Sunday, March 18, 2012

Google Maps Navigation review

satelliteNot the nav app you’re looking for

Google Maps Navigation (referred to hereafter as GMN) is a free navigation app for Android version 1.6+ phones in the U.S. I bought the Motorola Droid recently (which I absolutely love BTW), so I thought I’d share my experiences with this much discussed free navigation app.

One important thing to be aware of — this is a beta application. Google has been known to keep their products in beta for a long time, but this one is pretty new and the beta label definitely applies.

The first part of my review is basically a tutorial, walking you through the interface, and offering useful tips. For my overall take, head on down to the conclusion.

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Garmin CityXplorer review


I went to Atlanta this past weekend, armed with a nuvi 1490T and the Atlanta edition of Garmin’s new CityXplorer maps. And I have to say, I was quite impressed. I’m blessed with a good sense of direction (though I find it much easier to lose N, S, E and W in the city), but I’m not a real urbanite. I can probably count the number of times I’ve ridden a subway / light rail on one hand. So I had some nervousness about leaving my car behind and venturing into the city via MARTA, with only a nuvi to guide me. It turns out that my fears were misplaced. Quite simply, CityXplorer rocks. Read on for the details…

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Ten reasons TopoFusion rocks


TopoFusion is my go-to program for planning and tracking backcountry adventures. It’s typically the program I turn to first and there is rarely a day that goes by without me using it. Here are ten reasons that TopoFusion rocks:

1. The ability to toggle between USGS topo maps, aerial photos and hybrid imagery

All you have to do is tap “a” on the keyboard to toggle between these views. The TerraServer aerial imagery includes B/W U.S. coverage to 1 meter/pixel and color urban coverage to 0.25 meters/pixel. TopoFusion also accesses Canadian topos, TIGER street maps and worldwide LandSat imagery. The color urban imagery below is of salt ponds at the south end of the San Francisco Bay (16 meters/pixel).


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Moagu brings USGS maps to your Garmin handheld

Last month, Leszek Pawlowicz of Free Geography Tools hinted at a new project code-named MOAGU. He may ascribe a different meaning to the acronym for legal reasons, but let’s call it what it is — MOAGU is the mother of all Garmin utilities. What Leszek has created is a utility that will place a USGS topo map on your Garmin GPS. Actually, it will put any scanned, georeferenced map on your Garmin. It won’t work on just any Garmin mapping handheld yet; I haven’t been able to get the maps on my Colorado 300, though I’m hoping some of our more technically inclined readers can figure that one out.

I have used it on my Garmin 60CSx and I have to say that Moagu rocks! This really is revolutionary. Handheld users have been asking for 1:24,000 scale USGS maps for their GPS units for years. The DeLorme PN-20 and Magellan Triton series have implemented this, more or less successfully (respectively), but we haven’t had an easy solution for Garmin devices until now.

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Garmin TOPO U.S. 2008 review

Garmin MapSource TOPO U.S. 2008 provides topographic map coverage of the entire United States and Puerto Rico. Ideal for the geocacher, hiker, mountain biker, etc., it is available on DVD or micro-SD cards. Considering the high cost of the micro-SD regional cards though, I’d recommend that you pay a little more and buy the DVD of the entire country.

Garmin TOPO U.S. 2008 allows you to transfer topo maps to compatible Garmin mapping receivers; these maps cannot be loaded to non-mapping units, such as the basic eTrex H. TOPO U.S. comes with and is used through Garmin’s standard MapSource interface, which also allows you to transfer waypoints, routes and tracks to and from your GPS receiver. This makes TOPO U.S. 2008 very useful planning trips right on your PC.

It does not allow you to auto-route (generate turn-by-turn directions on trails or streets). Routes created on TOPO U.S. 2008 produce straight-line, "as the crow flies" segments. They do not follow the trail, but go from waypoint to waypoint. Also, please note that while you can load both TOPO U.S. 2008 and City Navigator maps to your compatible Garmin receiver, you can’t view both at the same time.

One other point — this product is not "locked," so the maps can be loaded to multiple units.

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My Favorite GPS Mapping Software

Frontcvr_webBecause I compared so many different software packages in my book, GPS Mapping – Make Your Own Maps (cover at right), I’m often asked what programs I like. In the book, I shied away from recommendations, focusing instead upon the pros and cons of each program, because no software is perfect. People who really get into this will often use multiple packages (a number of them are free or have extensive demo modes). Today, I’m going to take a different approach and share my favorites in each of several major categories.

CD-based maps

Here we’re talking about programs that package all the USGS topo quads for an entire state or region onto a DVD or set of CD’s, products like DeLorme 3-D TopoQuads and Maptech Terrain Navigator. These packages are ideal for producing printed maps. No other category can beat them for this. My current favorite though, is National Geographic TOPO! It’s not perfect, but in my mind, it has fewer drawbacks than the other two. One caveat though–these programs are constantly being upgraded. For example, I haven’t had a chance to check out the recently released Terrain Navigator 7.0, but I’m expecting a copy soon and will report back here with a full review.

Internet-based maps

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Garmin US TOPO 24K Review


UPDATE: This product has been discontinued. Read my review of Garmin’s new nationwide Topo US 24K maps.

One of the frustrating things about backcountry use of GPS is having to live with "as the crow flies" routing. That’s not so bad when you’re off-trail, but on trail, I’d prefer my GPS tell me that its five trail miles to the destination rather than three "as the crow flies" miles. The crow can fly, but I can’t.

On one of my last outings, I had a chance to try out Garmin’s US TOPO 24K which shows contour intervals closer to USGS 1:24,000 scale maps than their USA TOPO (1:100K) product, hence the name. During one outing, I happened to be on the dividing line between these two coverages, as captured in the screen shot to the left.

Clearly, this enhanced level of detail is desirable, but having routable trails excites me just as much. I couldn’t trick my GPS into capturing a screen shot of a route, Us_topo_24k_route_1but the image to the right  comes from the MapSource desktop. You can see that the software routed along the highway and a trail, but that it had to do "line of sight" routing where one trail was not on the map. It was really nice to know just how far I had to go to the next junction.

The formal name of this product is US TOPO 24K – National Parks, and you can purchase it for the eastern, central or western U.S. But as I discovered on this trip, it covers more than just national parks. The images shown here were not captured in national parks, but in the San Bernardino National Forest.

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MotionBased: Online GPS mapping (review)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that MotionBased, a website for online GPS mapping, had been acquired by Garmin. I’ve been playing with a Garmin ForeRunner 301 recently and used it to check out MotionBased, which keeps all your data online so that you can access it from anywhere. As a result, you can share trail info with others, though you do have the option of making your trails private. This is a great program for athletes, or anyone working on physical conditioning.

GPS based training

One of the strengths of MotionBased is its ability to integrate heart-rate data. It’s very cool to be able to overlay an elevation profile with your heart-rate graph. I had never thought about it, but my heart was pounding as fast going all out in the flats as when I was climbing a steep hill. Seeing such things is part of the wow factor for me; serious athletes will be more interested in seeing how long they stayed in various heart rate zones, and the multiple ways to view speed, distance and time data. This information is presented in both tables and graphs.

Multiple mapping modes

Now I like to stay in shape, but my perspective here is decidedly unathletic. I’m more interested in maps, and this is where MotionBased offers something other mapping software doesn’t.  Using their Map Player (which unfortunately will not yet work in Firefox), you can view a track superimposed on a street map, contour map, topo map, satellite image or elevation model!  You can even export the track to a .kml file for viewing in Google Earth. Here’s a link to MotionBased for a recent bike ride I did. Click the "Dashboard" button for a more extensive look.

Waypoints and routes are missing

No software has it all, and MotionBased has yet to add the ability to manage (or even show) waypoints and routes. But it is worth looking at for its other features. And it’s great to be able to view your trips anywhere you have an internet connection. If you own a Magellan or Lowrance GPS receiver however, beware—MotionBased is designed primarily to work with Garmin.


The free version, MotionBased Lite, gives access to mapping and analysis of your ten most recent activities. These limitations are removed with a subscription, which also gives you access to more extensive analysis features. Subscriptions to MotionBased Standard run $11.95/month, which is discounted 33% if you sign up for an annual plan.

This review just scratches the surface of a feature rich software program. I suggest trying it out yourself. Finally, stay tuned…in the near future I plan to post about the extensive data you can download from MotionBased for trip planning.