Three mapping programs all test-drive differently


August 15, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

For a couple of weeks now, I've been tinkering with mapping software, and I've been amazed at how different programs with the same basic function can behave quite differently.

Last time around, I discussed road atlas software designed for intercity travelers. This time, we'll talk about three detailed, street-level map programs designed to help you get around town and, in some cases, keep track of your customers, clients and other data geographically.

Automap Streets, DeLorme's Street Atlas U.S.A. and Road Scholar's City Streets are three Windows programs that give you the opportunity to zoom in and out of a map of the city of your choice, pinpoint addresses and print maps from a variety of elevations. They also allow you to copy maps to the Windows clipboard and paste them into other applications.

But each has additional strengths, quirks and weaknesses. Choosing one over the other is a matter of determining which features match your particular needs.

In terms of maps for the buck, Street Atlas U.S.A. ($149 list, about $100 on the street), is by far the winner. It comes on a single CD-ROM that gives you street-level displays of virtually every region of the country.

Automap Streets and City Streets, both are available for about $50 on the street, provide demonstration maps of major downtown areas, plus credit for one free "city" map of your choice (each map actually shows an entire metropolitan region, not just the central city). But the two products take different approaches.

Automap Streets is a CD-ROM product that comes with "locked" maps of the entire country on two CD's. To gain access to the maps they want, users call Automap's 800 number and get codes to "unlock" them. Once you have the unlocking code, you can work with a map on the CD or copy it to your hard disk for faster access, if you're willing to sacrifice anywhere between 5 and 25 megabytes of space per map. The program can be installed on its own, or as an add-on for the company's Automap or Automap Pro road atlas programs.

With City Streets, which comes on floppies, Road Scholar will mail disks with the city maps of your choice when you call the company's toll-free line. Both companies charge $30 for each city map after the first, although Automap will sell you a key that unlocks its entire collection for $595.

The quality of a computer-based map depends on how accurate and current the map is and how well the map is displayed.

DeLorme, which got started in the traditional map-making business, produces the most detailed and finished maps, both on screen and in print. They have the look and feel of real maps. The program also adjusts colors automatically for black and white printers.

Automap Streets gives you precise control over how much detail is displayed on your screen, but at the same level that DeLorme provides by default, Automap is substantially slower. Its highest-quality printouts were not quite up to DeLorme's standards, but attractive nonetheless.

City Streets produces the crudest maps, more like sketches, and its printouts were by far the roughest. It will also produce annoying dithered backgrounds on a black and white printer unless you change the background color of the screen display from its default pale yellow to white.

Both Automap Streets and City Streets use data from Etak Digital Maps, a major supplier of geographic data. Both produce displays of Baltimore that are reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, DeLorme's map database appears to be several years out of date. For example, the development I live in was built about five years ago. It did not appear on DeLorme's maps at all, but did show up on the other two. This is a factor to consider if you're going to be dealing with a developing area. All three publishers say they update their maps annually and welcome corrections.

In terms of customization, City Streets is the hands-down winner. While all three provide options for displaying streets and other features in various colors, City Streets comes with a complete set of drawing tools. It allows you to annotate maps any way you like, by drawing routes, typing in labels or adding a variety of symbols using its own collection of bitmaps (houses, airports, etc.) or yours. It will also measure cumulative distances between multiple points as it displays a helpful trip calculator. The others will only measure distances between two points.

Automap's customization features are limited to deciding which of its built-in databases to display, such as buildings, hotels and landmarks. If you decide to display hotels, for example, little hotel icons pop up. To identify a particular hotel, however, you must point the mouse cursor on it and click.

Aside from basic color changes, DeLorme's program has no customization features. On the other hand, its standard display is the best.

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