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GPS Software by Comparison

Exploring third-party applications for your Palm/GPS combo

by James Turner

November 2001, Pen Computing 42

As Buckaroo Banzai so aptly noted, "No matter where you go, there you are." Unfortunately, where you are is not always where you wanted to be. With the advent of the Global Positioning System, no one needs to get lost anymore, but lugging around a laptop in your car to get a moving map display is a bit much, especially when your passenger has to hold it in their lap.

A Palm-compatible makes a much more compact navigational aid, and there are now a number of inexpensive moving map programs available that can pinpoint your location in a matter of seconds. We'll look at three of the more popular: Quo Vadis from Marcosoft, HandMap from Evolutionary Systems, and Solus Pro from Delorme. The testbed was a Palm IIIc and a Lowrance GlobalNav 212 GPS. I used a Revolve Design car mount to hold the Palm in a "heads-up" display in front of the steering wheel.

Quo Vadis

Marcosoft's Quo Vadis is the hands-down winner for sheer speed. The updates and file loads are lightning fast, and there's never any lag when tracking with the moving map from GPS.

Quo Vadis also has a nice feature: you are always in the center of the display and the street names scroll along the roads so that you can see what road you're on. It also has the usual GPS status features such as showing the satellite constellation and giving you your position and speed.

The pricing is straight-forward, you pay US$44 or US$49 (depending on whether you want the color or monochrome version), and then have unlimited access to their map library. Oddly, you need to buy a different version to use their European maps.

On the down side, the maps themselves are fairly primitive, usually no more than a line with a name (at sufficient magnification). As the screenshots show, Quo Vadis also suffers as you zoom out, it's almost impossible to make out anything when you look at a whole city, for example. There's also no display of features like lakes and rivers.

Quo Vadis also had trouble with my GPS, it needed me to frequently restart the GPS so it could sync up communications, something that quickly became annoying.


Evolutionary Systems has produced a strong contender in HandMap. This US$30 product combines fast screen painting with high quality maps, and was quite useful for on-the-road navigation.

Readability was good at all zoom levels, and although the screen can't rotate to show direction of travel, handy "left" and "right" indicators show you which way to turn as you travel along. The program also has some nice searching capabilities, including the ability to specify a street intersection as a target.

Unfortunately, you're going to need to buy some maps to go with that software, and Evolutionary doesn't make it cheap. They sell them by the county, at US$16 for five counties or US$72 for all US counties. The UK will run you another US$50, other countries carry similar charges. These can rack up quickly, since a single US state can run a dozen counties or more.

An alternative is the free PC program that lets you create your own maps. All you need to do is get your hands on a georeferenced image file (that is, an image for which you know the geographic coordinates of the corners) and you can create your own maps. Microsoft offers georeferenced aerial photos on their Terraserver web site.

HandMap also suffered from the same GPS sync-loss problems, probably a result of the Palm's general inability to keep up with serial port data. HandMap seemed especially bad at recovering, however. I frequently had to recycle the GPS after doing things as simple as changing preferences. Evolutionary indicated in e-mail that they're having some problems with the GPS drivers at the moment, I hope they can resolve them as this was the only major mark against them.

Solus 3.0

Delorme has been the powerhouse of mapping for years, and Solus is a good example of why. None of the other products could touch the features that Solus offers, or even come close.

To begin with, the quality of the maps is great, with features like lakes and rivers clearly shown. Solus also keeps the maps legible even as you zoom out to state-wide views. This is because rather than simply magnifying one map, it stores maps at several resolutions.

Solus includes a web application that runs on your Windows machine, and lets you download new maps or directions as you need them. You can either request a map for a given area, or a trip package with directions as well as detail maps of the start and end points, and an overview map of the entire trip at lower magnification.

Uniquely, you can also use the Palm wirelessly (assuming you have a Palm VII or other wireless solution) to get new maps or directions on the go. It does require a separate yearly subscription, however.

Solus can also give you step by step directions as you drive, either as text only, or superimposed on the bottom of the moving map. It will also rotate the map to your direction of travel, although it only reorients the map when it is redrawn (as you move off the edge of the screen or change magnification.) I found this a bit annoying, as you could end up on a map with "up" not corresponding to your direction of travel for several minutes at a time.

Solus is available from Palm for US$49.95. If you purchase one of their other mapping products, like Street Atlas USA or TopoUSA, you can download maps from those programs to the Palm.

In addition to street maps, you can also download topographic maps using TopoUSA and the USGS topo maps Delorme sells separately. These would be especially nice for people who might want to use the Palm while hiking, especially when combined with a compact GPS like the TripMate.

The only major downside is speed. Although Solus was spunky enough most of the time on my IIIc, it occasionally "went away" for as much as a minute while changing resolutions or loading new maps. When you're looking for a side street, a minute of non-responsiveness can be a lifetime.

In terms of value for money, nothing can touch Solus. For about the same price as the other programs, you get unlimited map downloads, integration with all of Delorme's other map products, the best overall map displays, wireless updates and more. Quo Vadis was a hair more reliable and faster, but the bare-bones display left me cold.

No matter which program you use, use it responsibly. Set yourself up for the trip before you get started, rather than trying to enter data in busy traffic. With experience, a Palm/GPS combination can be quite a boon.

-James Turner

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