OnCourse Navigator 8 Review

I’ve been reviewing GPS-related items (receivers, software, PNAs) for several years now and, about a year and a half ago, I reviewed OnCourse Navigator 6 (sold in Europe as iGo 2006).  I felt that OCN 6 was one of the best PDA-based navigation programs I had ever used, despite the fact it had fairly complicated menus and map quirks that were typical of TeleAtlas (the supplier of map data to iGo/OCN, Tom Tom, and others) map data in North America.

Now fast forward to today, nearly 2 years after the original iGo 2006 release (the software that OCN 6 is based on), and OCN 8 (iGo 8 in Europe) is finally available for your PDA/phone in the U.S.  OCN 8 is built using the latest 2008 TeleAtlas maps and comes loaded with new features like 3D buildings and elevation displays.  Did they make a good thing better?  Read on to find out…

The thing that made iGo 2006/OCN 6 so impressive was the incredibly smooth, flowing way that the display and navigation engine ran.  That’s because the software was developed by a group of people who had previously developed games.  For me, that smoothness was critical to what made OCN 6 a great product.  I’ve been anxiously awaiting the U.S. arrival of OCN 8 ever since the announcement of iGo 8 last year.   I’ve been wanting to check it out so much that, earlier this year I purchased an HP 310 personal navigation assistant (PNA), because it had 800 by 400 pixel display and was based on iGO 8.  And, although the device has a lot of great features (especially for an average street price of around $250), it has enough flaws, which HP has been slow to address, to keep it from being a top contender in the PNA market.

IGo 8 came out in Europe earlier this year, but it wasn’t until this month that OCN 8 finally became available in North America.  Now that I’ve had a chance to work with this generation of the software, I am extremely pleased to report that that core attribute – that beautiful display engine – has remained solid even as the new features were added.  OCN8 still has the same basic display characteristics and options that OCN 6 had and you can smoothly move your position, or angle of elevation without the abrupt change you get with many other software packages.

Downtown Detroit – Renaissance Center
Chicago – Looking toward the Sears Tower

Of course, as I’ve already mentioned, OCN 8’s biggest new features are the addition of 3D buildings (in selected locations – mostly big-city downtown areas) and the display of elevations (hills and mountains, etc.).  As you travel, you see the landscape around you.  If you are in the hills or mountains, you actually see them around your position now.

Digging Into the Program
OCN 6 suffered primarily from it overly complex system of menus and icons.  It was difficult to know where features and their settings were located.  There was a main menu and submenus.  There was a “Map” mode and a “cockpit” mode.   In the map/cockpit modes, there were a whole set of routing options you brought up by pressing a triangle icon on the screen.  It was hard to know where to find the feature you were looking for until you spent a goodly amount of time with the program.  I’m pleased to say that this is greatly improved in OCN 8.  Someone spent some time collecting and reorganizing the features so their arrangement now makes some sense.  There are still a few things that took me a minute to figure out, but overall, the effect is a greatly streamlined and better organized approach to the features.   Additionally, the menus and icons are now all very finger-friendly.  It makes using the PDA software almost like using a PNA, but without much of the dumbing-down usually attributed to many PNAs.

Main Menu Screen

When you start the program, you are greeted with the main menu.  From here you can click on  “Find to locate and/or navigate to locations (via address, POI, coordinate), “Route” to adjust things related to your route (including loading/saving/deleting routes), :Manage” to manage your POIs, Favorites, logs, and history, and “Settings” to adjust most of the programs options.  Also on the main menu screen is a button for shutting down and quitting the program as well as an icon to switch into the map display itself (in landscape mode the icon is replaced for some unknown reason with the word “MAP”).

Tooling Around the Map Display
As I mentioned earlier, the separate map/cockpit modes are now gone.  When you select the MAP button (the world icon) there is simply a map display which appears to be very much like what the old cockpit mode used to be.  Anything that isn’t an option in the menus is now found bly clicking on a related item found here.  As I discuss this screen, I’m going to talk about it as it appears when you are using it in portrait mode.  This software also supports a landscape mode (reached by putting your device into landscape mode BEFORE launching the software or by going to the SETTINGS / DEVICE page and changing the orientation).

Route Overview

Route Overview - the bottom areas detail the types of roads you will travel on

So now the icons/areas of the map display take you to related features.  For example, you reach information about the overall route (including ETA, distance, road types, and routing method) by clicking on the big icon in the upper left that displays your next routing maneuver (when you’ve programmed in a route.    From this routing information screen you can also reach and change the settings relating to routing.  It’s useful to note that on all sub-screens, there is always a “back” arrow available that will take you back a layer or back to the main map display.  This system is now even context sensitive – if you have not yet selected a route, then the big icon shows a pair of binoculars (instead of your next maneuver) and clicking on it brings up the FIND menu rather than the route overview.  Again – organized in a way that makes sense.

By clicking on the secondary maneuver (to the right of your next maneuver), you bring up your road list, itinerary, and detailed directions  Clicking on any of the instructions or roads brings that part of the route up on the display and allows you to avoid the maneuver or road segment (causing the application to reroute) – again, clustering related tasks together.

Continuing to the right along the top of the map display we see the area where your speed is usually shown).  Clicking on this brings up more details about your speed, heading, distance remaining, the speed limit on the road on which you are currently travelling.  There is a whole lot of information available here relating to your distance/arrival time to your destination or to your next via point (waypoint).  What’s really neat here is that you’ll notice, next to every item, there’s a box with three sections (and there are two pages of these items).  This actually corresponds to the 3 sections of the speed info area you clicked on to get here.  By clicking in one of these sections you can assign that info attribute to the area you selected.  So you could choose your 3 subsections to be speed, heading, and altitude – or altitude, distance to destination, and time – or any combination from this page you want!  It’s a nice implementation that’s visually pretty intuitive.  Again – better than the configurable areas configuration from OCN 6.  From here there are even more sub-displays where you can even find out things like what your maximum/minimal altitudes have been!  Pretty cool!

GPS Display

In the upper right corner of the map display we finally come to an area displaying volume and battery life.  Clicking on this takes you to sort of a “catch all” – what used to be called the quick menu.  This where you find the features and settings that don’t fit in well elsewhere.  Things like day/night display, trip recording, volume level, vehicle type (car, pedestrian, bicycle, emergency, etc.), and GPS details (showing satellites, accuracy, etc.) are all stored here along with access to the GPS settings.

Moving along to the right-hand side of the map display we start with the toggle for 2D/3D mode (gone are the old airplane mode, etc from OCN 6).  I want to point out that a lot of the display settings (like overview mode, and zooming into a maneuver) are now automatic depending on distance to your next maneuver and are configurable from the NAVIGATION menu (off of the SETTINGS menu).

Also on the right are a route/detour icon, which allows you to change aspects of your route like inserting a detour to a point of interest like a gas station), or avoiding a road along your route.

Below that is an icon labelled POSITION/CURSOR which represents things that are cursor (potision-based)  like setting a pin, setting a point as your start or destination or via point,  or adding a location to your favorites.  You start by selecting a point on the map screen itself (by tapping and holding until you hear the click/see the red target appear) on the screen and then clicking the cursor icon.  From there you can click the information icon, you can see details about that location including neighboring points of interest.  You can also set the cursor point as your start/destination/way point, and a number of other location-centric things.

The last item on the right is the MENU icon that takes you back to the MAIN menu of the program (from which you can exit the program, if desired).

By clicking (without holding) anywhere on the map screen, you pop up all the display adjustments.  The automatic ones – the “presets” available to you will pop up on the bottom of the map display.   If you need more detailed controls, then you you may also have to click on the magnifying glass icon on the left which wil then pop up the additional controls like display angle,  zoom level, and display rotation.  These will show up on the top of the map display (displacing the items that normally appear at the top of the map display).

New Orleans - looking down Poydras Street (the Superdome is on the right)

Things Observed and Things Noted – some good, some bad
One thing I noticed is that there no longer seems to be “heading up” versus “north up” modes anymore.  Instead, when you’re looking at a map overview (or zoomed out to a certain degree) you seem to be placed in “north” view.  When you’re zoomed in (in 3D mode) you’re in “heading up” mode.  It seems to be one of the things that’s been automated/streamlined.  Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t find any option to force a “north” view or a “heading up” view.

Although the improvements are impressive, the program still has a few quirks.  The approach to this program is still a bit different than many navigation programs, so some people may need a little time getting acclimated.  That said, it’s important to note, again, the aproach is now a LOT more straightforward than OCN 6 /iGo 2006 was and I find it quite useable.

Out of Memory error caused by POI search during a long route

One thing that does have me a little concerned is that OCN 8 /iGo 8 is a bit more memory-intensive than it’s predecessor.  It runs very tightly on a 64MB PDA.  Perhaps too tightly. You can only get support for TTS (text to speech) services when you are running a 128MB RAM device.  My testing was on a 64MB device without the TTS support.   I was able to cause the app to crash with an “out of memory” error without very much difficulty (I created a long route, then tried to search for POIs).  I was able to improve the situation greatly by utilizing a memory manager (I used MemMaid from Dinarsoft).  I blame the poor memory utilization partly on application robustness and efficiency, but mostly on the generally poor memory management employed by Windows Mobile.  If you clean up your WM apps before running this app, things are a lot smoother.

Having raised the concern of stability, I should mention that, in general, the application ran fairly well, but it is really sensitive to a device being powered off/on when the app was running (causing a crash back to the Today screen).  On a long trip, it is difficult if you want to simply turn of the PDA while you’re at a rest stop and then turn it back on when you return to the car.  Not ideal when that also means you have to restart the app because it crashed.  The program was a bit more robust when I ran it on a Treo 750, since that device never goes into a true “power off” state.

Speaking of the Treo 750, this is a good time to mention that this application supports a number of different display options including the 240 by 240 screen of the Treo 750.  There were a occasionally text overrun issues, but those were uncommon and I couldn’t pinpoint it down to a specific cause.  The specs of the app also list it as supporting the newer 320 by 320 displays, but I didn’t have such a device to test it on.  As mentioned, I did test it on the Treo 750 (240 by 240) as well as on an HP 47xx in QVGA and VGA modes – both portrait and landscape, and it did well in all those modes.  There are settings that allow the software to pull the mode from the device, or change the portrait/landscape manually within the program.  Again, this is something that is somtimes missing from these programs, but OCN 8 includes it.

Misspelled road name

Map area with incorrect roads in OCN 8

Incorrect TeleAtlas-based map from Google Maps

Correct Navteq-based map from Mapquest

I mentioned some quirks in the OCN 6 maps from TeleAtlas.  Unfortunately, I still have the same concerns with the OCN 8 maps.  There are still problems with these maps in a number of areas in the U.S.  Above you’ll see an example where the road name is misspelled (it should be Greyhound).  You’ll also see an example near my home where the entire neighborhood is totally incorrect with roads that are on the map but don’t really exist.  This is an older (more than 20 years old) neighborhood.  I’ve reported these problems to TeleAtlas, but these maps don’t appear to have the updates.  To be fair, the same error appears on Google maps, which also uses TeleAtlas maps.  The correct maps appear on Mapquest, which uses Navteq maps.  While this is not a crisis, it certainly does cause incorrect routes to be generated in the area and is indicative of some lingering problems with TeleAtlas maps.  Is it enough to stop me from using this program?  No.  But you need to be aware of the deficiencies.  By the way TomTom and Dash Express users in the U.S. may want to take note since you are also dependent on TeleAtlas maps.

Another concern that was raised with OCN 6 has remained with OCN8.  That is the policy of locking the software to the data card it is delivered on.  Depending on your device, this can be incredibly limiting – keeping you from moving to a larger card without buying a new copy from OCN.   It’s also a problem for people who have devices like the Touch Diamond that don’t offer a memory card slot.  I should note that in Europe, you can buy a Touch Diamond pre-configured with iGo 8, but no such option exists in the U.S.  I mentioned this when OCN 6  came out and I’ll mention it again – I’d be willing to pay a slightly higher price (maybe $20 more) to have the option to install the application from DVDs with a key or something rather than be locked only to the card sent to me.

Turning now to the topic of documentation.  There is reasonably good documentation stored as PDF files on the data card that OCN 8 comes with, but many people will likely start with the quick printed guide that came with the shipment.  Although this guide is OK and the basics are covered, it does need a little cleanup work.  The translation to English is somewhat lacking in this printed guide.  For example, there are points where they clearly meant to use the word  “city” but instead it was mistranslated as the word “settlement”.  Oddly, this does not appear to be a problem in the full user guide on the data card.  Those translations appear to be pretty clean.

Now one of the things I like to do with all these navigation devices and programs is test the calculation of very long routes (over 500 miles).  OCN 8 did very fairly well with these (the calculations were reasonably fast), but again, performing long route calculations seemed to aggravate the tight memory situation, somtimes generating an out of memory condition when combined with a POI (point of interest) search.  I do want to point out that the folks at OCN offered me some setting changes (which are now part of the standard distribution) that improve the memory problems, but don’t completely eliminate the problem.  the bottom line is that this is a LOT of application for a 64MB device to handle.  Does it work?  Yes.  But you have to me aware that you will need to do some memory management on your WM device.

One interesting note is that, when I reviewed OCN 6 I had one particular GPS receiver that I could NOT get to work reliably with the program no matter what I did.  It would work for a little bit, then drop and stutter, then work for a little while longer.  It was maddening.  On a whim, I decided to try it with OCN 8.  It worked flawlessly.  No problems whatsoever!  I don’t know what changed, but it was definitely for the better!

Another landscape view

OCN 6 had an interesting feature relating to configuration.  There was a file called SYS.TXT that could be edited to change a lot of options not explicitly called out in the menus of the program.  This allowed the program to be relatively streamlined, while still permitting special configurations and customizations.  There are a number of online discussions about modifying this configuration file and creating new looks/skins. etc.  This feature has been carried over into iGo 8 / OCN 8, even including the HP 310 navigation device I mentioned before!  I tend to leave this file alone for the most part, but occasionally I hear about a modification that I really want to try out.  If you’re not adventurous, don’t mess with this file, but if you are, you might want to make a backup of it (as well as your license file) and check out some of the modifications to be found in the online forums about iGo and OCN.

Before I wrap this up I want to quickly mention a few additional features like support for TMC (which isn’t really freely available in the U.S.) as well as support for speed/safety cameras – also not really a feature that will get much use in the U.S.  The program does support over 30 languages and has many, many voice options for the instructions (and TTS, if you have enough memory).  The program does show some lane information, has a dynamic sound option (volume changes with your speed), and the time can be set via the GPS receiver.  Lastly, OCN 8 supports track logs, automatic backlight and power management, autorun, day/night modes, and even a variety of different background pictures/patterns (the app is skinnable).

Conclusions: OCN 8 is an excellent program with many improvements over the already wonderful OCN 6.  If you have a 64MB device, however, you will need to invest in a good memory management tool to make the “out of memory” problem disappear or at least reduce in frequency.  In general, more features = more RAM requirements and there are a lot of features here!   Additionally, the TeleAtlas maps this program uses do have some long standing flaws, but the ones I’ve come across so far are not severe and can be worked around, but check how Google maps works for you since it may give you a good indication of what to expect from the OCN 8 maps.

What I Liked: Beautiful, smooth display (utilizing one of the highest frame rates out there) – 3D buildings and elevation – intuitive controls and access to settings.

What Still Needs Work: Memory intensive – sometimes crashes/out of memory – no TTS without 128MB RAM, and remaining problems with TeleAtlas maps.

Where to Buy/Price: OCN 8 is available from BuyGPS Now (buygpsnow.com) on a 2GB microSD card (with mini/SD adapter) for $59.95, a 4GB card for $79.95, or an 8GB card for $114.95.

Categories: Reviews