Route USA and RoutePlanner Europe Technical Review

By: Dale DePriest - all rights reserved

Route USA and Routeplanner Europe features city to city routing planning with automatic route generation right on the palm itself. It is usable with or without a gps unit attached. A gps provides real time positioning on the map page and automatic switching of the map display and route instructions when following the route. Detailed autorouting to a final destination is not supported with this product but the same company makes a city map product that can be used to provide detailed routing to many European cities once you get to the city.

These products are offered by PalmTop Software also known as TomTom and can be viewed at their web site. The all use a very similar User Interface and once you are familiar with one of them you will easily be able to use any of the others.

Route USA

The reviewed product is version 1.0 as stated on the box but the about dialog in the route command itself says it is version 2.0. There is an upgrade to 3.0 for color and later OS's at the web site. This version was loaded and checked against items in this review.

Route USA is a no frills routing product that does exactly what it promised and even a bit more. It provides city to city routing via an autorouting algorithm that runs on the palm. It will route directly from and to an intersection location within either city so long as the intersection is on the included maps. The supplied maps include the names of cities and in addition many key freeway exits and local neighborhood names are included. This provides the user with some "local knowledge" than may be useful. However, sometimes even the natives don't know the neighborhood names. Each map covers one state and there are maps for all of the states except Alaska which is probably OK since there aren't many roads in Alaska and autorouting isn't needed there. Hawaii doesn't need much routing capability either except on Oahu but the included maps have a "road" that connects the islands with a path that permits the autorouter to even route between islands. It has a speed assigned that matches typical boats so that the time will come out fairly close. An autoroute is only possible within a state which could be a problem in the smaller states since destinations may be in other states quite frequently. This is a significant limitation in the product which could be corrected by supplying some "regional maps" or a software enhancement.

Loading the software

Getting the maps and software is very simple. Pop the supplied cdrom into the unit and run the setup routing. It will guide you through the loading steps and will schedule your application load and the maps for the next hotsync. Perform the hotsync and everything will appear on your palm. You can add more maps at anytime by repeating the process. Maps can be deleted from the map selection screen on the palm. If you don't have a PC but have a computer that can view the contents of the cdrom you can install the files manually from the cdrom since the directory structure of the cdrom provides easy navigation to the files you need. You will need the application, the library files, and the complete contents of which state directories you choose. The map files will need to remain in RAM on your palm since some information is appended to them (This seems to be corrected on the route Europe version and 3.0 version is supposed to recognize the visor ROM extension but it doesn't work with my my memplug). I tested the installation on a Visor Platinum with a memplug plugin using PiDirect. The application but not the maps could work from the card. The software does not support vfs.

The maps are statewide and many states include an option for the size of the map you download. The sizes range from about 100K to 500K per map with an average map taking about 300K. The detail for a large map is better than the basemap on my Garmin and provides all highways, federal and state as well as many secondary roads, although the secondary roads are not usually named. They seem to be good road level maps but perhaps a little old. It looks like the source of these maps is the Tiger database.

Performing an autoroute

An autoroute is easily performed using the following steps:
  1. Start the route program and select the map you wish if you have loaded more than one map. If you have previously used a map you will need to tap the palm menu to bring up the map selection screen.
  2. Choose your preferred viewing units for the map. Km is the default but you can click the View button and turn off Km to change it to miles. (Not exactly intuitive.) This is an optional step.
  3. You need to set a starting point and a destination. This can be done by clicking on the screen or using the find button on the lower part of the screen. (see below)
  4. Once the starting and ending points are determined use the plan button and select the desired route type. You can choose quickest or shortest. Click done to perform the autoroute.
  5. The route summary will be shown. Click done to reveal the entire turn by turn route.
  6. Click map and the route will be drawn on the map screen. If you like the route you are all set. If you chose quickest you can also try an alternate route if you wish. Click plan and a new choice for alternate will appear. Selecting it will cause a second choice to be computed. I found that most of the time the choices were exactly what I would have chosen for both the primary and the alternate.

When a route is in progress you will see a name at the bottom of the screen showing the current name of the turn. This name can be scrolled using the arrows on the left and right to see the list of turns one at a time on the map page. An arrow will point to the exact turn on the map. You can view the list of turns by clicking on the name at the bottom of the screen. This will bring up a separate screen with the name highlighted. Use the up/down button to scroll through the list of turns. Clicking on any of the turns will reveal detailed information about the turn plus the summary of the overall route. The detailed screen does not indicate information like turn left or turn right, rather it lists the road to take at the turn. It also list the distance remaining on the trip at that point and the estimated time. I have found the estimated time to be a bit optimistic. Most of the time it will take you longer than the estimate unless you have no traffic and tend to exceed the speed-limit. It does not factor in stoplights or having to slow down to pass through a city. It is still useful as a rough estimate. It would be nice if it indicated the predicted arrival time but you will calculate this yourself. You can use the next/prev buttons to walk through the detailed messages or click done to return to the overall route page.

The overall route listing provides some choices as well. If you click on the top right where the categories usually are on a palm you will find a menu that allows customizing the route list. You can choose normal (always the default for a new route), places, roads, and complete. Normal concentrates on the turns in the route. Places shows towns that are along the route, roads focuses on the road segments while complete shows all of the above.

A new route can be calculated at any time on your trip. If, for example, you decide to take a side trip or get lost you can simply use your current location (if you know it, a gps helps here) and change the starting location. Then let the unit calculate a new route to your destination.

Once you have arrived at your destination you would probably like to turn the routing data off since it tends to interfere with normal use of the map. There is no command in this version to do that but I simply select another starting point or destination by clicking on a screen location and that will reset the route. This is simple an works well to reset the route but if, for some reason, it didn't reset then zoom in on the map and try again. Perhaps you clicked too far from any object.

Route performance on my Platinum is good. I find most routes I planned were calculated in about a minute but some ran over two minutes to compute. After the computation these longer routes shut down the unit as expected when the timeout is exceeded. Turn the unit back on and you will find the route has been completed and ready to run.

The Find menu

The find menu permits locating objects on the map or setting entries for a route. The first screen shows 9 favorite places. (Actually 7 can be set by you as favorite places while number 7 and 8 are used for the departure and destination locations.) Scrolling past these first 9 location reveals the list of the entire database. It consists primarily of places (cities and neighborhoods) but also have some freeway exits and parks. While it can be browsed it is intended to be searched by entering a partial name on the search line. As you enter letters the database is search displaying your solution up to that point. At anytime that you see the target on the page you can quite entering letters and just tap it. This will bring up a menu:

The map page

The map page (shown above) provides good visual indication of the route and is also a good road map when needed for reference. It is vector based and can be zoom by stroking the zoom bar with the stylus. Stroking up zooms out and down zooms in. The length of the stroke determines the amount of the zoom. A graduated scale bar appears at the top and its length varies as you zoom. The range includes the full state in one screen down to about a mile across the full screen. The zooming technique works but it is hard to keep the area you are interested in located in the center of the screen. The screen itself can be dragged to recenter it using the stylus. Touching a spot on the screen brings up a menu that allows:

I find that I used cancel a lot when I am trying to drag the screen or zooming while the car was moving. I think the point menu is too sensitive. While you can tap any spot you wish the unit will not select a blank spot on the screen but will choose a point on a road closest to the spot you tapped. Even unnamed locations can be used as starting or ending points for the autorouter. The Adding to favorites list has a special feature when you tap an unnamed location. It brings up a menu that permits you to name the location for the favorites list. I find this very useful to set a location close to my home which is often the starting point for routes.

Another feature of the map page is the detail setting. Detail effects the amount of data on the screen. Generally the USA maps do not have sufficient detail to create a cluttered screen or adversely effect performance on my platinum (a 32 MHz processor) but with more detailed maps (like the ones in the European version) performance can degrade around the cities. You click on the arrows on either side of the word detail to increase or decrease the level of detail. Zooming out also automatically decreases the detail level which I found a bit annoying since I then had to increase it again. The unit did a good job of displaying the town I would have chosen when zoomed out to the point where the place names overlap.

When there is an active route the current turn is shown at the bottom of the screen. Arrows on the left and right of the turn name permit scrolling any point in the turn from the beginning to the destination. In addition these points can be scrolled using the up/down buttons on the keypad. An arrow visually moves along the route on the map showing the location of the turn. The arrow can be turned off using the view menu if desired. Tapping on the name itself switches the screen to the turn list with the current turn highlighted. Note that the choice of normal, places, roads, or complete also effects the entries on the map screen.

Using the GPS

My main interest for the product was in the use of it with a gps. GPS support is very limited but does the job in providing current location data. A GPS is not required but can be turned on and off from the menu. You are required to click a small check box to enable the gps which means it is hard to do while moving down the road. When enabled the current gps location is shown as a target on the screen and a gps symbol appears at the top of the map. If you lose a lock or the gps shuts off the target will change to an open circle, which indicates that the gps interface is enabled but the gps is not tracking satellites. There is no other information or indication of gps operation. For my test I used the Magellan GPS Companion which worked well with Route USA.

When the GPS is enabled the auto-shutoff is turned off on the map page which is a good thing but be careful to watch your battery consumption. You can manually turn off the palm (visor) at any time to conserve battery use and when you turn it back on the unit will recover automatically. The screen commands still work exactly the same when the gps is in use, you can pan the maps completely away from you gps position if you wish. Tapping the gps icon at the top of the screen will bring you back to your current location.

Of course the main purpose of using the gps is to interact with the route. This feature does work on the map page by displaying your location live on the map. As you leave the area covered by the map it will pan automatically to keep the gps position on the screen. If a route is active the banner at the bottom of the screen will also scroll automatically as you move from turn to turn. When you get within about 2 KM of the next turn the banner will shift and the arrow on the screen will move ahead to the next turn to alert you to the upcoming turn if you happen to be watching. Unfortunately there is no beep to warn you to look! A beep would be a welcome change to the product. I found that I preferred to use the complete since it gave me the the most interaction with the gps by updating the banner entry every few miles. However I would have preferred that the unit stay ahead of me instead of display data about where I have been. My suggested improvement would be to display the next data in the banner always and provide a beep (only based on normal turns) ahead of the turn, then switch to the next turn as soon as the current one is passed. It would also be nice if the distance display (currently static) was updated so that you could plan ahead for the turns. The arrow moves to the location matching the banner description but it would be improved if it caused the screen to pan when the arrow leaves the screen just prior to getting to a turn. I believe the that panning should be done anytime when the arrow and the gps can both be displayed on the screen without changing the zoom but, of course, if the arrow and gps position won't fit then the gps position is the one to keep although it could be panned to provide a little more room to see upcoming roads.

Tapping the banner switches to the route list but the gps is not used on this page at all. The location you were at when switching is highlighted but it does not change while you are driving so you can't use this page for navigation purposes. Nor can you use the detailed routing page for information based on your gps location. Returning to the map page restores gps operation.

Generally this product works well but it missing some features that could enhance its use. I only saw a few crashes in my testing. Do not leave the program going when turning off the unit overnight. I would sometimes see a crash the next morning when I tried this. Reason is unknown. There is a manual that can be read from the cdrom using a browser but it is pretty sparse. This review fills in most of the gaps.

RoutePlanner Europe

Originally the same program could be used with Route USA and Route Europe and you could mix maps. However, with release 4.0 of RoutePlanner Europe the program was renamed and new updated European maps were introduced (from And Data Ltd.). These are much more detailed in than the older maps but you cannot have both Route USA and Routeplanner Europe on you palm at the same time. The minute you start Routeplanner Europe it will erase Route USA. (I keep a copy of Route USA on my external memory card to reload it.) Unlike Route USA I am able to run RoutePlanner Europe directly from my memplug card using PiDirect. But I still needed a couple megabytes of free memory in RAM to get it to work. This portion of the review covers difference between this product and the earlier product so you should read the review on Route USA first.

Many of the limitations in the original product have been addressed in this version. The biggest change in my opinion is that the route list now includes turn instructions, identifying left and right turns as appropriate. Other route changes include a new route menu that permits direct viewing of the route summary, route list, and a zoom to route. There is also a clear route command but I still prefer just setting a new destination or origin since it requires less clicks. The detailed route description now includes compass directions. Too bad the gps data is not used to show you your current direction as this would make the compass directions more useful. A new option allows turning on or off the dynamic moving the banner display data based on gps. I can't imaging why you would want this turned off. The route list has dropped most of the category options leaving only the normal and complete lists.

The maps now have much more detail and can cause the screen refresh to be slower. There are many choices for downloading maps in the amount of detail for a given area Maps are generally larger starting at about 1/2 Meg and going up to several Meg. The road detail is higher and the vectors representing minor turns in the roads are more detailed causing the display to more accurately reflect the real road. All of this comes at a price in the display speed which makes the detail selection more important. I found that there are less detail levels (5 vs. 7) on these maps but an improvement is that you can tap the word detail itself to bring up a menu that allows direct setting of the detail without having to click through all the intermediate settings.

Clicking on a spot on the map still brings up a menu but now the road name is displayed in the menu which is a good improvement since this is often why you clicked in the first place. This is also an improvement since in the original version sometimes the road name display would be partially off the screen.

The only gps changes I saw were the new option to follow gps and a baud rate setting on the gps screen. This new setting is specifically to allow support for the Navman gps which requires a faster baud rate than other units. I wasn't able to actually try the gps features since I am located in California and Europe is a bit far away. I have been to Europe several times so I was able to check out the maps and compare some route calculations to some trips I had taken. Everything I saw was as expected.

Some changes I didn't particularly like. While I like being able to run from my memplug card I did not like the fact that the route was not preserved when I left the application nor was my setting of Miles vs. KM but the favorites were maintained at least. I was not offered the ability to compute an alternate route which was a feature I really liked. And of course I didn't like the fact that it wiped out my USA data. There is a manual but it is sparse and sadly out of date.

CityMaps

The latest product from TomTom is the European CityMaps. I had a change to look over the new version 2.0 of this product (which matches the functionality of version 4.1 of Routeplanner Europe plus a little more). The tool itself is almost identical to the RoutePlanner Europe tool but it didn't wipe out my Route USA so that is a good thing. The big difference in this product is the maps of course, which are from TeleAtlas, and provide street level detail. Most streetnames are displayed on the maps as you view them when you zoom in or set enough detail. (This can be turned off from the view button if desired.) Any of the streets can be clicked on to display its name. If you are dealing with a lot of one way streets you can choose to have this information displayed on the map. For big cities multiple maps are needed just to cover the city. These are high quality maps with road displays that show the width if you zoom in close enough. Of course there is a penalty in performance but my platinum does a good job in keeping up.

As compared to Routeplanner Europe I found the autorouter added a new option for walking. This permits a route to be calculated without regard to one way streets and will allow destinations not available to a vehicle. It also knows you can't walk on the freeway so the route may not be completed. When calculating a road trip it knows about roundabouts and may also instruct you to do a U-turn if needed.

The find menu has a new entry that permits searching for similar names which will find words that are not spelled correctly or are not the first word in the street name. In addition when you find a streetname you are given a menu that lets you select a cross street as well. Thus locations can be pinpointed direct to an intersection, but there is no support for street addresses. Each time you enter the find screen you must start over for a search as the name you used last is not remembered. You can bring up a menu on this page and use the palm cut and paste features to grab a name you typed and plan to reuse.

The streetnames are listed in a uniform manner that, once learned will aid in using these maps in whatever country you visit. There are only a few objects in the database that are not roads (try searching for "station" using the Similar button, leave out the quotes, which may reveal subways stations on some maps) so it cannot serve to locate points of interest, but it can locate things when you know the road they are on. The database differs from the previous product in that it is not one list which means you can't just scroll through the list, but the similar button will search all of the databases. When there is more than one page in the results you can use the up/down buttons to flip through the list a page at a time. When you add a name to your favorites list you can rename it to something more meaningful and you get all 9 entries for favorites as the route doesn't use any of them.

The maps seem excellent and if you set the maximum detail you can even see a subway map but there is no route support for subways so you will have to deal with them on your own. The installation process provides very little information about the size of the maps that are about to be installed so you are on you own to ensure that they will fit. In addition there a lots of combined sets available so you may need to study them to decide what you want. Unfortunately you cannot see them graphically to get an idea of coverage before they are installed. Routing will not work between maps so you will need to select a complete map for your needs. I have found some differences in the search database depending on the map you chose. For example the small maps for London include subway stations but the London inner map does not seem to have them.

The manual is still a bit sparse but is up to date.

Conclusion

If you are looking for the capability to automatically generate a route on the palm itself this may be exactly what you are looking for. European users visiting the USA or state side folks on a long vacation will find this tool invaluable for provide road level routing and local information. Visitors in Europe will find the detail even better and with the City Level maps this may be all of the map you will ever need so long as you have a cross street to find. The products are available in many languages including English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch. This is not a general purpose gps tool with only rudimentary gps support but it does provide a nice tool to get you to your destination with some style and could be a life saver if you get lost.