BACKPACK

DISK DRIVERS

The compjtter is not yet king of the road, but its day will soon come

WARREN CARAGATA October 16 1995
BACKPACK

DISK DRIVERS

The compjtter is not yet king of the road, but its day will soon come

WARREN CARAGATA October 16 1995

DISK DRIVERS

BACKPACK

The compjtter is not yet king of the road, but its day will soon come

TECHNOLOGY

WARREN CARAGATA

When the days become cooler and the leaves begin to fall, the thoughts of many Canadians turn south, following the geese who are smart enough to get out while they can. Already, hundreds of thousands of people are planning winter escapes from blizzards, snowbound driveways and windwhipped sidewalks. The difference this year is that computers are beginning to shoulder aside more traditional planning tools such as guide books and motor-league maps. Taking advantage of another recent migration—that of computing power from office to home—software firms and mapping companies are flooding store shelves with a category of consumer software that did not even exist a few years ago. Push aside the bulky road atlases and the maps that can never be refolded properly, turn on the computer and get ready to follow the geese.

Or not. Mapping software, unfortunately, is one of those cases where the technological wizardry does not quite live up to the promise. The products work, sometimes very well, but it is still not yet time to throw out the paper maps. Too often, the CD-ROM-based software is slow, awkward to use and lacks the level of detail—

especially in cities and far off the beaten Navigating track-that a lost motorist might desire. A with Automap more obvious problem is that most home cornon a Macintosh puters are desktop machines. Short of purPowerbook: chasing a pricey new laptop, says Allan Plank, mapping managing director of publishing for the Aniersoftware is ican Automobile Association, most consumers getting better "don't currently have a way to take it with by the month them." But while the electron is not yet king of the road, it must be said that mapping software is in its infancy, im proving by the month, not the year. Its day will come soon.

Meantime, consumers who want to taste the future can choose one of several products now available in Canada. Their performance is similar. The user enters the beginning and end points of a trip, along with any preferred stopovers; the computer then works out the best route, displaying a map and a list of directions, which can be printed for use en route. Some products add lists of hotels and popular attractions. Still others supply photos along with site descriptions.

To help people decide if the products are worth the price, Maclean’s tested four of the most popular: Microsoft’s Automap Road Atlas,

Map’n’Go from DeLorme Mapping, TripMaker from Rand McNally and Key Travel Map/North America from SoftKey International. The review (conducted on a 486/33 computer with eight megabytes of RAM, a double-speed CD-ROM drive and Windows 95) was based on two theoretical trips, one from Ottawa to Miami and another from Truro, N.S., to Prince Rupert, B.C. Automap and Map’n’Go proved to be the superior products, but the dream team would be a marriage between DeLorme’s mapping abilities and Microsoft’s software skills.

Like many Microsoft products, Automap started life under different parentage but was adopted by Microsoft in a corporate takeover. NextBase Ltd., a British company, was swallowed up in November, 1994. Five months later, Microsoft released a new version, promising a better user interface and faster route calculations. It has generally delivered. Working out the Ottawa-Miami trip took about 20 seconds, a fraction of the time some of the other programs required. And to make things easier, the U.S. software giant has introduced its Wizard, a feature used in several other Microsoft products. The Wizard prompts the user for information and automates the process of using the software. In addition to setting the start and stop points, users can specify the roadside attractions they wish to see, how many hours a day they intend to drive, the capacity of their car’s fuel tank, average fuel consumption, usual highway speeds, road preferences and whether they prefer the quickest or shortest routes.

The computer then spits out the details:

Ottawa-Miami will be a trip of 2,640 km; at eight hours a day, the journey will last three days, four hours and 22 minutes.

Automap even works out a total cost for gasoline if the user enters an average price.

Canadians can set the program in miles or

GUIDE TO THE GUIDES

Automap (Microsoft) $60

Pro: Fast, flexible and easy to use, capable of being customized Con: Maps lack street-level detail, zooming in can be tricky

Map’n’Go (DeLorme Mapping) $52

Pro: Excellent maps with good detail Con: Clumsy operating controls

TripMaker (Rand McNally) $53

Pro: Operating controls fairly easy to use Con: Requires 15 megabytes of hard-drive space for smooth operation, some information is wrong (company promises new version is faster and better)

Key Travel Map (Softkey) $35

Pro: Useful for travel within the United States Con: Weak on Canadian geography

Prices are approximate

kilometres, gallons or litres. The list of directions is relatively easy to read and can be customized. Like several of its competitors, Automap includes some travel information, such as phone numbers for car rentals and hotel chains, but does not offer a database of individual hotels and motels. It also provides basic provincial and state information, including speed limits and phone numbers for road and tourist information. One drawback is that the program does not always move to the desired area of detail—an attempt to zoom in on eastern Pennsylvania, for example, may result in a display of part of Wyoming or Hudson Bay. On the plus side, Automap comes with 1,100 color pictures of various sights, plus major ski hills. Microsoft also sells a

Destination Golf add-on that includes course descriptions. Airport and hotel add-ons are available free in the Microsoft forum on CompuServe or from the company’s own Microsoft Network.

DeLorme’s Map’n’Go surpasses all the other products with its street-level detail. It is possible not merely to start the trip from a designated city, but from a specific location—such as Parliament Hill. Map’n’Go also comes with a database of hotels and restaurants that can be pinpointed on its maps. In fact, in the U.S. market DeLorme sells a high-end product that may well be standard equipment in most cars a few years from now: GPS MapKit allows a user to connect his laptop computer to a global positioning satellite receiver, making it possible to find out not only how to get there from here, but to keep track of exactly where here is.

The strength of Map’n’Go is its maps; the weakness is the software design. The standard interface is a thing only a mother could love, a control panel that dominates the screen, with arrows that allow the user to move the map and adjust the zoom level. Thankfully, the panel can be removed, but then controlling the program is more difficult.

The program is also slower than Automap, taking one minute and 40 seconds to calculate the Ottawa-Miami trip and more than six minutes to work through Truro-Prince Rupert (30 seconds with Automap). On its first shot at the Canadian coast-to-coast trip, it chose a route through the far north of Quebec, via Chibougamau, instead of the more logical Trans-Canada drive through Montreal. On the second try, it chose a longer route that was almost entirely on American highways, only entering Canada near Osoyoos, B.C. The list of travel directions that the program generates is relatively clear but cannot be customized. Also frustrating is the fact that it only shows five lines of text at a time.

Next best is Rand McNally’s TripMaker. The company has been producing maps since 1923, but the software has several flaws. Most glaring is that it works best if it is fully installed on the computer’s hard drive, eating up an imposing 15 megabytes of disk space. The program has several American quirks, as well, that cannot be changed. It uses only miles and gallons, and some of the information that it provides for Canadian sites is incomplete or wrong. Among attractions in the nation’s capital, it lists the uninspiring campus of Algonquin College but not Parliament Hill. Overlooking Toronto, Rand McNally calls Montreal Canada’s largest city, adding that “most French-Canadians are bilingual and bicultural, blending the refined tastes and joie de vivre of France with the vigor of Canada.” The company says a new version, just released, will fix these problems. The new version also includes brief video clips and 250 city maps, including ones for Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

For Americans, Softkey’s Key Travel Map is probably a good product—slower than the others, but with street-level detail, and capable of being customized with addresses and other data. But while SoftKey claims the product is its NAFTA edition, Canadians will find problems galore. The program incorrectly places the Northern Ontario town of Kapuskasing south of Ottawa and identifies the Trans-Canada Highway as Interstate 1. Working out a route from Ottawa to Miami is complicated by the fact that the program has difficulty locating Ottawa in the first place. No surprise, then, that on the cross-Canada trip, the software decided Truro was in Massachusetts. Enough said.

Automap and Map’n’Go are both proof that mapping software has a future—and that the future is probably not far off. Soon enough, there may come a time when it will no longer be necessary to pull into a gas station and ask for directions. Of course, getting lost was always part of the adventure of the open road. It is an adventure that may be lost to future generations of motorists. □