Topo! Interactive Maps

- A review by Dale DePriest (revisons at the bottom of this document)

Topo has just released its new 2.0 version of Topo!. I haven't seen it in the stores yet except as part of Topo!USA but you can download it from http://www.topo.com. This new version has many improvements from the earlier release and most of them have to do with support for gps and gis related activities. There is a separate product available for 2.0 that add direct gps support including live display of your position on the maps as well as import and export of waypoint data. This review will not focus on that product but rather the base product.

Topo! Interactive Maps have been around for several years but they recently lowered their prices to a more reasonable $49 and I was able to get a 2 cdrom set of maps for the San Francisco Bay area from Fry's for $35. This review is based on this copy. Topo! is a viewing program for USGS maps and National Geographic maps that must be supplied by topo. There is no support for importing your own maps. As a viewing tool for use with a gps I found this to be an excellent choice. There is no direct interface to a gps in the base product but this may be purchased as a option. It is included in their high end product, TrailSmart, that supplies a set of trails in selected National Parks based on National Geographic maps, and in the product topo!gps that includes the engine and a USA atlas. Once you have the gps support it will work with any of their map products. Even though the base product does not directly support interfaces to a gps there is ample support for gps indirectly. There is support for both NAD27 and NAD83 datums on all of the maps. This will make waypoint information easier to deal with for gps users since NAD83 is virtually the same as WGS84 for US sites. The vertical datum is based on NAVD29. There is the ability, new with 2.0, to support UTM grids as well as lat/lon grids and create hardcopy maps with the grid printed on them. In addition you can create waypoints and routes which will appear on the hardcopy maps.

This product runs only on Window 95/98 and NT products. The older version also worked with Windows 3.1. They claim to be working on a compatible Mac version but it is has not been released. When it is released it is supposed to support the same map sets as the Windows version. I ran it on my NT system, a 180 MHz Pentium-Pro with 80 Meg of memory.

The Tool

The software permits displaying a set of maps at multiple scales. It also permits adding custom routes, waypoints, icons, and text over the top of these maps. These overlays can be saved in a file and traded among users of this tool to share information. The maps can be viewed or printed at any of the supplied scales and as a special feature the printouts can be organized to print exactly one full page with the ability to print adjacent pages easily. It is also possible to copy selected views to the clipboard or a file for use with other programs. I found the printouts to be of excellent quality. An important feature of the tool is the ability to define a route and then construct a profile of the route. The profile shows a side view of the route with altitude data. You can interactively relate locations on the profile with locations on the main map. You can also print the profiles. Distances shown on the profile include the effects of elevation changes.

The Commands

Moving the cursor around on the screen shows the lat/lon or utm grid location and elevation dynamically at the bottom of the display. The elevation shows a higher resolution than the grid lines on the map so you don't have to interpolate manually. Lat/lon format is user definable and matches the 3 formats available on my GPS. A new 2.0 feature is the ability to overlay the maps with grids.

The ZOOM doesn't exactly zoom, although the effect is similar. What actually happens is a different map is displayed. There are 5 levels of maps with level 4 and level 5 both displaying the same 7.5 minute maps. Level 4 is 1:24,000 while level 5 is a zoom to 1:12,000. Level 3 is a completely different map at 1:63,000. Since it is a different map it is likely to have been generated on a different date and will contain older or perhaps newer data. In areas where there wasn't a level 3 USGS map available they have substituted a Forest Service map. On my set there was one case like this. I like the forest service maps since they show essential details uncluttered but they don't have elevation lines. Level 1 and level 2 are really high level maps that can only be used for orientation, not for navigation. A right mouse popup can be used to select from any of the 5 map levels which will center at the cursor location. Note that the lower zoom levels may show areas that are not in the level 4 and 5 maps. This is a bonus since level 3 (62K maps) are quite useful for some applications.

In version 1 the zoom command was called magnify. Now there is a new magnify command that actually does magnify. When turned on it will display a magnified image of the area near the cursor. This is really useful since some of the maps have really tiny text in some areas. Some folks have reported that the magnify command doesn't work with their video cards but it worked fine for me. In addition to zooming there are two panning commands. One centers the area clicked and one, called traveling, dynamically pans as move the cursor.

The RULER (renamed ROUTE for 2.0) and COMPASS commands don't do anything that you might expect. These are really your drawing tools for routes. The ruler (route) command lets you draw free handed while the compass command lets you draw vectors by specifying an anchor point and an endpoint. The tool will indicate a distance, and for the vector, a bearing, which will be shown at the bottom of the screen whenever the cursor is over the object. Bearings can be shown in Magnetic or True angles. Routes cannot be edited except to lengthen or shorten them. You can also add icons for points from a fixed set and text can be entered.

Routes and other object only exist in the map you drew them on. To display them on different maps you select the object and use the right mouse key to bring up a list of map views that you would like this object displayed on. There is a BOOKMARK command that saves the map location and map view so that you can return later. In 2.0 I was only able to find this on the icons but not in the menus.

There are several panning options and the maps are seamless within one area. The box indicated a seamless map of the entire area from Napa to the Big Sur but this was not the case. There were three distinct map sets within the product and I was not able to seamless pan between the sets. The sets were distributed across two CD's. A nice feature for users with more than one CD reader is that the tool will automatically search all CD readers and your hard drive for maps. The performance is very disk intensive and can be improved by copying any or all of the data to your hard disk. There are lots of small files so this can use a lot of space on a FAT file system.

There is a find command that can search through a separate database for key features on the maps. You can even search for data on maps that are not currently be viewed. I have found that some locations display the wrong locations on the maps making this less useful. You can also go instantly to a typed in coordinate.

The Maps

The maps are scanned USGS maps. The scan is of high quality but the maps themselves can be several years old. This is generally not a problem for terrain but can be a problem for roads and other man made objects. Since adjacent sections can actually be from maps made years apart you can often see the seams although the tool smoothly moves among the maps with delays while new sections are loaded. The maps themselves are stored as really small gif files and are pieced together as needed. The coverage is best in California, which is good since CDROMs of standard USGS maps are not easily available for California. (They are only available from Teal and are not scanned in a way that is compatible with the maps of the rest of the country.) However, there is not very complete coverage available from Topo. (New 2000 update: Recent releases from topo now have whole states available for many parts of the country.) They have pieces of about 16 states available. Please check their web page http://www.topo.com for the full list and to request your favorites. With spotty coverage there will always be areas you want that are not covered. I think the coverage of the maps I purchased was a good choice except that I really wanted Lake San Antonio which is just off the edge of the map. (This lake is the winter home of a group of bald eagles and makes a great hiking area for bird watchers.) The box indicates clearly the area covered and there is a listing of the exact USGS maps and their revision dates that can be viewed from inside the tool.

Unlike some raster scan graphics maps there is the illusion of intelligence on these maps. In addition to the maps themselves there is a database of location data that can be searched (even if the current map is not being displayed). This enhances the value of the map but I have found some errors in the database where the location isn't exactly correct on the map itself. Overall however the ability to search a map is a nice feature.

The set I purchased had coverage including more that 200 USGS maps. Other sets have either 100 or 200 maps depending on whether they are single or 2 cdrom sets. Price is the same.

GPS coverage

The optional gps tools include the ability to upload, download waypoints and routes to a gps unit as well as the ability to dynamically track the gps reported location on the map and to create a track. You can also reverse the track to retrace your route.

Bugs

Like almost any program with a zero at the end of the version number this program has a few significant bugs. I have already mentioned that some users can't use the magnify option as there video cards aren't supported and that the bookmark command is missing from the menu. My printer, a Lexmark 5700 won't print full pages. Topo has suggested that some printers report their page margins incorrectly and you can fix this by increasing the margin settings on all 4 edges of the paper, or print less than full pages. Topo has released a bug fix for the original 2.0 version. It fixes the printing problems and permits portrait and landscape mode printing. NT is now fully supported. If you display the waypoints on your map there is no command to get rid of them. I select "new GPS file" from the file menu to remove them. Not every feature is documented. If, for some reason, you decide to load this 2.0 upgrade and then revert back to the cdrom version you must first remove the complete product and reinstall. When I removed the complete product and reinstalled from scratch my icons were still on the maps. (The registry entries are not cleared. However, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this upgrade as it is today. It offers a great tool.

Note that the gps upgrade for the tool is available two ways, either as a download with an enable code that you purchase on line or as part of one of the new products available on cdrom. The cdrom version is not licensed to a particluar piece of hardware while the download version is. Once you have the new version it can work with any of the maps available.

Quick Update

Topo! has been purchased by National Geographic. In addition they now have products that cover entire states. The new state series includes the gps enabled version of topo! and is an excellent way to get all the maps for your state. They also have a bug fix release for the product that can be downloaded from their web site.


Revisions

Minor revision 98/7/23
Added info about upcoming gps release 98/7/31.
Major revision 98/12/23 to cover the new 2.0 release
Minor update 99/1/9 based on news group feedback.
Minor update 99/6/13 based on 2.1.1 fixes
Added National Geographic data 00/10/26

Questions, Comments?

Any errors or omission will be corrected. Please also look at Bill Straka's review as his includes a discussion of the gps interface portion of this tool.


Dale DePriest