Don’t get lost
The affordability of standalone car satellite navigation devices might have dealt a severe, if not fatal blow, to web-based mapping services. Why bother to print out directions from a route-map site when your car will tell you where to go without wrestling with reams of paper? Obviously you won’t, and neither will you want to do the same with CD-based alternatives like AutoRoute. However, this misses the point of most online mapping services, which weren’t designed to compete with satellite navigation – they’re meant to replace proper paper maps. I’ve been assessing the relative merits of Google, the newest free map player in town, and Mapminder, which bucks the trend by being a subscription-only service.
Google Maps (maps.google.co.uk) looks pretty slick at first – it’s free to use and the maps are a doddle to navigate. Just drag a map around and it will redraw itself on the fly with no delay if you have broadband (and precious little even if you don’t). An onscreen slider responds immediately when you want to zoom in or out, and the street maps are highly detailed and include step-by-step routing. Click on the Satellite button to see photographic aerial maps, and the bigger cities support jaw-dropping degrees of zoom – rural areas are covered too, but don’t expect to be able to see your village in any detail, let alone your road.
You may be now wondering why anyone would bother with any other mapping service, but even after cutting Google some slack because the service is still in beta it still displays glaring gaps in real-world usability. Ironically enough given its parentage, the one thing you’d expect Google to get right – the search function – is severely broken. My local market town is Retford (pop. 20,659) on the North Notts/South Yorks border, which has a large railway station with four lines, including two on the main GNER London-Edinburgh route. Could Google Maps locate it? Not a chance. No matter what search terms I used, from the most obvious ‘Retford Station’ to the desperate ‘+Retford +Railway +Station’ – and every conceivable combination in-between – the result was a rag-tag collection that included the West Retford Hotel, the local tourist information centre and ‘Refugees in Effective and Active Partnerships’, whatever that may be.
This was using the ‘killer app’ of Google Maps, which is its local search feature. I was therefore most surprised to discover that this same ‘Retford Station’ search using plain Google would find all the details about the station I could possibly want. Google Maps was more helpful at the other end of the line, as it knew where King’s Cross Station is, so perhaps the service should be renamed Google Big City Maps? A clue as to what’s gone wrong is the fact that the local search function doesn’t appear to be powered by Google at all, but seems rather to be based on business listings from yell.com. I think this is a real shame and a good opportunity missed.
If not Google for your mapping, then who? There’s no shortage of services fighting for your attention, with maps.msn.co.uk, uk.multimap.com and http://www.streetmap.co.uk being the most obvious contenders. So why do I prefer Mapminder (www.mapminder.co.uk)? This question becomes all the more pertinent once you know that it’s the only one of those aforementioned services that isn’t free. Not that £2.95 a month is expensive given the functionality, and it reduces if you pay yearly to a wholly reasonable £24.95 (or even quarterly to £7.95). Before I go into what Mapminder gives me for my money, there’s the matter of what I don’t get; namely, adverts. Streetmap and MSN are positively plastered with hard-to-ignore animated banners, while MultiMap fares better with more discreet text-based adverts, and for the time being Google is the only other advert-free mapping service (but I suspect this will change when it comes out of beta, as it’s an obvious vehicle for Adsense).