Sunday, December 25, 2005

DeLorme Street Atlas HandHeld

Found a fair deal on eBay for a DeLorme Street Atlas USA Handheld (Program & Data CD's) and decided to give it a try. I commented a bit on it just before the PaPaGo review.

If you decide to install the whole US Data CD on a hard disk it will require 650Mbytes of space. The program itself will use about 600 MBytes. The PDA package will take about 1.5Mbytes of RAM. But you can have the map files on a SD or CF card.

DeLorme Street Atlas USA Handheld installs on a Host PC and on a PocketPC (or Palm) PDA. It has the same unconventional and not quite intuitive user interface as the Street Atlas USA without the GPS and Voice tabs (Print and Draw are also removed). There is one Service Pack available for download that provides some bug fixes on their website and a new .dat file that corrects a magnetic declication issue. I had to uninstall ActiveSync 4.1 used with Windows Mobile 5.0 and reinstall the 3.8 version after DeLorme start failing to sync its files with the device.

Street Atlas doesn't actually transfer files to the PDA directly but it uses the syncĂ­ng mechanism provided by ActiveSync to have the job done. So this is a two step process: first you prepare a file to be synced to the device, then depending you how you have ActiveSync set up you either have the files automatically transferred to the PDA when they are copied to the Pocket PC My Documents folder, or by the next time you establish a connection to it or have them manually synced.

Preparing a map

DeLorme divides a map into rectangles, you select which ones you want to transfer, saves them as a .pdb file and then prepare the files to be synced to the PDA. A map with 25 rectangles resulted in a 1.5 MBytes file, enough to cover a radius of 7 miles around downtown Santa Cruz, CA. Remember that you are also copying all the POI's info while doing it.

After syncing the files to the PDA you can have them copied to a SD card manually. In the PDA select Data | Maps... to load a new map. To have the SD card scanned for map files, hit the Directory button to add it (and any other directory you want to add) to the "Directories of Maps" list. Remember to remove them from the \My Documents directory so you don't have two entries in the list (and save the corresponding space for RAM usage).

Creating routes

You can create routes either in the Host PC package and then transfer them to the PDA or create a direct or road route in the PDA itself. To create a route in the Host program, select on the map the start location and right click the mouse. Select Create Route | Set as start. Same for the end of a route. You have the choice to transfer an active route when preparing to sync a given map. That will cause a .rte file to also be placed in the PocketPC My Documents folder.

Routes can also be created on the PDA itself on top of existing maps, notice the warning about routes that go across different maps that might give you direction errors. More on this later on.

On the PDA there is no option to create a route from your current location by using GPS, you still need to provide the start and end point of a route by selecting Tools | Create Route, tap to mark the start point, tap again to set the end point and then hit the highway icon to calculate the shortest or quickest route.

You can use the Find... option to look for POI's and then set it as an end (or start) point for a route. Remember that you'll only be able to search for locations covered by the maps you have transferred from the Host PC.

Test Drive

After you transfer the route to the PDA you need to have it loaded (Data | Routes | select desired route | Go To), turn the GPS on (GPS | Connect) and finally tell the package to track your trip (Tracking... | select route | Start Tracking). All these steps are completely automated in PaPaGo. On SAHH you are required to perform at least a dozen taps to get there. If your location matches the start of your route a voice with pre-recorded messages will start announcing the directions you should take.

Like PaPago, SAHH doesn't use a Text-to-Speach engine to read from but full sentences in this case with a male voice. You will hear once to turn or bear left or right as soon as you make a turn. For highway exits the announcements are made a bit too close. This is another change made to their newest version. At the end you realize that you have to spend a good chunk of time actually looking at the directions instead of listening to them.

The map is always aligned on its North direction, even while you are tracking a map, no option is available to change this setting. To zoom in and out of a map you need to use the main navigation button of your PDA there are no menu options or soft buttons available in the package itself.

"Unknown road"

If you deviate from a designated route, you will hear an "off route" announcement and an exclamation icon will show up on the screen. This requires that you click over the icon in order to have a new route be calculated, there isn't an option to make it happen automatically which adds quite a distraction to your driving. Every re-route track is saved under routes and you will have to delete one by one if you don't want to keep them around, which usually will be the case.
Among the features listed in the "what's new" in the 2006 version you will find that DeLorme added quite a few more roads and changed the way exits from highways are handled. Besides the extra work required to set up routes, GPS tracking and all, the real issues show up when you try to actually get where you want with the HandHeld version of Street Atlas.

This time I didn't actually know where my destination was, I had never been there. So perfect use case. I decided to test the off-route handling and things went haywire from then on. DeLorme didn't know about the recently paved road just in front of us and took us on a longer route. Coincidentally that same road was closed for construction so we had to back out and take the road unknown to DeLorme. The map finally matched reality and we were able to get there.

You can build the reverse route on the PDA and on the way back I decided to follow the originally planned route. The map was pointing the way ahead as a straight road from my current position and if I had gone thru with it I would be probably trying to get my car out of a muddy strawberry field by now. I turned right instead to get to the highway and the directions did match the road after that, what on a rainy night in an unknown area was quite a relief.

Map Quality

I had similar problems with the Windows version of DeLorme while driving in San Francisco. The route would ask me to turn left on an unexisting road or where a relatively old avenue had been built. The issue here is not a bad engine, but a bad map. PaPaGo uses TeleAtlas maps and provides a much better experience than DeLorme.

Besides the free TIGER database used by DeLorme on its map software, Navteq (previously NavTech) and TeleAtlas are the main digital map providers in US. DeLorme adds its own updates to the TIGER data and you can also submit your own map corrections.

According to the DeLorme's website you can use map data from other packages including the desktop edition of Street Atlas with the HandHeld package. You can in fact save maps and transfer .pdb and .rte files to a PDA but you will need the HandHeld package to view a map/route.

You can access the HandHeld tab from the DeLorme Street and Atlas product if you have it installed in your PC (XMap HandHeld Pro seems to have been dropped from their product line, you can use Street Atlas HandHeld to view map data generated by XMap products from their professional line).

From DeLorme's website: Street Atlas USA is compatible with maps provided with "XMap 4.5, XMap/GIS Editor, Topo USA 5.0 and Street Atlas USA 2005 and 2004 (but not previous versions of Street Atlas USA, including versions 9.0 and earlier, Street Atlas USA Deluxe, or Street Atlas USA Road Warrior Edition)."


[Update] One of the major drawbacks from this package is the need to interact with it when a reroute is required. If that happens the best is to stop and deal with it unless you got someone to use the PDA while you drive. And this issue hasn't been fixed in the 2006 version.

You need a lot of effort to keep maps updated and it is not an easy job to keep up-to-date all the street maps of the whole U.S. I tried a year old version of DeLorme maps and found holes right away. I might try the 2006 updates and report back but so far I'm not impressed by their precision. All the extra work required to transfer maps & routes and have them set up for GPS tracking doesn't seem necessary with competing products offering a much better experience.

The advantages include the full street map of U.S. cities for a reasonable price (if you happen to live and drive already established neighborhoods) and pretty complete and up-to-date Point-Of-Interest database. If you are interested in a updated version of Street Atlas USA 2006 (not the HandHeld version), BestBuy is selling it for $19.99 after rebates.

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