using the device’s navigation keys, while the star and hash keys provide zoom capabilities. Zooming can automatically select the appropriate scale map, or leave this choice to the user. The application’s features are accessed with the usual “Options” menu as well as a context menu that is opened by pressing select. The map context menu is shown below.
Before a trip ViewRanger is a map viewing and route planning application. There are four ways to find a specific location: visual navigation by zooming and scrolling through the available maps, selection of a specific map using the Data Manager from the options menu (followed by manual zooming and scrolling) searching for a place in the gazette, or entering a location’s map reference or coordinates.
The search function is very powerful. Not only can it search a gazette of over 250,000 places that can be stored on the phone, it can also search point of interest data stored on the ViewRanger server. This includes points of interest stored by other ViewRanger users.
When an area of interest has been found, a walk can be planned by defining points of interest to navigate between or by creating a route. A route is created by defining a series of waypoints.
Moving out into the field, ViewRanger can record the route of a walk or navigate along a track or between points of interest. Navigation can be undertaken actively, by following on screen directions, or passively by relying on a cross track alarm to warn of divergence from the planned route. The distance from the planned route at which the alarm sounds can be set in the applications settings options, while the use of the alarm can be switched on and off during navigation.
In addition to the divergence alarm ViewRanger can also provide an alarm to indicate that the end of a route is close.
If a route is not planned in advance ViewRanger can record a track, which can be converted into a route later or simply used as a record. ViewRanger offers several editing features for both tracks and routes.
For tracks, Spike Removal attempts to eliminate any GPS errors that result in large spikes away from the actual location, while the Reduce Track option eliminates every other waypoint on a track. As GPS spikes can often shift position for several waypoints, a combination of reduction and spike removal may be needed to get a track that provides an accurate record of the journey. In this somewhat limited testing I found that the two features were sometime insufficient to tidy up a track. In addition, there is no way to reverse the process, nor can a copy of the track be made (except by turning it into a route or exporting and importing the track) so if spike removal and reduction results in an unsatisfactory outcome there is no way to start again.
There is another feature that can be used to control spikes. GPS units report a number known as the Hdop, which measures the accuracy of the GPS location, as well as a “location valid” flag. Depending on the GPS unit a figure of 10 or 50 is used as a threshold above which the location reported is consider unreliable. ViewRanger can use its own Hdop threshold to define unreliability, when this threshold is reached ViewRanger stops recording waypoints reducing the likelihood that a spike is recorded.
The editing features for routes are more specific, allowing removal of waypoints and visual editing of a waypoint’s position. A route’s waypoints can be followed using shortcut keys: 6 to go forward and 4 to go back. These features allow a route created from a track to be cleaned of any spikes or route selection errors, although it can be a time consuming process.
The navigation features all appeared to work well, although I had limited use of these features. Navigation, whether to a point of interest or by following a route, offers two forms of navigation information. A navigation information display provides heading, distances, speed, and altitude data, while a navigation arrow indicates the required direction of travel. The other option is to use the map interface to follow a route or navigate to a point of interest.
So far many of ViewRanger’s features sound similar to those of a number of other location based applications, except that ViewRanger is one of the few delivering Ordinance Survey maps and data. Where ViewRanger really differentiates itself is in the ability to create topographically accurate panoramic views. From anywhere within a mapped area it is possible to switch to a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, showing land features and visible points of interest.
Although Country Durham is not endowed with a dramatic mountainous landscape, from the banks for the River Wear it was possible to see ViewRanger’s ability to accurately display the local topography and intelligently display visible points of interest.
The following images show Whinney Hill, south of Durham city. ViewRanger provides a good representation of the hill in it panorama view, as can be judged by the photograph of the same view below.
In this view the panorama shows only one point of interest, Durham City (even thought it is obscured by trees – ViewRanger is not that clever). However, if the viewpoint is moved onto Whinney Hill many additional points of interest are visible, as shown below.
The panorama view can be swiveled and zoomed to shows a wider or narrower section of the horizon. The point from which the panorama is projected can be moved by switching to map mode and using the cursor keys to shift the viewpoint’s location. There is also a jump option, which resets the panorama to a height above the ground. This allows views “over” a hill to be seen. The jump height is defined in the applications settings.
ViewRanger is a big application by smartphone standards and there are several features that this review has not touched upon, such as the ability to tag pictures and notes to locations and share them via the ViewRanger server or import and export route, track and point of interest data.
Overall ViewRanger works well and the issues I found were minor. For example, after deleting a waypoint from a route ViewRanger restarts the selection of waypoints at the route’s start. This makes editing waypoints in the middle of a route somewhat laborious. The depth of features does mean the menus are somewhat complex. For example, editing a route uses the context menu. On this menu the waypoint move option is on the main context menu, delete on the Edit sub menu, while waypoint insert is on the route menu. Once you get to know the application this makes sense, move is the most common route editing action and delete applies to features other than route waymarks. The delete issue is also somewhat mute as the “c” key can be used for deletion. However, learning where everything is could take a while.
Running on a Nokia N80 the biggest problem with ViewRanger is that when maps are zoomed in it is difficult to see the track, route, and current position indicators. This is due to the pixel density on the N80’s screen (as screenshots displayed on a PC are easy to read.) It is possible to select the line color, which can help, however the real issue is that the indicator lines are too narrow for the N80 high pixel density screen; wider indicator lines or flashing indicators would improve readability. Readability should be much better on an E61 (which has only a third of the pixel density of a N80) or N73 (with half the pixel density of an N80).
ViewRanger is an impressive application, from the quality of the map information to the extensive range of features. The panoramic views are simply awesome and the ability they provide to meaningfully appreciate the landscape offers a whole new dimension to an outlook point or that lunchtime stop off. ViewRanger will be an ideal companion to any walker, runner, or cyclist who plans to venture off tarmac.
ViewRanger is available for both S60 2nd and 3rd Edition devices and requires the purchase of a separate GPS unit. The application and maps are available directly from www.viewranger.com as well as a number of specialist gadget and device stores. Prices range from £20.00 for the smallest custom selection of 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 scale maps through to £149.99 for the whole of Great Britain at 1:50,000.
Read more about Augnemtra and ViewRanger in the SymbianOne feature Augmentra: Visualizing the Great Outdoors
Richard Bloor is the lead Technology Editor at SymbianOne.com – a leading technology resource for wireless application developers focused on the Symbian OS.