December 1996 Reviews This Month
By Deborah K. Wong
C'mon, admit it: When driving in unfamiliar territory, you're sometimes irrevocably, irretrievably lost, but you refuse to ask directions because your intuition (and your pride) says your destination is just around the corner. So maybe you should replace intuition with travel-mapping software.
Suddenly more common than a Manhattan pothole, travel-mapping software takes the guesswork out of getting to those obscure destinations. Right now the big names in maps, Rand McNally, DeLorme and Microsoft, are busy duking it out for the top spot in this category. And these programs are competing not only with other mapping programs but with online forums, travel chat rooms and interactive software.
That means prospective buyers will find good value and enough bonuses to get Dorothy back to Kansas with a lot more than ruby slippers. You'll find Web links, lots of free promotions, walking guides and graphically rich maps in these packages, which usually cost less than $50.
Travel-mapping software falls into two categories: trip-planning software, which covers city-to-city roadway directions, and street-level software, which helps you locate a specific address. The categories complement each other, so savvy travelers would do well to keep both types handy.
For city-to-city traveling, DeLorme has joined forces with the American Automobile Association (AAA) to come up with AAA Map'n'Go 2.0. Microsoft is offering Automap Trip Planner, and veteran cartographer Rand McNally went digital with TripMaker 1997.
These packages tailor your journey to the quickest, shortest or most preferred route. Although trip-planning packages don't pinpoint an exact street address (they leave that to street atlas software), they pack as much information as possible into one program and try to make your trip fun as well as efficient.
If you like to stop and smell the roses on a long drive, the 32-bit version of DeLorme's AAA Map'n'Go 2.0 is probably your best bet. Its comprehensive database includes AAA's TourBook lists of more than 57,000 accommodations, restaurants and attractions, as well as a directory of 1,000 AAA office locations. It provides street-level maps for 241 cities and a link to a dedicated Web site (http://www.mapngo.com) for updated weather, construction and events information.
Map'n'Go lets you download from DeLorme's Web site the information that will overlay its maps. MapNotes let you customize and add personal information to your maps, and you can link maps to Phone Search USA, DeLorme's phone directory for the entire United States.
Microsoft's Automap Trip Planner (http://www.microsoft.com) and Rand McNally's TripMaker (http://www.randmcnally.com) offer similar weather, road and events links to their home pages, but the two programs lack DeLorme's vast information on amenities.
Automap Trip Planner distinguishes itself with its Route Wizard, which can calculate the cost of gas for the entire trip. You tell the program current gas prices, how much fuel is in your gas tank at the start of your trip, tank capacity, and city and highway mileage. You're allowed to figure in 25 stops along the way.
My favorite feature, however, is Automap's route-preference window, an idea not really exploited by the DeLorme or Rand McNally products. It can find the quickest or shortest routes, or build a route according to your preferences for interstates, divided highways and meandering country roads. The program uses its broad database to calculate three alternative routes, and will also link you to the corresponding Internet home pages of the cities you wish to visit. Trip Planner links directly to its sibling product, Automap Streets Plus, the street-level guide that uses a "pushpin" to locate an address on a map.
Rand McNally's TripMaker 1997 boasts a unique audio-enhanced Explorer Guide for armchair travelers. By answering various questions on everything from preferred attractions and landmarks to travel-time constraints, you'll end up with a personal slide show of your potential trip, filled with photos, videos and text. Another handy feature, the Travel Checklist, tells you how to perform a safety check on your car, what to carry in case of emergency and how to pack for your trip. The program also suggests ways to secure your home while you're away.
All these applications can print directions as maps, text or a combination of the two. I especially liked TripMaker's ability to print directions that include a page number and reference points for Rand McNally's more traditional spiral-bound paper atlas. TripMaker gives you two free rolls of film and a 1997 spiral-bound road atlas when you return a mail-in card.
Its competitors don't lack for bonus gifts, either. Map'n'Go offers a 42-by-44-inch Highway Map of America. Microsoft combines Trip Planner and Streets Plus as a Deluxe version, and throws in a yellow pages directory on CD-ROM.
Once you've zeroed in on a city, you'll want to switch to a street-level product. TripMaker links directly to Rand McNally's street atlas software, StreetFinder 1997, if both are installed in the same directory. At press time, DeLorme's Street Atlas USA 4.0 was unavailable for review. But I was able to test another street-level package, TravRoute's Road Trips Door-to-Door.
Covering more than 6 million street miles in two CDs, Rand McNally's StreetFinder 1997 (a Win95/Win3.1x hybrid) can locate any urban or rural address and pinpoint it on a magnificently detailed map. If you're not sure of the address, you can provide the intersection, city, zip code or area code. StreetFinder offers 14 zoom levels (Microsoft's Streets Plus has 18) to zero in on a specific neighborhood. This is helpful since densely populated areas with many roads and landmarks can look like a plate of angel hair pasta.
StreetFinder adds a unique and clever Walking Guide Wizard that annotates your map with a custom path and walking directions in addition to more conventional auto routes.
TravRoute's Road Trips Door-to-Door asks you for an address, stopovers and mileage speeds, then plans your route. But, as the name suggests, this program does something none of the others can: If you type in the exact address of your start and end points and the database cannot locate the end point, it will find the nearest location.
Road Trips provides none of the multimedia features of the other products in this category. It can't help you with luxuries like hotel or airline reservations, but you can visit TravRoute's Web site (http://www.travroute. com) for weather, road conditions and events updates. You can customize your directions with a variety of fonts, which is a useful feature for invitation inserts.
Down the road, most of these products will provide GPS (Global Positioning Systems) links, a technology that keeps you on track by utilizing satellites to pinpoint a vehicle's exact location. Of course, you'll need a receiver and a laptop nearby to take full advantage of this new technology. Using DeLorme and Microsoft programs, you must equip your laptop with a compatible GPS receiver to view a real-time map that displays a moving cursor showing your exact location as you travel.
When I tested the quickest route from my home to Boston on city-to-city programs, TripMaker and Map'n'Go suggested similar routes and mileage results. Having been to Boston several times, I can vouch that these directions were accurate, being off by only 5 miles and 11 minutes. Trip Planner gave the most ingenious route by offering a combination land and sea route instead of driving "around" the water. It was the quickest route, but also the most expensive, since it included the big-ticket price of a local ferry.
Street-level testing produced interesting findings. Hands down, Streets Plus had the most accurate street locator. I asked it to find more than a dozen addresses in a dozen different states and, voilà, they appeared quickly and accurately. StreetFinder was the most disappointing, as it didn't locate most of the same addresses I plugged in, but gave me the next closest address. Door-to-Door uses a historical database, so if the name of your street has changed over the years, don't besurprised if you find it under its original name rather than the new one.
Is travel-mapping software the way to go? It is if you can plan your destination well in advance and bring along a laptop and plenty of spare batteries. For city-to-city travel, DeLorme's AAA Map'n'Go is ideal if you like to explore every nook and cranny. DeLorme provides the most comprehensive information and graphically rich maps. For street-level directions, Road Trips Door-to-Door is the only package that attempts door-to-door mapping. Although not always accurate, it goes the distance in providing the most direct route from one point to another. That's a service from which I can get a lot of mileage.
Without a laptop, you'll be limited to a printout or two. If you're one of the habitually lost and computerless, the more traditional glove compartment map may still be your best friend.
-- Info File --
AAA Map'n'Go 2.0
Pros: Extensive database; interface; Internet links
Cons: Slow graphics rendering
Disk Space: 9MB
Platforms: 3X, 95, NT
WinMag Box Score: 4.5
-- Info File --
StreetFinder 1997 and TripMaker 1997
Price: StreetFinder, $49.95;
Pros: Intuitive; fast
Cons: Less defined maps
Disk Space: 8MB (for Win3.x), 12MB (for Win95)
RAM: StreetFinder, 4MB; TripMaker, 8MB (Win 3.x), 12MB (Win95)
Platforms: 3X, 95
Rand McNally New Media
WinMag Box Score: 4.5
-- Info File --
Automap Streets Plus and Automap Trip Planner
Price: Streets Plus, $54.95; Deluxe $74.95;
Trip Planner, $44.95
Pros: Route Wizard
Cons: Slow to calculate
Disk Space: 15MB
RAM: 8MB (Win95); 16MB (NT)
Platforms: 95, NT
WinMag Box Score: 4
-- Info File --
Road Trips Door-to-Door
Pros: Easy to use
Cons: Price; occasional inaccuracies
Disk Space: 60MB
WinMag Box Score: 4