I have always loved maps. I can read a map for hours: cool names of little towns; different colors for each state (why is Louisiana pink?); all the different ways of getting from here to there.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I relied on Thomas Brothers maps. These books are hundreds of pages long, each page covering about 70 square miles. I just looked up a street name in the index, found the address on the map, and plotted the course myself.
These days, of course, most people use one of the online mapping and directions services, such as MapQuest, MSN’s Maps, Yahoo Maps, and TopoZone. There are also sites for browsing topographic and census data, and even satellite photos.
But if you use Mac OS X and want mapping software that covers the whole country (without requiring an Internet connection), right now there’s only one game in town: Route 66, published by Geographic Information Systems BV in the Netherlands. The company produces mapping software for Europe, Canada, and the USA; I’m reviewing the combined USA/Canada package here. (National Geographic sells the only other mapping software for the Mac; it’s focused on topography, though the company claims the product is suitable for planning road trips.)
Why should you buy mapping software if you can get maps and directions for free on the Internet? Here are a few reasons:
- More control over how routes are created and printed
- Additional information like latitude, longitude, and altitude
- Capability to save frequently used locations and routes
- Faster zooming and scaling
- Ability to use maps/directions while in your car or on an airplane
- Real-time mapping with global positioning satellites (GPS)
Route 66 does all these things – some surprisingly well, some in surprisingly clunky ways. I ran into the occasional inaccurate distance or misplacement of addresses, which seem to afflict every type of mapping application. I also found the format for displaying directions to be strangely contorted. At the same time, the maps print at incredibly high quality.
Unfortunately, I had to drop one of the reasons to use Route 66 right away; I was not able to get Route 66’s GPS integration to work. Theoretically, any GPS unit that follows the NMEA-0183 v2.0 protocol should work, and all recent units I looked into claimed some level of NMEA compatibility. But when I tried Route 66 with a compatible Navman GPS e Series unit, I couldn’t get it to work. If you use GPS on a Mac, feel free to send me a recommendation for a brand and model.
I still found Route 66 to be plenty useful. You interact with Route 66 through a single window with several panes: one for searching, one that displays a map, and one that shows any waypoints you have defined; the last pane shows directions for the route between your waypoints. A toolbar lets you choose tools for zooming, selecting, measuring as the crow flies, getting information about a particular location, bookmarking a location with a thumbtack, and using a location as a waypoint for a route you design.
Route Searching — The search pane is where things get interesting. Type in an address, and you get a map. Not just a map, but sometimes a list of businesses located at that address. I had no idea Sun Microsystems had an office in my building. That’s the kind of serendipity you just don’t get from a paper map.
You can also search for businesses. When I type my doctor’s name, I get his address and a map of his location, plus his phone number and medical specialty. After finding my house on the map, I can tell Route 66 to give me a list of doctors within five miles. You also can tell Route 66 to display all doctors on the map with a red cross icon and scale the map to get a custom search radius.
This feature begs for experimentation. What’s the closest bank? Or Apple Store (unfortunately only a few of the stores are in the Route 66 database)? Quite a few merchants, from 7-Eleven to CompUSA, get their own special icon, which you can display or hide for printing or viewing onscreen. I asked for Places of Worship and found nine churches within about three miles of my house. Unfortunately, all Places of Worship get the same cross-adorned logo – even the synagogues and mosques. Yikes! How do you say "faux pas" in Dutch?
The search feature has its weak points. If you type in a typical Washington DC address like 1500 H St NW, you’ll get what seems to be a list of every street in Washington. Apparently, anything with an H, including the word Washington, counts.
Rooting for Routes — Creating routes is simple. Once you’ve marked your location with a thumbtack (you can bookmark any number of locations that way) you can easily tell Route 66 to use that location as a departure point, and define any of the locations you’ve found (or any point on a road on the map) as a destination. Route 66 automatically, and fairly quickly, lays out the route in between. You can tell Route 66 not to use a particular road by setting a "road block"; Route 66 then chooses the best route that avoids the roadblock. This is a big improvement over MapQuest, which might insist on sending you down the wrong way on a one-way street or making you turn left at a sketchy intersection. You can even plan routes with multiple stops (hardware store, bank, home) and have Route 66 determine the optimal route for you, based on speed, mileage, or cost.
The narrative directions, though, are a bit strange and long-winded. I prefer an abbreviated style of directions:
W Apple Ridge Rd. 0.25
R Watkins Mill Rd 0.90
B/C Neelsville Church Rd
For me, this translates into, "Go west on Apple Ridge Road for one quarter mile. Turn right on Watkins Mill Road. After 0.9 miles it becomes Neelsville Church Road." When I’m driving or riding my bike, I only need to glance down to know what I’m looking for next and how far it is between turns.
Route 66, by contrast, just blabs and blabs:
(begin) Apple Ridge Rd (Montgomery Village) Leave in south-western direction. After 1330 ft turn right towards Watkins Mill Rd 1330 ft Watkins Mill Rd. After 0.9 mi straight on to the Neelsville Church Rd
And that’s with "Use concise route descriptions" turned on! The text above doesn’t even include all the columns that Route 66 provides, which cannot be hidden or rearranged. Notice how Route 66 can’t even bring itself to round 1330 feet up to one quarter of a mile (which is 1360 feet). The user cannot choose the precision. Personally, I would prefer hundredths of a mile to feet. The odd phrasing (who turns "towards" a street that they are turning onto?) screams, "I’ve been translated!" No matter what, it sounds wrong for a product aimed at a U.S. and Canadian audience.
X Approximately Marks the Spot — The worst thing about Route 66 – any computerized map, really – is the uncertainty about whether its data is correct. I did an unscientific test, trying out locations that I had actually visited in several states. I’d say that about a third of the time, there was some weird glitch in Route 66’s data.
My parents’ house in California is shown a block away from where it actually is. (MapQuest makes the same mistake.)
My kid’s school in Maryland is shown 1/4 mile north of where it actually is. That’s the other side of town for us. (MapQuest doesn’t even list this school)
The house where my wife grew up in Pennsylvania isn’t even in the database. (MapQuest has it, though the placement is off a little.)
Route 66 doesn’t recognize the address of the Maryland vehicle emissions testing facility closest to my house, which seems like exactly the wrong thing to leave out of a program people use with their cars. (MapQuest had it.)
A road I have bicycled on for years is shown as incomplete. (MapQuest has it right.)
Route 66 told me to turn left at an intersection where left turns are prohibited. (MapQuest avoided this problem.)
When you search for "LaGuardia" you see an airport icon in Lower Manhattan, between Houston and Bleecker on LaGuardia Place. That would be an awfully convenient place for an airport, but I can attest to the fact that LaGuardia Airport is still in Queens, some 8.5 miles from Route 66’s icon. If you look at Route 66’s map of Queens, LaGuardia is clearly there, but Route 66’s search engine doesn’t seem to know that.
Overall, Route 66’s data seems slightly worse than MapQuest’s. One drawback of having the map software on your computer is that it’s much more difficult for the publisher to keep updated than a Web site. I always take computerized directions with a grain of salt, and Route 66 is no exception.
Route 66 by Bicycle — The main reason I personally was interested in buying mapping software was to help plan bike rides. When you plan a ride, especially in new territory, you want a succinct list of all the turns you have to make and how far it is between turns. This is called a "cue sheet." I have found that an accurate cue sheet gives me a lot more confidence because I can always look down at my odometer and tell if I have gone too far or not far enough. But making a cue sheet can be a tedious process involving rolling a little measuring wheel over a paper map repeatedly to get an good measurement.
I was hoping that Route 66 might generate cue sheets for me, maybe with turn-by-turn maps. At a minimum, I was hoping that it would at least measure my routes accurately.
It took a lot of experimentation, but I now have a halfway decent result. The key is to plan your route carefully and keep in mind Route 66’s limitations. Route 66 thinks in terms of streets and addresses. If you try to set a waypoint in the middle of a forest, Route 66 instead uses the closest street address, so forget about planning hikes. Route 66 doesn’t even have a concept of a street intersection; you cannot search for locations by intersection. Cue sheets, on the other hand, consist of almost nothing but intersections: go down this road for X miles, turn right at the intersection of Y Road. You don’t say, "Go to 10305 Z Street and turn right," but that’s how Route 66 thinks of it.
A reasonable compromise is that you can put a thumbtack in the middle of an intersection and name the thumbtack something like "Warfield/Dorsey". If you do a search for "Dorsey Warfield" Route 66 will find your thumbtack. Make a thumbtack for each turn on your ride. Then assemble a route from your thumbtacks. Be careful to add them to the route in the order they will be visited, and make each successive one (except for the first) a "destination" waypoint. You can reorder the points by dragging them into the right order if you make a mistake.
Another key is reverse psychology: to try to trick Route 66 into choosing the particular route you want, rather than directing it to each and every intersection. Route 66 frequently gives strange measurements that sometimes involve backtracking when you explicitly tell it to make a lot of turns in a short distance.
If you use fewer waypoints and let Route 66 have more control over the route, the distances are consistent and more-or-less correct. In addition, the directions and turn-by-turn maps are easier to understand because the extra backtracking isn’t there. Sometimes two waypoints, perhaps augmented by a roadblock, are all Route 66 needs to plot the route the way you want, even if you want multiple turns between the waypoints.
A very cool feature is that Route 66 can list every gas station and store within a set distance of a waypoint, and then show their logos on the map. If you find yourself dying for a PowerBar, you’ll at least have some idea where the next one is available. Route 66 claims it can also do this search for the entire route, but the search took so long I never actually had the patience to see if it worked.
Another way Route 66 improves on the paper map experience is with altitude information. On a map, all the roads look flat. On a bicycle, they are not. When going into unfamiliar territory, it is nice to know whether the terrain is within your ability. Route 66 makes it fairly easy to get altitude information for a particular point or street, but it would be nice if it also showed you the peaks and valleys on your route.
Once you add all your waypoints to your route, they are conveniently shown by thumbtack name in the directions – until you save and reopen the route. Then Route 66 converts everything into street number addresses, which definitely would look weird to your bike club. You’ll have to print your route before you close it for the directions to be comprehensible. There is no way to export directions from Route 66, except as a PDF via Print Preview. If you want to tweak anything about the directions, you’ll need to retype them yourself (unless you have the full version of Adobe Acrobat; PDF2Office just butchers it).
Interface and Tools — The user interface generally needs work. There is no Open Recent menu item, and Route 66 is the only Mac OS X application I use that completely forgets the last directory I visited. Every time you try to open a stored route file, you start at your home directory.
There are no keyboard equivalents for any of the tools, such as zoom in and zoom out. If you are using the "info" tool, which shows the exact address under the cursor, you can’t zoom, set a waypoint or thumbtack, or add a roadblock without switching tools. That requires either a trip up to the toolbar or a Control-click. A tool palette would at least make the journey shorter, but keyboard commands would be best.
On the other hand, the zoom tool is very clever. Simply drag a rectangle, like cropping a picture in iPhoto, and that rectangle is scaled up to fill the map area of the window. You can zoom in to a neighborhood-size scale and run the "information" tool over the streets. Each address is shown in a tooltip. The ruler tool lets you measure straight-line distances, and also shows latitude and longitude (to the hundredth of a second) and altitude (to 10 feet of accuracy, but don’t bet your pilot’s license on it).
However, there’s no speedy way to zoom out. It takes more than 25 clicks to go from the largest scale (1:2,300, or 1 inch equalling 192 feet) to the smallest (1:84,000,000, or 1 inch equalling 1,326 miles). Fortunately, the scale indicator is also a drop-down menu that lets you choose the area covered by a map (2 miles square, for instance) or a state or province to display.
A far more serious problem, in my book, is the glitchy help system. You would think the one place a software publisher would want to avoid problems is the very place users go to solve their problems. Route 66’s help is a simple HTML-based Windows port (right down to the little purple book icons, which stopped rendering properly as soon as I installed Safari 1.2). In Safari, you cannot type into the Route 66 help search box. Fortunately, you can paste into it. As a workaround, type into the Google search field and copy your query into Route 66’s search box. Internet Explorer 5.2 works, but then you have to change your default browser in Safari’s General preferences.
The help system claims you can search for locations by phone number, but I could not get it to work. In fact, Route 66 quit without warning – without so much as a "Route 66 unexpectedly quit" – when I tried.
Lastly, printing options are plentiful, though a bit hidden (you must choose the Route 66 item hidden away in the "Copies and Pages" pop-up menu in the Print dialog). You can print just the directions, directions with turn-by-turn maps showing an area around each turn that you specify, and/or an overview of your whole route. You can also just print or copy maps without any routes on them. "Strip maps" are also available, but they are nothing like AAA TripTiks (which show a blown-up representation of the route on multiple thin sheets) as I expected. Basically, you get an overview map on each page.
In the end, there are a lot of rough edges, but Geographic Information Systems BV is to be commended for being willing to release Mac-compatible software at the low end of the market; Route 66 costs $35, making it a budget solution. With a little work and attention to how people use maps for a variety of purposes, Route 66 could become a first class product.
[Jonathan Jackel is a bicyclist and map lover who lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC.]
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