Some apps are just the undisputed best at what they do. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine—these are apps that have hardly any fear of competition. I'd even be comfortable putting Google Maps in that esteemed category, if it wasn't for Nokia's Here Maps.
Today, Nokia officially announced Here Beta for Android with promises of an iOS version for Spring 2015. The long-time and beloved GPS map choice for Windows Phone, Here Maps became untethered from the platform during Microsoft's acquisition last year. The Maps Beta first premiered on Samsung devices earlier this year, then sideloading became an option, and now you can just straight download from Google Play.
But can Here Beta really replace Google Maps, the uncontested (sorry Apple Maps) GPS champion? In some ways yes and in other ways no, but regardless, this free app is worth the test drive.
In many respects, Here Beta and Google Maps take similar approaches in design and layout. Search bar on top, hamburger menu button on the right, with your GPS marker front-and-center. However, from this opening menu, you can quickly see where Google holds an edge over Here Beta. For one, integrated voice search from the top menu, which Here Beta is sorely lacking. Also, an in-depth discovery function for finding out more about places around you, whether restaurants, parks, or museums. Replicating Google's talent for search is not something easily replicated.
As for pure design aesthetics, both hang tough with one another. Google gets a nice bump from its Lollipop redesign, but Here Beta uses neon blues and greens to make GPS markers and destinations pop from the surrounding street names, restaurants, and other landmarks.
Obviously, directions is a big one. It's the whole reason you're using the app in the first place, and Google Maps and Here Beta are neck-in-neck. Each have their own little quirks that might appeal to different users. Google Maps has bike-friendly directions as well as a "fuck it, I give up" option that directs you to Uber.
Here Beta does a need little trick where it creates a running timeline of your trip. So if a train leaves at a certain time, a running timeline lets you know how early (or late) you're about to be. Also, you can set speed limit warnings for your trip, and Here Beta will warn you when you're significantly over (between 0 mph to 18 mph). Perfect for avoiding speed traps and getting caught off guard by random speed limit changes.
Other than that, the two are completely the same. Similar direction suggests with traffic updates, adjustable routes, and voice-assisted navigation (available in several different languages).
Where Here Beta wins big is with offline maps. Right in the settings menu, click "Download maps" and select whatever state, country, or continent you desire. Obviously these maps will take up some memory on your smartphone, but they're a godsend if you're stuck underground with no internet connection and no idea where you're going or if you're traveling abroad and unwilling to rack up roaming charges.
For example, downloading maps for one state takes up about 400MB or you can download the entire United States for almost 5GB. This lets you use maps and navigation without any data connection at all. Google offers a similar function though it's pretty buried and less useful than what Here Beta offers.
Is Here Maps better or worse than Google Maps? The answer is neither. It's a breath of fresh air, a free app the helps change up the monotony of your single GPS map existence. Here Beta brings a lot of neat extras and could be the perfect navigation app for a lot of people, especially if you find yourself switching among hardware platforms since Here Beta stretches across Android, Windows Phone, and soon iOS.
In the end, you're choosing among two excellent choices. One just might edge out the other in a way that matters to you most. [Google Play]