Trimble Part 2 – “Navigator” Phone App

Post by blogger | August 7, 2013      
Trimble Navigator app on my Galaxy Note showing a route obtained from their cloud database.

Trimble Navigator app on my Galaxy Note showing a route obtained from their cloud database.

Trimble is a deeply experienced GPS company that sells a GPS smartphone app as well as cloud sourced desktop companion software. We reviewed their desktop companion some time ago. This review is focused on the phone app.

First, naming conventions: If you search for Trimble in the Android app store you’ll see icons for “Trimble Outdoors Free,” “Trimble Outdoors Pro,” “My Topo Free,” and “My Topo Pro.” But the text next to the Outdoors icon will add the word “Navigator” to the mix. On top of that, they offer “Elite” versions/memberships in addition to “Pro,” and when you’re viewing the free version of Trimble Outdoors on your smartphone, you’ll notice they offer an upgrade to Pro+ (that’s with a plus sign). Frankly, by the time I saw the + sign and also realized that the smartphone app was called “Navigator” rather than “Trimble Outdoors Pro+” I gave up trying to understand what all the Trimble stuff is officially called.

So we’ll do a couple of things to simplify. First, in this review I’ll ignore “My Topo.” Instead we’ll discuss the Trimble Outdoors Navigator smartphone app and we’ll call it either “Navigator Free” or “Navigator Pro.” If you’re curious about what the + sign means (not much), you can view the features matrix of Navigator here.

The nut of the deal is that unless you pay a one-time charge of $4.99 for Navigator Pro you’re not going to be able to grab and store offline maps for use in the backcountry. What is more, Navigator Free will obscure part of your screen with advertising. Thus, for backcountry navigation you’ll need the Pro version or else buy map cards from Trimble. Map SD cards are $69.99 per state. Again, the Pro version lets you backload maps while you’ve got data access. But if you stay mostly in the same area, buying a map card could easily be worth its cost due to saving time you’d spend fooling around with map loading.

(Note, you can transfer SD card map data to a larger card if you need extra storage.)

Map Navigation — use device as a basic GPS.
Most muscle powered backcountry travelers use GPS as a simple map-and-locate tool. You set up your device with a terrain map on the screen, and let the pointer icon tell you where you are. Beyond that, you might download a route, show it on your map screen, and follow it.

Navigator does an adequate job of supporting such basic GPS assisted travel.

Trimble Navigator map screen is relatively uncluttered, though you’ll still wish for a way to disappear the ridiculous blue band across the top, which takes up a hefty percentage of your pricy Android LCD to state the word “Map,” presumably so if you don’t know what a map looks like, you’ll know you are looking at a map. A tiny GPS satellite connection indicator is there as well, but again doesn’t need about 9% of your Gorilla glass.

If you zoom your map too much, you get this, then have to zoom back down for a visible map. This annoyance definitely needs a fix.

When using online or cached maps, if you zoom your map too much you get this, then have to zoom back down for a visible map. This annoyance definitely needs a fix. (Trimble map SD card does not have this problem.)

A menu across the bottom of the map screen show a fat “TRACK” button that turns on your route tracking as well as a “Layers” option that takes you to your map layer choices. Map types are limited, but adequate: a couple of street maps, some satellite views, USGS topo maps (My Topo), and Terrain OCM. For backcountry navigation I’d generally use USGS, OCM and a sat view.

One brain pricking annoyance is that when using online or cached maps, Navigator maps will zoom to a level where you’ll see no more map, but instead get a screen full of error messages. I’ve used the app quite a bit and still encounter this due to accidental finger swipes and taps, or during the simple act of attempting to get the max zoom level for a map. It would seem trivial for an app to stop zooming when there is nothing larger to display. Indeed, other map & GPS apps I’ve tried have no problem with this. Likewise, when using the Trimble map SD card, zoom stops at the visible limit without confusion.

Marking a map for backloading is a confusing process but it works. If you did it regularly you'd easily memorize the process.

Marking a map for backloading is a confusing process but it works. If you did it regularly you'd easily memorize the process.

Using Trimble Navigator to pre-load maps for offline use is obscure but doable once you learn the non-intuitive steps: First get a map showing on your screen, centered on your trip or location. Touch Layers/Offline-Maps. Next, on the “Offline Maps” screen press the arcane +/new icon on the lower right which brings your map back up with a user adjustable bounding box. Why you can’t just do this from the map screen is an odd quirk. Once your bounding box covers the area you want to pre-load (keep it tight, huge amounts of data), touch “Next.” Here you’ll select your map types for storing on your advice. Again, keep it simple, generally Terrain:OCM and Topo:MyTopo. But wait, it gets more confusing. The next screen allows you to select zoom levels you’ll download. The upper slider is your max and the lower your min. For backcountry navigation use always download the max zoom level, but try keeping the minimum to 9 or so, as you don’t really need the view from outer space.

Another confusion point with backloading maps is once you’re navigating, make sure the map layer you’re using is one of the layers you stored. Otherwise you get a bunch of tiles that give the non-helpful error message: “Error: No Network Connection.” Uh huh, I happen to know I’m on the south side of nowhere without a cell tower in 100 miles. I-don’t-have-a-network-connection-thankyouverymuch — now what?

Indeed, context-sensitive error messages might be something Trimble could look at providing. The map tiles have enough space to say something like “Error: turn on network connection or use offline map layer you downloaded.”

Another gotcha is that the map download to your device may take some time. Have a large SD card unless you’re selecting small areas for download.

Trimble Navigator stats screen is surprisingly limited, doesn't show your GPS coords.

Trimble Navigator stats screen is surprisingly limited, doesn't show your GPS coords.

Using the “Jump” option on the bottom menu, you can shift to “Stats,” which is a disappointing GPS information screen that’s limited to showing variations of distance, speed and elevation. Amazingly, even though this is a GPS app the Stats screen can’t be set up to show your present GPS coordinates. I find that to be just plain weird, and unfortunately require running another GPS app that has a better information screen. (I don’t usually allude to possible upgrades, but in this case Trimble does say they’ll soon be adding GPS coords to the stats screen. Let’s hope that happens soon, as this is a deal breaker for some folks.)

If you do need your GPS coords, here is what you do:
Option 1) With your map on the screen, press “Track” then “Mark.” This will show you the coords of your location, and create a waypoint if you want.
Option 2) Long-press on the Map screen and create a waypoint, which will show GPS coords. My big blunt finger does this crudely, but the stylus that comes with my Galaxy Note is just the tool for the job, and in fact allows me to mark a series of very accurate waypoints, thus essentially creating a “route.” (It’s also possible to create a waypoint by entering GPS coords, as with most GPS units.)

Big icons look somewhat juvenile -- until you use in bright light. Then, aha!

Big icons look somewhat juvenile -- until you use in bright light. Then, aha! Still, why not just put them on a black background? Anything to help with how bad smartphone screens are in bright ambient light is a huge plus.

GPS app use in bright sunlight is always a pain. While the Trimble maps have nothing unique that helps with this (wouldn’t it be cool if they did?), the large icons in the “Jump” menu are a real plus. They look old-fashioned when you’re indoors and not needing them, but they sure help during actual backcountry use. What a concept; you can actually see what you’re tapping!

Next, what about that mysterious arrow icon that’s the map pointer? What’ll confuse the newb is when you’re moving at walking speed it seems to jiggle around and rotate, with no plan. When you’re driving, it points in your direction of travel until you stop (say, at a stop sign), in which case it swings north. The root setting for how the pointer operates is the “Use Magnetic Compass” choice in the app settings. With any GPS, you always want this switched on if available, as it’s key to making a GPS unit work well for blind navigation (say, in a whiteout). The following assumes your phone is set to use magnetic compass.

The mysterious blue pointer icon. Which way does it point? Also, it needs a few size and shape options.

The mysterious blue pointer icon. Which way does it point? Also, it needs a few size and shape options.

– When you exceed a certain speed or combo of speed and motion, the pointer operates in “vehicle mode” in which it points your direction of travel. In other words, the pointer does not reflect the magnetic compass.

– At walking pace, the icon points north and reflects the magnetic compass. The jiggling is movement of your map/screen “under” the pointer. In blind navigation, you’d want to keep your screen rotated so that the up direction (north) on the screen remained aligned with pointer direction (north). That way your map would be oriented to the land under your feet and you’d thus be able to walk the correct direction away from that 1,000 foot cliff just to your south.

– Hint if you have trouble visualizing: When in walking mode, rotate unit the direction you want the pointer to “move,” so as to align pointer with “up” on the map. Try it.

– Pointer arrow is large and may obscure detail underneath. I can’t find an option for changing size or shape. Sometimes a simple dot would be better with a nice big compass overlaying part of the screen. Near as I can tell, center of the arrow is your location, not the end of the pointer.

– Confusion about pointer seems to come from 1) the fact that it operates differently depending on your magnetic compass settings; 2) whether your phone thinks you are driving or walking. In my opinion, this should be something the user can toggle to automatic or manual.

In summary, Trimble Outdoors Navigator Pro:

— A pleasantly simple app that doesn’t confuse.

— Sometimes app is too simple, for example lacking a full GPS info screen.

— Compass is nice, but only available on a separate page. Needs an option to overlay a compass on the map, perhaps with different size options.

— Backloading maps is a confusing process, but does work.

— Available SD map cards are expensive, but super nice.

— Large icons are terrific in bright light but overall design could still be better for visibility in the reflector oven.

— Overall screen interface could be better designed for bright light. White text on light backlit blue is not exactly high contrast, though it does look nice in your grandmother’s parlor. An overall white on black or black on white option would be appreciated. Even grandma might like it once she was outside, squinting at her smartphone trying to find the tomato patch in her garden she stored as a waypoint.

— No option for drawing or otherwise creating a track or route, other than actually traveling the route. You can create a series of waypoints and do a “GoTo” to each point. Rather primitive and fiddly.

— Both free and paid app versions are integrated with Trimble Outdoors, access all their cloud stored trips (when using the free app some trips cost, some are free, confusing). Create your own trip using their desktop companion. This is important as many of the excellent GPS apps out there in appland lack an integrated way of creating routes on your desktop then easily utilizing on your phone. What is more, if you have any wish to share trips, via social media or blogging or otherwise, the Trimble system for doing so is robust.

— On the whole, recommended if you’re serious about using pre existing routes/trips obtained online from Trimble, or creating and publishing routes/trips yourself. Test the free app and upgrade to “Pro” version if you like it.


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13 Responses to “Trimble Part 2 – “Navigator” Phone App”

  1. Tom Gos August 7th, 2013 2:30 pm

    Lou, In Navigator Pro on the “Stats” screen you can touch any of the fields and bring up a box that allows you to choose what information is displayed in that field – this allows you to display more info than your screen capture shows. One of the choices is “Elevation”, and this gives you a quick place to see your current elevation. Sadly they do not give us the ability to display current position. Some time ago I suggested to Trimble that they add an easy way to display current position, and an easy way to send my current position via SMS, but they have not added these features yet. I feel that being able to easily read my current position is very important for true navigation when working with papr maps, and being able to easily send my position as an SMS would be very useful in an emergency situation (you can imagine having a busted leg and trying to read coordinates in the app and then accurately type them into an SMS message…). Even the ability to send a saved waypoint via SMS could be quite useful as more and more often I find enough signal in the backcountry to SMS but not enough for a data connection of call.

    I have recently begun to play around with the MyTopo app – I use the excellent MyTopo Terrain Navigator Pro desktop software (unfortunately it’s pricey) and they give you the MyTopo app with the desktop subscription. So far it seems to be quite similar to the Navigator apps, but it does advertise the ability to create routes/tracks on the desktop computer and have them sync to the Android app. If this works it would be quite useful, but maybe not so much as to justify the cost of the desktop software and annual subscriptions.

    I agree that the map downloading is awkward. If my memory is correct, earlier versions of Navigator allowed you to cache maps simply by viewing them on the screen. In this way could simply scroll the screen around and cache whatever map tiles were viewed. This was tedious for large areas, but pretty idiot proof. The current version is supposed to cache viewed maps (if you turn this on in the Settings) but in practice it doesn’t seem to be working for me.

    I also find it difficult to share trips other than through the Timble Outdoors website. The “My Trips” page gives you the option to Facebook a trip, but it would be nice to have the option to share trips in other ways (like email). Have you found a way to do this?

  2. Lou Dawson August 7th, 2013 2:50 pm

    Tom, thanks, I’ll edit where necessary. I definitly didn’t catch that part about the Stats screen. I do know that maps will cache, but I tested and it’s so random as to be pretty much useless to depend on for critical life-dependent navigation. So instead of dissing the feature I just treated it like it didn’t exist (grin). More soon, I’d better get in there and edit if I messed up about the Stats. Lou

  3. Lou Dawson August 7th, 2013 3:01 pm

    Tom, any idea why my stats screen doesn’t show any data, even though I’ve got a map up with my GPS pointer on my location? Anyone else? Update: Turns out I had to move around a bit to trigger the stats. Ho hummm….

  4. Tom Gos August 7th, 2013 3:21 pm

    Lou, I believe that you must have an active trip going to see stats, even elevation. Try turning the Track recording on, which should prompt you to start a Trip, and then you should be able to see stats. Interestingly I will see a position indicator on the map even though my phone is telling me that I don’t have a GPS “lock”. I think that the app has the ability to use your position based on cell network triangulation even when you don’t have GPS locked in.

    Also, I was playing with the map caching, hadn’t done it in a while, and was reminded that you can only cache 200MB of maps. This isn’t much. I was trying to cache my “neck of the woods” which is N Sawatch/Gore/10 Mile and this totaled 2GB – way more than what is allowed. Based on the Trimble website marketing bable it appears that maybe if I upgrade to the Elite subscription I will be able to cache larger amounts of map data. Can you confirm? If this is the case, then buying the SD card seems to make even more sense, especially if I can copy over to a larger memory SD card.

  5. Lou Dawson August 7th, 2013 4:10 pm

    Tom, yes, the app uses whatever location services the phone has, as do most smartphone GPS apps. I’ve been turning off everything but the satellite GPS during testing, to simulate being in the backcountry.

    As for pre-loading maps, it’s important to be clear that:

    1. Automatic caching perhaps does have a limit, not the same thing as manually marking a region then pulling the data down from the web.
    2. I found no limit to manual pre-loading, and did a pretty large area with lots of layers.
    3. If you do a lot of nav in one state, the SD card makes total sense. I’d go broke buying them for all the states and provinces I visit, so the preload is super important to guys like me who travel alot.
    4. The automatic caching is indeed too fiddly and mysterious to be of much use for getting maps for later use while offline.

    I’m not the person to ask about what type of subscription does what, I’ve been confused from the start about Plus, Elite, Pro, Free and so on.


  6. Tom Gos August 8th, 2013 1:36 pm

    Lou, you and I seem to be the only ones geeking out on this stuff!

    I believe I may be misinterpreting the 200MB limit message I am getting, it must mean that you can only download 200MB in one shot, but you can store as much as you like.

    FWIW, I spent some more time last night playing around with the Terrain Navigator Pro app. Its extremely similar to Outdoor Navigator Pro; but notably does provide a field on the Stats page that shows current position, and it lacks all of the media and social media features that are included in Outdoor Navigator Pro.

  7. Lou Dawson August 8th, 2013 2:24 pm

    Oh, there are plenty of other people trying to use this stuff to one degree or another. It’s just a bit tedious to try and communicate about it all in writing, due to the confusing naming of things, arcane details of how the apps work, etc.

    My focus here is on apps that have some kind of provision for creating routes and sharing routes. Let me know what else you think is out there. Most of the phone apps, while some are quite nice, don’t seem to include any sort of desktop route planning companion.


  8. Tom Gos August 8th, 2013 2:50 pm

    Lou, I think you are correct with regard to a desktop companion. The other GPS/topo mapping app I am familiar with is BackCountry Navigator Pro from CritterMap Software. It provides easier display of current coordinates, and somewhat easier downloading of map tiles, but no integrated desktop app – they do have some desktop relationship with a site called that allows for sharing and maybe desktop planning.

  9. Terry August 9th, 2013 12:00 am

    Hey Lou,
    If you haven’t seen it already, check out this online mapping site. Am still figuring it out, but Caltopo has some advanced capabilities: – basic useage info

  10. Lou Dawson August 9th, 2013 6:17 am

    Thanks Terry, I’ve played around with Caltopo quite a bit, good to remind folks that they’re there! Lou

  11. Jack Dykes November 16th, 2013 12:06 pm

    I’m a total amateur at this,but on the statsscreen I set one of the emptyboxes to “location” and it gave me the coordinates and updated them as I walked.

  12. Lou November 16th, 2013 1:41 pm

    Good Jack, they’ve been making changes to the app. Unfortunaly the (hopefully) north pointing location indicator has gone away in favor of a dot. This is problematic hen navigating in zero visibility. Hopefully they’ll reinstate the north pointing arrow, perhaps with an option to switch from it back to the dot.

    I’ve not used the app for a few weeks. In truth, I got frustrated when I made a track up here at our cabin before we had internet, and discovered I could not transfer the track to my PC to use in mapping software. I still think that is problematic, but since I have internet here now it’s not going to bother me as much.

    Main thing I’m noticing is none of these apps are that great once you really dig in.


  13. Eastcoastdan February 15th, 2016 10:16 pm

    Hey guys, so far as I can tell (using the search function) this is the last time GPS navigation was discussed. What’s the latest? Have you all migrated to one superior app? Or have you all gone back to dedicated GPS units?

    Been planning on getting a GPS for a few years, did not realize that a smartphone could potentially be a better option until recently.


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