Palm Pilot - GPS mini Review of Mapping Software

This page reviews gps interfaces to various mapping programs available for palm pilots. There are basically two kinds of mapping products available for for any computer. These are raster (bitmap) programs that use a scanned map and vector programs that use a vector database to construct the maps on the fly. Please see my article on Map display formats for more information on this topic.


One question that often arises is how much space do I need for maps. Generally maps on the palm take about 50K to 100K per map. Some raster scan programs won't handle a map bigger that 64K. Vector maps can grow larger in a few cases but this is a good start for any estimating. Generally a palm III is the minimum unit that will work with maps, check with the program vendor for support on older units.

In addition to the maps themselves many programs include search data. While this can be in the database for vector programs it may be separate and is almost always separate for raster mapping products. Searchable data enhances the value of the mapping program particularly when the maps are large. The value of this data is to be able to quickly view the location of the database object without having to visually scan and look for the information. Often this data can increase the size of the database significantly.

Bitmap Mapping programs

Generally speaking the bitmap (also known as raster) map programs do not come with maps. (An exception is Delorme that generates its maps on the fly from the pc database.) They will have a sample map or two that may be useful for some people but you are expected to supply your own maps. This can be done by capturing images from the available mapping programs on a pc, by scanning in paper maps, or by downloading maps from the web. Any web based map generation program can supply the maps for these programs. When you obtain your map you will also need to obtain the lat/lon coordinates for the corners of the map so that you can calibrate it for gps use. All of the mapping programs on the palm pilot need two coordinates marking the upper left corner and the lower right.

Unlike pc based graphics there is no standard graphic interchange format for palm pilots or at least none of the programs follow it. Therefore you will need to use a pc based tool to translate your maps to the graphic format required by the program itself. Each mapping product provides this tool as part of the solution.

While raster based programs may offer a zooming feature this is generally accomplished simply by replacing the current map with another map having more or less detail. In addition maps can generally be scrolled to cover a larger area than would be available on the limit pilot screen. The big advantage of raster maps is that you can generally get maps from anywhere in the world if you are willing to scan them in yourself. You also have full control of the detail. The biggest negative is that this is really only a picture. There is no underlying intelligence available from these maps. Some programs will automatically switch maps as you move and will choose the available map with the most detail.

Some of the raster scan programs I have seen only support a image that can be as large as 64K bytes for a black and white image or 32K for a gray scale image. Some of the tools support compressed maps and can go above this range. You may need to calculate the image size by multiplying the width and length and then dividing by 8 to figure out if it will fit. For example a 546x480 gray scale image will just barely fit.

Summary of technique to use a raster map

  1. Decide on the viewing program.
  2. Obtain the program and a compatible conversion program
  3. Scan in the maps - note the calibration for the corners if you intend to use this with a gps.
  4. convert the map using the conversion program.
  5. Install the map and the viewer on the palm.

Products in the raster scan category include:

Solus Pro, the Delorme product is the easiest to setup. It has an interface provided within the pc product that will create the maps already calibrated and ready to load into the palm pilot on the next sync. If you have a route the tool will automatically generate a detailed map at the source, an overview map for the center of the route and a detailed map at the destination. Generally you have two levels of zoom with this product. Note that although the pilot data is raster the source data from Delorme on the pc is in vector form. The raster form can be an advantage for high level maps that cover the full trip in a small file.

Solus Pro supports both SA6/7 and TopoUSA. Folks using SA6 seem really pleased with the functionality provided by the product. It generates fairly small 50K maps and good routing. TopoUSA users are generally much happier after the recent 2.0 release of Topo. The latest topo 3D database will also work with Solus Pro. If you just download a map to your palm you only get one zoom level and only a black and white map. For TopoUSA this means it is very hard to tell the roads from the contour lines unless you zoom high enough (level 14) to display the roads with width before you do the export. The image quality leaves a lot to be desired on these topo maps. Solus Pro supports logfiles that can be downloaded and replayed on the pc version as well as gps info and the ability to enter waypoints. Solus pro will continue to operate even if you leave the area supported by maps.

Solus Pro has just released a new 2.0 version. It supports both raster and vector maps. There is a separate review of this product.

GPS Atlas uses a separate PC based tool to convert and calibrate the maps which are then loaded into one database for import to the palm pilot. The pc program can convert bmp, gif, and jpg maps and does support pure black and white maps for all Palms and in addition gray scale maps for the Palm III and later units. The latest version also supports color for the IIIc. Maps can be compressed. Calibration is performed prior to loading the database into the palm or can be calibrated from the palm itself. GPS Atlas is a representative product from GPS Pilot. They also make GPS Tracker and Flying Pilot. These programs add more features but the map capability is the same as described above. These tools do provide a method of downloading maps directly from the web on palms so equipped. There is a separate review of this product.

Mapbook uses a separate PC based tool to convert the maps which can be large but are not compressed. Multiple maps are supported which can be grey scale or color.

Topo! is a new product for the palm from National Geographic. It does not support user scanned maps but does support a full set of Topo maps for the USA. These maps are used with a pc program but the user can carve out sections to be downloaded to the palm. Generally 5 zoom levels are provided by having different maps that get selected.

Vector Mapping Programs

Generally vector mapping programs require that you get your map data from the program. You cannot import maps from another source. Most of these programs get their data from the US Tiger database so they are not particularly useful outside the US or its territories. This is beginning to change as European databases are starting to become available.

The advantage of vector maps lies in their ability to be zoomed and panned directly from a database and the underlying intelligence can allow distances to the next turn to be calculated as well as augmenting the maps with other data. The main disadvantage is that the user can't control as much and they can perform slower if the database is not managed carefully.

Supplementary data is generally restricted to vector maps although it might be possible to augment raster maps with the data it is inherently easier to support on vector databases. This data include poi (points of interest) and address or road lookup. The data is searchable on many of the vector databases but is generally more limited in scope than the search capabilities on laptops. Some programs permit you to add your own data.

Products in the vector category include:

Handmap Pro uses custom map data that you must purchase separately. They have city maps with much POI data for major US cities and UK cites and county maps for most of the USA. Check their web page for availability. This data includes both mapping data and local information that can be searched and displayed. Zooming is done in fixed increments and you can switch to a more detailed or less detailed map if you have downloaded one. A few of the less detailed maps are free. Some landmark data is supplied and more can be added by the user. There is a track log maintained of your travels even if you leave the area covered by a map but it isn't of much use except as a way to backtrack. You must select some map to establish a scale to even see the tracklog.

Quo Vadis uses custom maps that you download from their web site. Currently all maps are free once you pay for the program. They have complete coverage of the USA and its territories and have just added support for many European countries however these must be purchased separately. You decide which ones you wish to download to the palm pilot. Generally there are maps for cities and maps for the surrounding county. The maps are highly compressed, make use of gray scale or color, and automatically vary the detail as you zoom in. Road labeling is maintained automatically. There is some local poi support and you can add your own markers. The product itself include complete gps screens as well as map support. You can use a gps screen interface even if you leave the area covered by the downloaded maps.

Since counties is the largest unit supported for these maps you cannot use this product easily to manage a trip across the country. It is the fastest scanning real time tracking I have seen for the palm. It rivals the speed of gps built in maps and laptop based programs. There is a full review of this product.

Street Finder from Rand McNally is a new offering for the palm. It could be one of the best. The 2000 deluxe version contains support for gps and downloadable maps for the palm and has been improved in the 2001 version now available. A downloadable map area is selected from the main Windows based maps which is ETAK based. You can also download a route to be followed on the palm with turn by turn instructions. The palm version includes gps support. The maps are gray scale or color, pannable, and zoomable and include full detail that is automatically adjusted as you zoom out. A database of poi's can be downloaded that can be searched by category. You can even search your address book. You can add notes to the data and you can also add new entries yourself. This data cannot be uploaded back to the windows machine. Street addresses can also be searched. Multiple maps are supported only limited by available memory. GPS support is visual position only with a limited visual track similar to the same display on the Windows version. The gps interface does not work if you leave the location of the maps. There are no separate gps screen displays. I have a separate review for this product.

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Dale DePriest

99/2/2 original release
99/6/1 made some corrections to quo Vadis and handmap data
99/12/13 added Street Finder
00/1/22 updated the solus pro section.
00/2/25 added some data on map sizes.
00/3/2 added color support.
00/6/12 added more information on Rand McNally
00/10/26 added minor updates
01/4/9 added links to full reviews
01/6/29 updated links.
O1/11/12 updated RM.
02/4/8 updated QuoVadis.
02/4/25 updated discussion on databases, added topo!.