Mapopolis Navigator Review

by: Dale DePriest

This review covers the Mapopolis Navigator product from Mapopolis. The reviewed version is 3.18. Review hardware includes an iPAQ 3970 running pocket pc 2002 update 3 and several gps devices including a Garmin 12, emap, etrex vista, a Navman sleeve and several compact flash devices including pharos, teletype, and pocketTrack all working through a Compact flash sleeve from memplug. The focus of this review is the use of the Mapopolis top of the line Navigator solution. Below this level is the Platinum products which are similar but do not include voice prompts.

Version 4

Version 4 of mapopolis has been released for some time now. It differs from the version 3 product in this review in several ways. The main obvious difference is the audio turn information is now done with a synthesizer. This new voice can provide actual road names for turn instructions although it can sometimes have funny results such as when it tries to pronounce something like PKWY.

Other differences include new versions of maps from NavTeq which are a significant improvement in the city areas but are still not very accurate in the country side. The screen display can now rotate in small increments so setting the unit to display the direction at the top of the screen now keeps the vehicle pointer moving directly up the screen.

Less visible changes are that the poi database is now embeded inside the maps instead of being separately loadable. The product is now available on CDROM as well and they have a manual available. Otherwise the review below is still applicable.

Contents

Introduction

Mapopolis provides a free application and a number of map choices. Some of the map choices are free to sample but most are available for a fee. There is also a subscription service which permits unlimited access to the map databases for the time of the subscription. The maps come from a number of sources including Tiger maps and NavTeq. Tiger maps are from the US government and are not particularly accurate for gps use. These maps cannot be used for autorouting nor can they be mixed with NavTeq maps. They are smaller databases and may be useful when space is at a premium. NavTeq maps on the other hand are generally accurate for gps use and are the same maps that are used as part of dedicated car systems in the USA and other parts of the world as well. They include lots of information in the database such as speedlimits for road sections, one way roads, no left turn data, etc., which makes them considerably larger. This review focuses on using NavTeq maps which can provide autorouting and turn by turn instructions with voice prompts if desired.

Product highlights include rapid route computation and recalculations that are done almost instantly while continuing to update your position on the screen. I also appreciate the voice prompts that tells me that the destination is located on the left or right side of the street.

Installation

The Mapopolis application and the maps are generally downloaded from their web site. The application and some sample maps can be downloaded for free but for everything else you will want an account. The maps for the USA can be download as individual counties, a state wide highway map, or a full zip file of all the counties for a particular State. The navigator series includes the entire United States including Alaska and Hawaii as well as DC, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Midway, Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands. There are maps for Western Europe, downloaded by country and section, and for Canada, downloadable by Province. In addition there are places (poi) databases available for most of the USA. These are downloaded and installed separately. Alaska and various USA territory maps are available for download but they do not support autorouting.

I tried both IE6 and NS7 to download files. Neither program gave full progress data while downloading maps in the login area. IE6 gave the most feedback but both programs were successful in downloading the actual data. If you have a direct internet connection on your pocketpc it is possible to download the maps and executable (as a cab file) directly. I was successful at downloading maps directly to my pocketpc but it took several tries to get past an 'unknown error' message.

I would expect that most people will download to a pc first and then install them to their device. The installation pc program that is used to install the application will also set up an association for the maps so you can just click on them in 'my computer' to bring up the map install program. On an NT or XP machine you can also use the CMD program and just change to the directory containing the maps and type their name. If this doesn't work for some reason you can install them with a my computer window and the active sync explore command. Just drag them between the two windows. Generally you will install all of the maps in an expansion card unless you don't need very many maps.

Once the application and at least one map is installed you are ready to start. You can return to the web site at any time for updates and more maps. Program updates happen fairly often. For example 3.1 release added support for highway maps and 3.18 changed the voice prompt to match the visual data which is a nice improvement.

Operation

The application is started from the standard pocketpc start menu and will bring up a splash screen. There is a user preference to turn this screen off but you will need to see it anytime you want to know the version of the product since this is the only place it is shown. There is a choice on the splash screen to visit the help screens and these are also available from inside the application. Note that this is the only documentation available with the product and it does not contain any pictures.

Once the application starts you can select which maps you wish to load. Tap the tools menu and select Choose Map. You have a number of choices for you map selection. You can pick a directory for you maps (recommended for speed) or you have have the program search for your maps. You can determine whether to load one map or multiple maps (tap selections) and there is a button to cause the load process to find and load all contiguous maps. Maps and poi databases are both listed and can be individually selected. Once you have selected your maps you are ready to use the program.

Note that maps you do not load will not be selected automatically by the program, thus if you drive into an area where you did not load a map there will be no map displayed. If this is a possibility then it would be a good idea to load the highway map in addition to your local detailed map. All of the maps you choose will be loaded using the pocketpc VFS feature. They remain on the expansion card but a portion is loaded into active ram. Thus you can have more maps loaded than you have room for in ram. It is always a good idea to close all applications prior to running any mapping program for improved performance. Mapopolis also recommends shutting down any utility that modifies the top bar as they have seen problems with the ok function.

The screen display above to the left shows your current location, if a gps is in use, as a circle with an arrowhead on it indication direction of travel. Other things that can be seen are and optional scale, and poi's if the poi database is loaded. Note that some of the poi's do not have icons so they are shown as small circles on the map. As you zoom out all of the poi's will be shown as small circles. At the bottom is the Tools menu selection and several icons. There are two for zooming in (one fixed amount and one variable), two for zooming out (fixed amount and twice the fixed amount), a map rotation button which moves in 90 degree increments, plus and minus icons to control the amount of detail present in the map, a signpost (called the geomarks area) for finding locations and quick selection of your favorites, and an icon that permits full screen maps or maps with a banner at the bottom with additional data on it. The banner is where the navigation messages are contained or it shows the street name you are traveling on if no navigation is in progress. Tapping on this banner will return the map to the GPS position if you happen to scroll it away.

All of the menu selections are on the one Tools menu. These include an exit command (The X in the top banner leaves the program running), a help, a Settings choice that brings up the customization settings, the Maplets choice that provide the ability to define your own poi's, a Distance calculator, the find menu which is also on the sign post icon, the Navigation menu, the GPS, and finally the Choose Map command that was already covered.

The program does not snap the gps position to a road but all of the features acts as if it was. Tapping on the map always snaps to the nearest road and draws a little house to show the snapped location and displays the address in a box. Optionally it can also display the city and lat/lon numbers. Tapping the box removes it or it will disappear automatically if you scroll or do anything with the screen. You can also tap and hold on the box bring up a menu that can be used to work with that object such as setting it as a destination. Tapping a poi object shows information about the object which includes the data about its location and its name and phone number. You can also tap and drag the screen to scroll it in any direction.

The user customization includes the ability to program the hard keys on your pocketpc to do certain commands. Most commands can be programmed to a key. In addition the rocker pad can be used to pan the map (when not navigating) and depressing this pad will cause the banner display to toggle on or off. It is important to take advantage of this feature as it can be dangerous to use a stylus while driving down the road. With the correct programming of these keys most operations that you will need to do can be accomplished with your fingers.

Other customizations include the ability to show certain optional data on the screen, displayed units, the screen colors, and to change the behavior of voice prompts. Note that if you upgrade the program all of your customizations will need to be done again.

I like the ability to have the current direction at the top of the screen. This is a customization that automatically rotates in 90 degree increments when the gps is in use to always keep the user direction toward the top of the screen. The gps location is always centered in the screen map area but I would have preferred it to be a little lower when this option is in effect since that would show more data about the road ahead and I don't care too much for what's behind me.

You can also add poi's to the database. This is done using maplets which are map overlays containing your personal information. You can share these maplets with other users. They are attached to particular maps so you will need a separate one when you wish to add a poi to a new map. They are selected separately for display in the map sets. You can create a new maplet or add a point to an existing maplet. Note that points added will be snapped to the nearest road. You can also edit maplets and you can use this feature to move a point away from a road or to modify text data.

Your personal maplets can be beamed to other pocketpc users but they need a different extension to be usable for palm users. If you move them to a pc and rename them to have a .pdb extension then they can be used by Mapopolis palm users as well.

Poi's are searchable, including your own, as are street addresses, street intersections, and even your pocketpc contact list. There is also a short list (7 entries) of favorites which can contain you personal favorites or the most recently searched places for reuse. Poi's can be searched using wild cards, poi categories, and cities. You can also scroll the results which can be sorted alphabetically or by distance from your location or a place you choose. Once a selection is made (and you can have several selections if you wish) the results will be displayed on the map by placing a square around the poi symbol. An object can be selected and designated as a destination if you wish.

In spite of the very powerful search poi capability I found the poi database to be an area for improvement in the product. Many times, poi's will be on top of each other even at the highest zoom level and are thus hard to select or find on the screen. In addition that are lots of duplicates when the same location will be in multiple but close places. Further many or perhaps even most poi's do not have corresponding icons. I found most fast food restaurants were in the category miscellaneous restaurants meaning they hadn't really been categorized completely. In addition many locations weren't located correctly on the maps.

GPS

To start the gps you will need to tap Tools and select gps. One of the two gps screens is shown at the left. This data screen shows the gps running and a destination selected. Other things that can be seen on the screen include: the current lat/lon, the altitude, the current speed and heading. If a destination is selected then its name and the range will be shown. The center shows a compass like display with an arrow showing the direction of travel and if a destination is selected a red line will appear to show the direction to the destination. This screen is where the gps is started or stopped. If must be restarted each time the program is started if you want to use a gps.

The settings menu choice is the place to choose the particular gps settings and gps options. Options include the ability disable power off, auto-scroll the map, auto-rotate the map, provide an audio alert if a gps fix is lost and the ability to alert you if you are speeding above a fixed amount.

A second screen can be viewed from the view menu. It has the same start/stop boxes but the rest of the screen shows the satellite display. This is a nice screen to view if you are having trouble getting a gps fix. You can use it to check for satellite reception. The screen can either display satellite strength or the satellite id's. Most of the time the strength is what you want to see.

While these screens provide all of the essential data you would like to see there is room for improvement in the display. First off the screens are not usable without a stylus. There needs to be a way to switch between the two screens using your finger and there needs to be a way to return to the main map screen with a finger. I suggest the rocker key be programmed to allow up/down to change screens and that either the same key that the user programmed to get to the gps screen be permitted to be used to return to the map screen or perhaps depressing the rocker key would return to the main screen. There could also be a button added on the screen to do this if it were large enough.

The four pieces of text surrounding the center compass needs to be have a larger font with larger boxes so that they can be read at a glance while traveling down the road. I would also like to see an option that would let the center compass turn like a standard compass rather than being fixed with North up. Another option should be to permit the speed alert to be configurable to relate to a certain selectable speed above or at the current speed as specified in the road database.

The biggest problem however is on the satellite screen. The assumption being made by the program is that any strength value means that satellite is supplying usable data. This is generally true of Garmin units but is not true of units using the SiRF chipset which show a strength several dB below the level where they can produce a lock. When the display says you are using a certain number of satellites that is not necessarily the case on this chipset.

Navigation

The simplest form of navigation is to select the pilot data pane (Tools -> Navigation) and then any time any object is searched for or selected it can be set as a destination for this display and the gps data screen. The pane replaces the street name display pane and shows the velocity (speed and direction) of the vehicle and if a destination is set it shows the direction and distance to the destination. This is intended for pilots for whom IFR means "I follow roads" that might be using this product as an navigation aid. It is also useful for marine use since lakes are other inland marine objects are fairly well defined and by drivers who don't need turn by turn instructions but just want a general indication of the right direction.

Most users a likely to want a more capable navigation product and this one delivers on this promise. The display at the left shows Mapopolis providing turn by turn instructions on the screen. In this case there are two turns coming up that are very close together. The program senses this and displays both turns to alert the user. Normally there will only be one turn indicated in the Navigation Pane. At the bottom of the pane is an optional line that contains the time to go and the distance to go as well as the estimated time of arrival. Note that when the user selects turn by turn navigation by calculating a route this navigation pane will replace any other selected pane as soon as the system needs to display a message. There is a user option to control the size of this information pane. The smaller of the two sizes is shown in the picture.

Voice prompts are optional but allow you to keep your eye on the road. They are generally intelligible and match the screen display. They may not be loud enough for some users but were ok in my car. Only a male voice choice is available. The default voice prompts repetition rate is way too high at every 15 seconds and can be annoying particular since you tend to slow down as you near a turn. I set it to 40 seconds.

Some of the power of this banner display may not be obvious at first. For example suppose you are stopped at a light and would like to study a difficult turn that is still quite a bit ahead of you. When the navigation pane is active the up/down portion of the rocker panel will walk you through the various turns in the route providing the turn instructions and the map for the turn. You can even depress the rocker key and remove the instructions pan around the map near the turn using the rocker keys. After several seconds the display will revert to the gps location or you can depress the rocker again to get the navigation pane back and then tap on the pane to return to the gps location. Note that the route instructions will be shown if the gps is turned off or you are not using one.

Automatic routing is the fastest of any I have seen on pocketpcs and reroutes when you go a different direction are fast and done in the background while it still provides map guidance. There is very little control of the router so the routes may not always be the ones you would have chosen. The choices are only fastest and shortest but there are some subtle ways to influence it. For example, since the routes only work on loaded maps you can force the algorithm to stay on highways by only loading the highway map or you can allow local roads only at the start and destination by only loading the three maps. In my testing the fastest setting selected routes similar to other route generation programs while shortest shows some really weird choices and I cannot recommended it for any long distance routing except on the highway map. Local routes will sometimes be improved with the shortest choice.

Once the route is generated you can look at the route list and if you like it you can save it as a file. This can be beamed to others in your convoy if they don't have Mapopolis on their system and want to know the route in case they get separated. The file is in html format. Routes can be generated with or without a gps and the instructions are suitable for use by users who do not have a gps system.

The Maps

A mapping program is only as good as the maps that are used. As already mentioned Mapopolis Navigator uses maps from NavTeq which are the same as the ones used my all major car makers in the USA. In 2001 these maps only covered major cities and connecting roads. NavTeq decided to achieve nationwide coverage by adopting map sources that were not up to their earlier standards and have had mixed results in street level accuracy in outlying areas. Surprisingly Mapopolis has done some major cleanup on these map databases. Evidently in the process of cutting them into counties they managed to fix some of the problems of bogus turns and false u-turns that I have seen in other products using the same maps. The also have a continue option in their instructions and voice commands which makes the remain bogus turns less objectionable. In addition they seem to have done a really nice job in choosing the highways to include in their new highway maps. For California the only highway I would have included that that didn't is the full CA-1 due to its use by tourist following the coast. However, there is a need to ensure that the highway map has highways to all of the counties. Some counties cannot be reached from the highway map.

I was less impressed with the Canada highway out of Vancouver. The Tsawwassen-Swartz bay freeway (Hwy17) had a gap between the local detailed map and the highway map which prevents routing from that highway to the city. As with any mapping product the quality will vary markedly depending on where you try to use it.

The maps also include waterways and lakes but the ocean coastline is not shown except where there are public beaches.

I do not know what the Mapopolis commitment is to offering updated maps but I would hope they are planning updates this year for these immature Navteq USA maps. In the outlying areas recent roads are missing and routing insists on trying to use private roads with locked gates. Users finding errors in the maps should go to the NavTeq web site and provide corrections.

Tips

This section adds a few tips that may help a user of this product. There are many tips embedded in the review but this section adds some that didn't exactly fit in the flow. They are in no particular order.

  1. If you display a section of the map on your screen that includes both a local map and the highway map you may see the word MAX show up in the lower right hand corner. This is caused by having a full detail setting in the detailed map when the highway map does not support this much detail. To see the highway map you will need to reduce the detail.
  2. Sometimes it is difficult to know which county map you need to load unless you also have a paper map as a guide. The Mapopolis web site does have map viewer available that can be used online to help determine the counties you want. Another help is to download the state highway map. At the least detail setting it has small circle icons that can be tapped to show the county that is at that location. Note that this is the center of a bounding box for the county and for some odd shaped counties this dot may not be quite be in the county itself. Higher detail levels show the smaller roads and cities which can also be a guide to determining the correct map.
  3. Some counties may not have any roads that are on the major roads state map so you may have to load detailed maps of adjacent counties to actually route out of the county. If a route won't complete look for breaks like this in the road map. It would seem that all counties should have at least one highway leading into the county but that is not the case for my county (Nevada Co., CA).

Conclusions

I really think Mapopolis has done a great job in putting this product together and supplying a creditable door-to-door routing product that should meet customer expectations.

revisions

First release 2003/1/29
Added Tips section 2003/1/30
Added list of territories to maps 2003/5/9
Added a section on the 4.0 release and revised NavTech to NavTeq