January 02, 2005

Finding Your Way in the New Year: Better Maps

With the world getting smaller, it just seems we're traveling more. And while I have a GPS for my PDA, I don't always have time to load up the necessary maps, and I still like to have printed maps with turn-by-turn instructions.

Sure, old standbys like Mapquest and Yahoo! Maps are still free and easy to use. However, I like to have more information at my fingertips. For my preference, I've found that MSN's maps and instructions appear to include more details than some of the other sites. I'm in the Midwest, where we arguably have two main seasons: winter and construction. While MSN can't help me with the former, it sure helps with the latter: MSN embeds a fair amount of planned road construction data into its maps and driving instructions, so I'll know where the trouble spots are, and how long they'll run. I like the scalability of the MSN maps, and it just seems to be a more polished mapping service. Sure, it's a big commercial for Microsoft's mapping software, but who cares if it meets my needs and it's free?

Then there is my latest find, Map24.com. The coolest and most useful feature is its Java-based interactive maps. Say what you will about Java (get the latest Java runtime downloads due to its recently reported security hole in older versions), but the end result here is pretty slick. Map24 features very quick and smoothly-zooming maps, and some interesting toolbars containing buttons for: Zoom in/out, navigating to the map's origin point, brief zoom out for orienting yourself, pan vs. centering modes, print currently viewed map, and maximizing the map to fill your entire screen from corner to corner (this last one is a really nice feature I wish all mapping sites would adopt). You can also turn on a nifty distance measuring tool, so you can plot the distance between a series of map points. I also like its feature for displaying gas stations. Like I said, this is a very interactive map, which is by far Map24's strongest feature.

Naturally, you can print the driving directions, and the print options give you some finer control over the print options. For example, you can specify that it find a long list of various landmarks along the way, such as airports, car rentals, court houses, lodging, and a lot more. You can choose between the quickest or shortest routes. There are four highway preferences: "Avoid", "Less", "Normal", and "More". In the "Don't Use" category, you can tell Map24 not to use toll roads, highways, ferries, and train ferries if you wish. For average speed settings, you can keep the defaults, or change them for Interstate, Major Road, Minor Road, and Ferry -- presumably this affects the time calculations. The nicely-formatted printed directions even include a turn direction icon next to the step number, so you can easily see which way to turn at a quick glance.

Now, for all these slick features, there are some trade-offs. First, while you can just take all of the default options, more choices means it can take you slightly longer to fill out all the information to get to the hardcopy. In particular, the directions print link is not immediately obvious -- it's embedded in a list, with no separate printer icon. If you're in a real hurry, some of the other map sites mentioned above might be a better option, especially if you're more familiar with them. Also, I found Map24's default options do not print out the mini-maps next to each driving step. I really like to see those, especially if it's a complex set of highway ramps or intersections. Instead, the directions only include detailed maps of the beginning and ending points if checked. I did not see a way to include the interim points' maps. Map24's web site is also peppered with banner ads. While I like to support useful free sites, I'd encourage people not to click on at least some of the ads displayed. Let's just say that I've seen free Smileys cause a lot of mischief for unsuspecting users.

So, for interactive maps when I need to look around an area, I like Map24's approach. It just needs some refinements as I've mentioned. Overall, I've been pleasantly surprised by Microsoft's MSN Maps and Directions.

Still, the best thing I like about the Web is that it's a giant tool box -- and it's finer than finding a hammer or a screwdriver. I like being able to find just the right tool for the right job. So if I don't like one screwdriver, there's usually a bunch more out there with different features. Thus this small sampling of available map sites is a good example of finding more content-rich sites with just a minimum of effort.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Trick or Treat
Posted by Jeff Beard