Application Name: OruxMaps
Description: Provides most of the functionality of a dedicated handheld GPS unit.
Publisher’s website: OruxMaps
Cost: Free (donationware)
Version/date reviewed: v.3.27 / 11-27-10
Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2
In the very first post on this website, almost four months ago, I argued that Android had the potential to displace dedicated handheld GPS units, like those from Garmin, Magellan, and DeLorme. Thing is, while I’ve posted many times on apps that perform a few of the the functions of a dedicated handheld, I haven’t yet written about a decent app that turns an Android unit into a full replacement for one of those; some come close, but the feature sets tend to be a bit slim. Now that’s going to change – this week will be devoted mostly to a review of Orux Maps, plus a few additional posts about how to take advantage of some of its advanced features.
Orux Maps is the first app I’ve reviewed that turns an Android phone into a serious functional challenger for dedicated GPS units. It’s not perfect, but if you forced me to choose between my current handheld GPS and an Android phone with Orux Maps, I’d pick the latter (but I’m glad I don’t have to choose). I’m not going to even have a “Final thoughts” section with recommendations; if you’re serious about using your Android’s GPS capabilities, this is a must-have app, period. But I will review some of its basic capabilities.
Because OruxMaps has a huge number of features, the review will be broken down into sections. Today, I’ll talk about the interface; tomorrow, external Bluetooth GPS, waypoints and tracks; and the rest of the week will talk about the online and offline map capabilities of the program. Yes, you can use maps on the app with and without an active Internet connection.
Figure 1: Starting up the program brings you to this basic startup page. Browse maps brings up a list of pre-loaded offline maps (more on this later); selecting one of those loads the map, and centers the view on the center of the map. Actual location starts up the GPS, and if an offline map is available for that area, loads it in automatically. Online Maps starts up the map view with the last selected online map type. OruxMaps comes with a preset list of online map sources, including both the usual suspects (Google, Bing, Open Street Map), and some less-common ones (aviation maps, foreign topo maps). According to the website manual, you can add WMS servers to your list of online maps, but I had problems with that.
Settings lets you configure a huge number of options for the interface, units, mapping settings and the like. You can also access settings from the map screen, plus you have quick access to some of the more important settings from any map screen by using the menu button to select the Tweaks option.
Figure 2: Here I’ve have selected Online maps, which defaults to the last online map service used (Bing Maps). The GPS is on, as indicated by the small GPS icon in the upper right part of the map view, as well as the altitude/speed/accuracy data in the dashboard at bottom. If the GPS were off, the dashboard would only show the coordinates for the center of the display and the map zoom level. Clicking on the satellite icon at upper-left turns GPS tracking on and off.
The first thing I tried to do with the program was create a waypoint, but I was stumped initially. There was no menu item for creating waypoints, and the icons at top, from left to right, are:
- Turn GPS on/off
- Change GPS acquisition mode (time/distance) to Default defined in settings), Fast (continuous time, 5 meter distance), or Power save (every 30 seconds / 80 meters).
- Turn track acquisition on/off
- Zoom map in
- Zoom map to 100% (one map pixel = one screen pixel)
- Zoom map out
But no waypoint creation icon – wha?! Turns out, though, that if you tap and drag the icons at top from right to left, additional icons will appear …
Figure 3: These icons are (left to right):
- Add a waypoint
- Delete all waypoints and tracks from screen (does not delete them from storage)
- View track/route waypoints (sometimes individual waypoints as well; this is a bit inconsistent)
- Follow a route, unload it, or stop all navigation (including waypoints)
- Go to a point, start of track/route, center of the map, or last GPS position
- View track statistics (more on this tomorrow)
Three additional icons further off the screen let you select a map layer, go to the settings section, or start up the GPS Status app. OruxMaps doesn’t come with a satellite status/strength screen, but uses the GPS status app to display this info. You’ll need to have that app installed on your Android unit to use this function; if not installed, you’ll be sent to the Android market page for GPS Status to let you install it (it’s free). I’d prefer an integrated view in OruxMaps for this, especially one that displays coordinates in large font (so I won’t need my reading glasses).
A problem with this setup is that you may not need some of the functions defined by the icons, and having to scroll the icons in the button bar to reach one that you actually do use on a regular basis can be a pain. This bothered me until I discovered in Settings => User Interface …
Figure 4: … that you can customize the button bar to include only the functions you want, and create up to four of them on-screen, each with its own set of buttons (duplicates if you like). To add a button, just tap on the icon in the center control screen, then tap the arrow button to add it to the corresponding button bar (left, top, bottom, right). You can remove individual buttons from a bar by tapping on them, or press “Reset” to remove all of them from every bar. You’ll need to exit the map screen and then restart it to see the new button configuration.
Elsewhere in the Settings => User Interface section, you’ll find options to set other map screen options, like customizing the GPS dashboard to show additional info, turning the scale on/off, making the butttons larger, etc.
Figure 5: With multiple button bars and the dashboard, though, much of the map screen will be obscured.
Figure 6: But OruxMaps has additional options in settings that will cause the button bars and/or dashboard to disappear after a few seconds, leaving the map view fully unobscured. You can also turn off the Android status bar at top to free up even more display space for the map. Tapping briefly on the map screen at the position of the button bar or dashboard will make it appear again. I do wish there was the option to have a specific button bar always visible, and others disappear, but for now it’s all of them or none of them.
Figure 7: Unlike some map apps that only show maps in 1:1 pixel mode, OruxMaps lets you overzoom, making some of the finer details easier to see. For my area, Bing Maps has exceptionally high-quality aerial maps, at least 1-ft. per pixel or better, making it possible to spot very fine details.
Figure 8: You should definitely check out the Tweaks section, available from the menu. This is a shortcut to a number of options also available in settings, but easier to access this way. Perhaps my favorite is turning Compass and View Angle on. Compass puts a small compass view at the top, showing which direction is true north (magnetic declination is automatically corrected for), while View Angle shows a small yellow wedge overlay indicating which direction the phone is pointed. You can also set the map display mode so that it rotates either in the direction the phone is pointed, or in the direction you’re moving. Additional tweaks include the option to change the position cursor color, and dim the display for use at night.
That’s it for Part I; Part II tomorrow will look at GPS functionality and recording waypoints and tracks.