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Archive for the 'online maps' Category Page 2 of 2



MultiMap: Online And Basic Offline/Cached Maps For Android

Application Name: MultiMap

Description: Online map display with GPS tracking; caching of online data for offline use.

Publisher’s website: RadonSoft

Cost: Free; 2 Euro Pro version adds search, messaging and position sharing.

Version/date reviewed: v.2.1  /  9-1-10

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.1

multimap_qr

Android market link (mobile apps)
Android Market (browser)


MultiMap is a basic map viewing application, with the ability to both load map views directly on-the-fly if you have a data connection (WiFi or 3G), and to download map data to cache memory on your unit, so that you can use the map data even if you have no data connection. Current map types supported are:

 

  • Google Maps (Standard (roads only), Satellite, Hybrid, Terrain)
  • OpenStreetMap
  • OpenStreetMap OSMA
  • OpenCycleMap
  • OpenPisteMap (enhanced coverage of skiing areas)
  • Public Transport DE (German public transport)
  • OpenSeaMap
  • OpenOM Street
  • OpenOM Pseud

Select the map type with Menu => Map Mode. The OpenStreetMap/OM maps use similar data, but there are differences in the types of data shown and the map styling. For example, OpenCycleMap show contour lines, OpenPisteMap shows ski trails if you’re in a ski area, and OpenOM Street/Pseud has no labels. Here are shots for my neighborhood (Figure 1):

OSM OpenStreetMap / OpenSeaMap OSMA
OSMA
cycle
Cycle/Piste
OpenOMStreet
OpenOM Street / Pseud

Controls are straightforward – touch and drag for scrolling,and three options for zooming:

  • Double-tap to zoom in
  • Tap once on the screen, and zoom buttons will show up at the bottom of the screen
  • Standard two-finger pinch/spread-to-zoom if your hardware supports it

If you have it set (Menu => Settings), your current position will show up as a blue dot; you also have the option to have the display show you in the center of the screen when your position updates. If you’re scrolling the map to a different location, you should turn this off, as the program has a tendecny to zip the display right back to your current location. After zooming with a double-tap or finger pinch, I’ve noticed that the current position indicator can be in the wrong spot; zooming in/out with the zoom buttons usually resolves that problem.

Map caching takes place automatically for map tiles displayed when you’re using the app in online mode, but only map tiles at the current zoom level will be saved. If you have cached map data for your current position, MultiMap should use this first, even if you  have an online connection.

selectarea

Figure 2: If you want to cache map tiles with multiple zoom levels for use when you’re offline, or to reduce cellular data use, MultiMap makes it easy. Select the map type you want to use (Google Sat for this example). Scroll to the area you’re interested in, preferably in low-zoom mode to see the largest area possible. Choose Menu => Cache Data, select the area you want to cache by touching and dragging, then press the back key

resolution

Figure 3: MultiMap will come up with resolution options for the map you’ve chosen. Whatever resolution you do choose, MultiMap appears to download tiles for that resolution and all lower-resolution tiles as well. So if I chose “3 meter”, it appears to download “3 meter”, “5 meter”, “10 meter” etc., all the way down to “60 meter”. The higher the resolution, the more tiles will be required, and the longer it will take. For road maps, “3 meter” or even “5 meter” should be more than fine; for satellite imagery, choose the lowest resolution you can live with. And I’d recommend you do all this caching when you’re connected via high-speed WiFi, as this can take forever with 3G, and burn up a lot of your data quota.

There’s no question that the OpenStreetMap data is fully legal to use this way. For the Google data, I’m not as sure, but I think it is. The Google Maps Terms Of Service says that caching data is fine as long as the cached data is only used in a manner similar to how it’s used uncached. I would interpret MultiMap’s use of the data as falling under this limitation, so I think it’s OK. Certainly Google hasn’t pulled this app (and other similar caching ones) off the app market for TOS violations. If there’s anyone with an alternative view, freel free to leave it in the comments.

cache

Figure 4: After you use the program for a while, cached data is likely to accumulate. The program lets you clear out the cache, either completely, by data type, or by the date it was cached.

Other Issues:

  • Program can sometimes misplace your current position after a zoom with finger-pinch or double-tap; using the zoom buttons will usually fix this issue.
  • Program sometimes gets hung up and shows a blank map even if it’s online or has cached data; you’ll have to exit/restart to see the map data.

Final thoughts:

If you’re looking for lots of extra features, and a wider variety of map types, this isn’t the program for you – it has a pretty basic feature set. But what it does, it does well, and it’s incredibly easy to learn and use. Recommended.




Android Apps For Hurricane Tracking

As hurricane activity heats up, Android Police has a nice roundup/review of Android apps for monitoring and tracking hurricanes, including maps. Top choices are Hurricane Hub and Hurricane Hound, both free.




Bing Maps Goes Native On Android

Application Name: Bing for Android

Description: Interface for Microsoft Bing services, including Bing Maps.

Publisher’s website: Bing Community post

Cost: Free; currently only available for Verizon customers (coming “soon” for others)

Version/date reviewed: v.1.01  /  8-30-10

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

bing_qr

Android market link (mobile apps)
Android Market (browser)


A number of apps have had unofficial Bing map viewing capabilities, but Microsoft has just released their first official Bing application, including Bing Maps support. Unfortunately, the initial release is only for Verizon phones, which pretty much means that if your phone doesn’t say “Droid”, you’re out of luck. But they do say it will be coming to other carriers “soon”, whatever that means. It’s now available for all phones from all carriers.

 

This is the full Bing experience, including text/image search; but since this is a geo-referenced site, I’ll only look at the geography-related features.

bingfirst

Figure 1: Start up the app, and get the Bing image of the day on your starting screen (looks like China here). Search box at top, with voice entry capabilities; additional options down at the bottom. Tapping on that little grid box minimizes the additional options off the screen. Going to Maps …

 

bingroad

Figure 2: …Standard street map view. If you’ve given the app permission to access the GPS, the blue dot is your current location, and the “filled” blue dot at lower left indicates that the map will keep you at the center of the map if you move.Standard two-finger pinch and zoom on supported touch screens, or use the zoom controls at lower right. Touch and drag to move to a different area, or enter a geographic search term at top. When you move the map area, the “filled” blue dot will become unfilled to show your current position is no longer at the center; at any time, you can tap that control and re-center the view around your current position.

You can change to different views (aerial and hybrid) with the Menu => Map Type control; I wish there were a layers button on the map itself to make this easier. You can also get rid of the search bar at top with Menu => More => Full screen.

For a long time, Bing only had black-and-white government aerial imagery for my area, which paled in comparison to Google’s color imagery. But they recently added aerial imagery for my neighborhood, and I must say it’s sensational, much better than Google’s for the same view. Below (Figure 3) are Bing (left) and Google (right) aerial views for the same spot at maximum zoom for each map app, and Bing just kicks Google’s ass in terms of quality and resolution. Two pics were taken at different times of the year, so that’s why the pond looks different:

bingaerial

Bing Maps (aerial view, maximum zoom)

googleaerial

Google Maps (satellite view, maximum zoom)

Positional accuracy was much better than Google Maps, too; Bing Maps imagery appeared to be pretty much dead-on, while Google Maps was off about 10-20 meter. I’ll be testing GPS accuracy on my Android unit for future posts, but based on what I saw today using accurate Bing Maps imagery, it’s pretty damn good. One thing Google Maps on Android has that Bing Maps currently hasn’t is the ability to view your own points/lines/polygons (more on this soon).

BingLocal

Figure 4: Under the “Local” option are listings for local business and attractions. It’s nice to have these integrated in the main app, unlike Google Maps, which pushes you to the separate Places app (I’ll be covering Google Maps in depth in a few weeks). My unofficial test shows Bing to be more up-to-date than Google; Google still lists a local pizza place that closed 5 years ago, while Bing doesn’t have it. Google does a much better job pulling up restaurant reviews, though.

bingdirections

Figure 5: Directions work reasonably well; starts by default from your current location, initially shows the full path to your destination, then zooms in as you move through the directions step by step with the arrow keys at top. But this isn’t automatic navigation; you have to press the arrow keys as you reach the end of various steps on your trip. Google Maps Navigation is far better, with automatic spoken turn-by-turn directions, and the classic 3D view used by standard car GPS units. No contest here – Google kicks Bing’s ass in return.

Other Issues:

Bing seems to use its own voice-to-text entry service in the app, and it’s not very good – slower than Google’s native interface, and recognition can be hit-and-miss. There was one time when the app wouldn’t respond in the Directions mode, but exiting back to the main menu and then going back to Maps and Directions fixed that problem. And, of course, it has the classic problem where it only works if you have a data connection, either cellular or WiFi, but it’s hardly alone in that. For a first release product, I found it remarkably polished, bug-free, and easy to use.

Final thoughts:

It’s not a replacement for Google Maps by any stretch, but the Bing app is an excellent complement, particularly for its first-rate aerial imagery and integrated local search. And if you like Bing search (I think it’s OK, but prefer Google), it’s nice to have a specialized app for that rather than struggling with the browser’s shrunken view. Highly recommended for Verizon users who can get it right away; for those on other carriers, hopefully you won’t have to wait too long :).




Online Vs. Offline: The Android GeoData Conundrum

At the time this post is being written, virtually all Android devices being sold and used are mobile phones. Most of these mobile phones come with data plans that can stream data (3G/4G) on demand; they also  come with WiFi capability, so that you can get equivalent data directly off a wireless network. But what if you’re in an area that doesn’t have cellular data coverage or WiFi? For geodata, that can be a big problem.

1. Many commonly-used geographic apps, like Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Navigation, Layar, etc., require that a data connection be present to work. You can check this yourself by shutting off wireless data connectivity completely on your Android unit. Set it into “airplane mode” to turn off the cellphone connectivity, turn off the Wifi as well, then start up Google Maps. You may see a part of a map leftover from the last time you used it, but that’s it; zoom in/out, or scroll to a different area, and nothing will show up. You’ll eventually get an error message saying that the app can’t connect to the network.

Most people will spend most of their time in an area where some kind of wireless data connectivity is present. But if you check out the coverage map for Verizon, generally considered the carrier with the best overall coverage, you can see that there’s still a fair amount of the country that doesn’t have coverage, especially west of the Mississippi:

Zoom in closer, and you’ll see pockets of missing coverage even in areas that look completely solid above. Many of those area will never get decent data coverage, either because they’re too sparsely populated, or because topography/access makes coverage difficult to impossible to achieve. In those areas, online geodata will probably never be available, and your Android unit won’t be able to use geographic apps that require online access.

2. Phones had dominated Android unit sales up to now, but Android slates, tablets, media devices, etc. are coming soon. While some of these will have 3G/4G connectivity options, others won’t; that reduces their data connectivity coverage footprint to just those areas where they can get a WiFi connection. Adding 3G/4G  connectivity can be expensive, $25-30 a month, exceeding the cost of the hardware over its lifetime. So are those units going to be limited to only having geodata available only where there’s WiFi? If so, their utility as mobile geography tools will be severely crippled.

3. Finally, some wireless data providers are looking at limiting data bandwidth; ATT has already capped monthly consumption at 2 GB a month, with massive charges if you run over, and Verizon has long been rumored to be looking at similar caps. If you’re downloading large amounts of geographic data over such connections, like aerial imagery, you could easily bump up against those limits. WiFi downloads won’t have those limitations, but if you’re going where there’s no WiFi, that’s not a big help.

The solution is obvious – the ability to store data for an area so that it will be available even if there’s no connection. In other words, “data caching”. That way, you could download large amounts of data for a specific area over a fast, cheap WiFi network, and then access it quickly in areas that either have no connectivity, or connectivity limited by bandwidth caps. I think the master vision of Google and the wireless companies is that we’ll always be connected, and therefore this won’t be an issue. But that’s not the case right now, and I doubt it ever will be. I hope that data caching will be added to apps like Google Maps and Earth that currently lack it, but I haven’t seen any signs of that coming soon.

However, there are already a number of Android apps currently available that can cache online map imagery for later use offline; other apps can take map data converted into special formats, and use it offline. I’ll be reviewing a fair number of those apps over the coming months, starting next week with reviews of two apps that cache topographic and OpenStreetMap data for offline use. They have limitations, and the range/types of data available through these offline apps doesn’t match that of online apps, but they make Android units geographically useful in places where they’d otherwise be useless.

While I’m on this topic, a tangential word of warning. I’ve been reading the specs of a number of Android devices slated to come out over the next six months, and most of them include “GPS”. But their definitions of what constitutes “GPS” seem to vary. With true GPS, they’re picking up signals from GPS satellites, and converting those to a location; these will work anywhere in the world, regardless of whether the units have access to wireless signals. But for some units, if you dig deeper into the specs, the manufacturers talk about “network GPS” or “antenna GPS”, where location is determined by how close they are to wireless hotspots or cellular base station antennas. This technique is a useful adjunct to true satellite GPS, especially in urban areas where satellite visibility can be blocked by tall buildings. But it’s not in any sense an acceptable substitute for true satellite GPS, and shouldn’t even be called “GPS”. Not only is it far less accurate than true GPS even in the best case, it doesn’t work at all if you’re out of range of the cellphone network or hotspots. If the specs say “assisted GPS”, that’s probably OK, but you should still read the fine print. True assisted GPS is a augmentation to satellite GPS: proximity to a cellular antenna is used to narrow down your initial location, and provide information that lets your unit pick up satellite data more quickly. But I’ve also seen “assisted GPS” used to describe units that pick up location data from antennas/hotspots; once again, not acceptable. If you want to record geographic data with your Android unit, accept no substitutes – only buy Android devices with true satellite GPS that works anywhere. End of rant.