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Archive for the 'topographic maps' Category

Survey-Relevant Data App For Android

Application Name: Survey Demo

Description: Data overlays useful to surveyors and map users.

Publisher’s website: Surveying.org

Cost: Free demo version; Standard ($4.95) and Pro ($9.95) versions add additional features.

Version/date reviewed: v.1.0  /  5-5-11

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

sd_qr

Android Market (mobile app only)
Android Market (browser)


The Surveying.Org website offers a host of useful data layers for surveyors and cartographers, but all of the layers don’t work in the standard Android browser. The suite of Survey apps (Demo, Standard and Pro) offer these same data layers in stand-alone apps. Data layers viewed in a Google Maps interface, with standard Road/Aerial/Terrain views or the MyTopo USGS topographic maps view, include:

UTM

UTM zone overlays (tap on the map for the info popup for all layers)

spcs

State Plane Coordinate System boundaries

meridians

Principal Meridian boundaries and locations for the Public Land Survey System

All of the above can be viewed with the free Demo version. The Standard version of Survey ($4.95) adds two more data layers, and an additional function:

  • National Geodetic Survey horizontal control benchmarks (with links to data sheets)
  • National Geodetic Survey vertical control points.
  • Measure distances and areas on the map.

The Pro version of Survey ($9.95) adds a few additional features:

  • Built-in inclinometer
  • Find the latitude/longitude for a point by tapping on it.
  • Recording of points and tracks, export in KML format.

Other issues: I guess I have a number of concerns with the app:

  • Data layers are fetched online as needed, but that means that if you’re offline, they’re not available – a big drawback
  • The GPS stays on if you switch to a different app, rather than exiting the main app; forget about this, and you can quickly drain down the battery.
  • The Standard version is a bit expensive ($4.95), but if you need that data handy, probably worth it. The current set of additional features with the Pro version doesn’t justify it’s $9.95 price, as you can duplicate the additional functionality with other apps, many of which are free. The author plans to add PLSS data and lat/long to State Plane Coordinate System coordinate conversion to a future version, which would make it more worthwhile, but still a bit expensive for what you get.

Final thoughts: All of the functionality of the Demo version can be gotten using the Surveying.org website in the standard Android browser, plus length and area measurement, but the interface is easier and faster in the app than the website. If you need a handy reference source in the field for nearby NGS benchmarks, the Standard version might be worth the high price, but if you can plan ahead, all the data is available for free at the Surveying.org website The Pro version is overpriced for what you currently get with it; until additional functionality is added, I’d pass on it for now.




Locus, A GPS Mapping Application – Part II: Maps

Continuing on with my review of the Locus GPS mapping app for Android (Part I on the interface is here), today is map day. Locus has a strong selection of standard online map sources, roughly 30 vs. roughly about 20 for OruxMaps. Some are worldwide, others regional. These mapsets currently include:

  • Google Maps: Road, Aerial, Hybrid, Terrain, Korea
  • OpenStreetMap” Classic, Cycle, Transport, Osmarender, OpenPiste
  • OVI-Nokia map:Classic, Satellite, Terrain (Locus is the only app I’ve seen so far with these useful mapsets)
  • Yahoo: Classic, Satellite
  • Bing: Road, Hybrid, London A-Z, OS Maps
  • OSM-regional: UMP-pcPL, Hike&Bike
  • Freemap (Slovakia): Car, Turistic, Cyclo, Aerial
  • Yandex (East Europe): Classic, Satellite
  • Eniro (North Europe): Classic, Aerial, Nautical, Hybrid
  • MyTopo (USA): 1:24K topographic maps
  • Outdoor Active (Germany, Austria, South Tyrol)
  • Statkaart (Norway): Topo, Raster
  • Maps+ (Switzerland): Topography, Terrain
  • NearMap (Australia): PhotoMap, StreetMap, Terrain

 

While there is a reasonable amount of overlap in mapsets between the two, each one also has unique mapsets as well. For US users, the big difference is that Locus comes with the MyTopo USGS 1:24K topographic mapset built in, while OruxMaps doesn’t. You can add Terraserver topo maps to OruxMaps (more on this in a bit), but the MyTopo set is of higher quality, and some areas are more up-to-date.

 

The list of available online maps can be brought up with the map manager button, in the upper right of the main map screen. You’ll get a list of available online mapsets:

locus_mm_0

Mapsets are organized into groups by source, a better system than OruxMaps’ sequential list of all maps. If you tap on a source name, like Google …

locusmaps_2

 

… you’ll get a subset listing of all the available maps from that source. Tap on the map type to go back to the map view, and load that selected mapset. The listing scrolls horizontally, so if you can’t see the desired mapset, tap and drag the listing left or right to access it.

First time I tried using Locus in the field, I was shocked at how many mapsets I was unable to download, despite having a good cellular connection. Then I explored the Settings section; under the Map subsection of Settings, you’ll find  a setting called “Offline mode”. If this is checked, which appears to be the default, maps can only be downloaded to your unit when you have a WiFi Internet connection. This protects you from being surprised with massive data overage charges from your cellular provider if you don’t have an unlimited data plan; my plan is unlimited, so I left this unchecked, and all mapsets now downloaded properly.

As online maps are downloaded, either from a WiFi or cellular connection, they are automatically cached so that you don’t have to repeatedly download them. I presume the size of the cache is limited, and that older maps are deleted automatically, but I wasn’t able to find out this info. For longer-term storage of mapsets, and avoiding large data downloads over cellular connections, Locus lets you create mapsets from download data, and then load them as needed into the app.

select_option

To access this function, go to the “Download map” tab in the map manager. You’ll have several options for selecting the area you want maps for:

  • This screen – Downloads maps for the area currently visible in the main map screen. You’ll want to zoom in/out first to your desired area.

select_area

  • Select area – Choose a subset of the current map area by clicking and dragging; press on the green check button at the bottom to approve the selection, or the red x button to clear it and select a different area. You can zoom in/out in this view, but if you haven’t already selected the desired general area first, new map data will not be loaded in as you zoom in/out.
  • By state – Downloaded predefined areas. By “state”, this means “country”, not “US state” or other subregions. Fine for smaller countries at lower zoom levels, not great for larger countries.

map_points

 

  • By path – This is pretty slick. Select this option, and get the map screen, with a new toolbar near the bottom. Click the “+” sign to add a point at the center of the screen, then drag the map to the next location and add another point. Locus will define an area around that point for which it will download maps, and show that as a purple overlay. You can set the width of the area with the slider at the top, and also tap-and-drag points to adjust them. The “-“ sign removes the last point, while the red x deletes all points. When done, tap the green check box. Be sure to disable the button at the lower-right, as otherwise the map will keep popping back to your current GPS location.
  • Select POIs – If you have a set of waypoints loaded into a category (more on this in the next post), Locus can use those to define an area for maps to be downloaded for. Nice, but I wish there were a comparable option for tracks as well, similar to the “By path” option, but loadable from a GPX file.

zoom_levels

Once you’ve made any of your area selections, you’ll get a screen with the available zoom levels for that map; you need to choose at least one. You can choose more, but it will make the map filesize larger; maximum allowable filesize is 2 GB. The total map size and tile count is shown at top right, and you’ll also see a preview of the highest zoom level maps at right. Label the mapset file using the text box at the top.

change_type

Tapping “Change type” to choose the type/location for the downloaded map files. You can either put the map tiles into the standard online map cache, create a new separate mapset, or add maps to a pre-existing mapset of the same type. I usually use “Separate map”, since I think it will minimize complications, but that’s just a guess on my part. Once you’ve selected a map type, you go back to the zoom level screen; tapping OK starts the download process. This is usually best done with a WiFi connection, as that will be much faster, and won’t count against any cellular data quotas.

user_maps

 

Once complete, the new mapset will appear in a listing under the “User maps” tab; just tap on the mapset you want to select it. Generally, these maps work fine, but I sometimes noticed when scrolling the map that tiles would appear and then disappear for no discernible reason. However, when using the maps in general GPS navigation mode, this didn’t seem to be a problem.

As with OruxMaps, you can also create mapset files from online map sources with the free Mobile Atlas Creator software, setting Big Planet / RMaps SQLite as the output format; the app author has more info here.

So far, Locus is superior to OruxMaps in handling online/offline maps. But it falls short in two major areas:

– Adding new online map sources is more complicated in Locus than OruxMaps (although neither is easy). There’s a post at the Locus forum on the process, but I couldn’t find any actual working examples. In contrast, OruxMaps offers a sample wms_services.xml file to get you started, which adds Terraserver US topographic maps to the list of available maps, and the OruxMaps forum has more working examples.

– OruxMaps has a stand-alone desktop application that can convert georeferenced raster image files, like GeoTiffs and OziExplorer map files, into an OruxMaps-compatible mapset. There is no general tool like that for Locus; there’s a mention in the forum of an old utility that can convert OziExplorer map files, but the format it creates may be deprecated soon in Locus. And it doesn’t look like the utility program mapc2mapc currently creates Locus-compatible map files, either. So there isn’t currently a good way to get your own maps into a Locus-compatible format, and that’s a big drawback for me.

Coming up in part III – tracks and waypoints in Locus.




Locus, A GPS Mapping Application – Part I: Interface

Application Name: Locus Free

Description: Display online/offline maps for your position; GPS track/waypoint display and recording; compass; more.

Publisher’s website: Locus

Cost: Free ad-support version; Pro version ($5.50) removes ads, and add some minor additional functionality.

Version/date reviewed: v.0.9.28  /  3-15-11

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

locus_qr

Android Market (mobile app only)
Android Market (browser)


I’ve reviewed two other apps that convert your Android unit into the functional equivalent of a handheld GPS unit. TrekBuddy I was less than overwhelmed with; OruxMaps I found to be terrific. I’ll spoil the surprise conclusion here, and say that Locus is not only closer to OruxMaps in quality than TrekBuddy, but gives OruxMaps a run for its money in some respects. In this multi-day review, I’ll compare Locus’s functionality to OruxMaps as appropriate. As with OruxMaps, Locus has so many features that I can’t cover them all, even over the next few days; look at the program’s website, and explore the Settings section, for more info on all of its functionality.

Interface:

locus_1

The basic interface for Locus has three toolbars at top, right, and bottom. Unlike OruxMaps, where all toolbars are fully customizable, only the right toolbar in Locus can be modified, and only by checking/unchecking pre-defined options. There are five functions available on the top toolbar. They are:

locus_4

– An “info” icon, which brings up links to “About application”, a simplified basic guide to using the app, an incomplete online manual viewed in your browser, the version history, and a list of additional apps that can invoke Locus as a helper app.

locus_6

– Title bar options: tapping on the title bar lets you choose what’s displayed there. In the picture below, coordinates was selected for display in the title bar. One drawback of Locus compared to OruxMaps is that the number of data fields displayed onscreen with the map is far more limited in Locus.

locus_5

– A GPS icon, which brings up the GPS status screen, with options to turn the GPS and compass on/off to conserve power.

locus_dm

– A data manager, which lets you view tracks/points, import/export data (GPX/KML formats supported), and manage categories. Locus requires you to specify a category label in which to save points and tracks; while I found this annoying at first, I now see the value of forcing you to organize your data by label.

locus_mm

– A map manager, for selecting and managing online/offline maps (more on this later)

 

locus_2

Access the right-toolbar options by the Android Menu button, then selecting “Set right panel”; this screen also gives you several other options, most of which can also be assigned to the right toolbar.

locus_3

The available right-toolbar functions are:

  • Search in POI: This is a saved waypoint search function; there is no general POI database in this app.
  • Move Map: Instantly move the display to an entered address or latitude/longitude.
  • Points: A waypoint list/manager (MOTL, more on this later)
  • Track record: Brings up another toolbar for recording tracks (MOTL)
  • Parking (BETA): Record your current parking spot, with options to set an alarm (useful for timed parking meters), and taking a photo of the location:

locus_park

  • Share: Lets you send the current map center coordinates, or a screenshot of the current map display, to email, Facebook, SMS, etc.
  • Add new route: Bit misnamed, as it lets you create a new track in the map display; a “route” is a sequential collection of waypoints, which Locus doesn’t seem to have support for. MOTL
  • Compass: Option to switch to compass view, which includes guide information if you’ve selected a POI/waypoint as your destination:

locus_compass

The compass has a long settling time, so it will take a few seconds for the “needle” to move to the current direction. I’d prefer the option to manually adjust this sensitivity, but it’s not too bad. What is bad is that it shows the magnetic direction, not the true direction, as OruxMaps does. I wish I could mandate that every compass app for Android  either have true direction as the only option, or have it as the default with magnetic direction as an option. For many areas, the two will be similar, but in some areas the difference is substantial; where I live, there’s an eleven-degree difference between true and magnetic directions. Hope this gets fixed in Locus in the near future. Now fixed; there’s a new Sensors menu in the Setting that lets you choose True direction (default) or magnetic, and adjust the sensitivity of the compass.

 

locus_6

The bottom toolbar has five functions. When the first button is active (as above), and the GPS is on, the map will automatically scroll to your current location. If you tap and drag the map to view a different location while this button is active, it will automatically “pop you back” to your current location in a few seconds.

locus_zl

The second button is a zoom lock/unlock button. When it’s off, you can only zoom in to the native resolution of the map image (or double that, if you turn on “Double sized resolution” in Settings => Map). When it’s engaged, as above …

locus_sz

… you can zoom in well past the native resolution; the above picture isn’t even at the full zoom available, since that would just look like a jumble of pixels.

locus_direction

The third button lets you choose a direction option. “Rotate map” will spin the map so that the direction you’re facing, or moving in, is at the top. This mode drives me nuts as it tends to swing around wildly, so I usually leave it off.

locus_fov

“Show view” displays a “field of view” indicator when you’re standing still, as above. When you’re in motion, the view changes to a triangle/arrow that points in the direction you’re currently moving. Since Locus currently uses magnetic directions, this can be a bit off from the true field of view.

This control is also useful for restoring the map to “North at top”. In the default mode, Locus supports advanced multi-touch, which lets you rotate the map view by dragging two fingers on the screen in different directions. This also drives me nuts, as sometimes when I want to only zoom in or out, I wind up rotating the map; using this control pops the map back to a normal orientation. You can turn off advanced multi-touch in the settings section, as I have.

The toolbars are partially transparent, and fairly small, so I usually leave them all turned on. However, the Settings section allows you to set any, or all, of the toolbars to fade away after a few seconds; tap twice on the screen to make them visible again.

One final topic, peripheral to the interface. Like OruxMaps, Locus has the option to use an external Bluetooth GPS receiver to obtain position, in place of the built-in GPS receiver; this can be specified in the settings section. This has some major advantages for both battery life and position accuracy. Unlike OruxMaps, though, I was actually able to get this Bluetooth connection to work in Locus, though it took some effort. Android’s Bluetooth support is a bit flaky, and it can take multiple attempts to achieve a successful connection. If the first Bluetooth connection attempt doesn’t work, and you’ll get an error message to that effect, go to the GPS status page, and turn GPS off and then on again. It may take 3-6 attempts, but eventually you do get a working connection to your Bluetooth GPS receiver. The application can also use Bluetooth GPS via proxy apps like Bluetooth GPS, which replace the built-in GPS receiver position for all apps.

Tomorrow: A look at maps in Locus.




GPS Trip Recording And Online/Offline Maps With Trimble Outdoors

Application Name: Trimble Outdoors

Description: GPS app for trip recording, with online/offline maps

Publisher’s website: Trimble Outdoors

Cost: $9.99

Version/date reviewed: v.4.1.8  /  12-11-10

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

to_qr

Android Market link (mobile app only)
Android Market link (browser)


Trimble is probably best known for its professional lines of GPS and other measurement hardware. They’re also known for making really crappy software that runs them; you can often locate a Trimble user in the field by listening for curse words, as something else goes wrong with the software. Trimble Outdoors is an unusual foray into the general consumer field for them; do they do any better here?

The general idea behind the software is to create records of various kinds of outdoor activities, and upload them to the Trimble Outdoors website for storage and sharing. So you’ll need to create a free account at Trimble Outdoors to use the software at all.

to_1

Figure 1: After starting up the program, and logging in, you’ll see a list of of activities under which you can record trips. Start up hiking …

to_2

Figure 2: … and the app will fire up the GPS, load in maps for the area using the chosen mapset, and start logging your position as a track. From the list screen, you can also go to a list of previously-saved trips, and load them into the map view as well, either for viewing or for continuation of that trip.

to_3

Figure 3: Here’s a short pair of tracks, along with several waypoints. You can add waypoints, but there’s no on-screen control for that; you need to dive into the menu to find that control.

elevation

Figure 4: The Stats button gives you info about distance traveled, total time, and average speed; the Charts give you the choice of plotting either Elevation or Speed as a function of distance or time.

media

Figure 5: When you’re recording a trip, you can also capture photos, audio, or video, tagged with the location they were taken at.

When a trip is complete, you can save it on your Android unit. You can also upload it to your online Trimble Outdoors account, either for personal private storage or to share it with others:

mytrips

And you have the option of sharing this trip on either Facebook or Twitter as well.

This all sounds great … in theory. In practice, this app has some major issues:

  • Screens can be slow and non-responsive, especially the start-up list of activities
  • The choice of in-app maps is limited to Bing maps (road, aerial, hybrid, terrain) and MyTopo topo maps; no OpenStreetMap maps, or anything else. Google Map imagery is only available if you export track and waypoint data to a separate screen; it’s not integrated with the app, the way it is with other Android GPS and map apps.
  • The app can be flaky in recording data. It’s supposed to continually record a track, but on several occasions track recording spontaneously stopped.
  • The app will cache maps for offline use, but the only way to do it within the app is to pan the map to the desired area, and then pan/zoom in around to save maps to the cache directory. This is really a crappy way to handle this; other map apps let you define a geographic region, and then automatically download the tiles for that region.
  • The default size setting for the cache is only 10 MB, far too small to save any significant number of maps; you’ll need to set this larger right away.
  • You can generate map caches at the Trimble Outdoors website, but the process isn’t straightforward. You zoom/pan a Google Maps view or MyTopo map view to show your desired area, and then select the maximum zoom level you want tiles for; the web app will then generate a zip file containing these tiles. You then have to manually unzip the zip file, and then copy the files over into the cache directory  on your phone (making sure that the cache is large enough to hold these tiles). And even though you’re viewing Google Map imagery in the app, the downloaded tiles will be in the matching Bing Maps format, not Google Maps!
  • Unlike other apps, you can’t create named mapsets that you can load in at will; you have the cached maps and that’s it.
  • You can’t import GPX track or waypoint files directly; you need to import this data into your online account to create a trip containing these, then upload this trip into the app on your Android unit.
  • You can create trips online using a Trimble Outdoors web app, including tracks/waypoints/audio/video/photos. But I found this web app to be sluggish and erratic in performance. Creating tracks where I wanted them to be was virtually impossible, as the track would stop following my cursor, then jump to an unintended spot.
  • There’s no way to directly export tracks or waypoints created in the app itself; you have to upload the trip to your online account, then export the data from there as a GPX or Google Earth KML/KMZ file.
  • If you load in an earlier trip, then try to exit that trip without saving it again, you can wind up deleting the earlier trip data (as I found out to my regret, several times).
  • There’s no integrated GPS status screen or compass.
  • The app can only really be used in portrait orientation; in landscape orientation, the app’s toolbar takes up so much space that there’s very little left for the actual map.
  • Finding app functions and settings is pretty much hit-and-miss; there doesn’t seem to be any rational layout of functions.
  • And I could go on …

Other issues: While I didn’t have any issues with crashes or force-closes, you might take a look at the Comments section in the Android Market listing for this app; lots of people seem to be having problems. Now that Google is reducing the amount of time you have to uninstall a program for a full refund, from 24 hours to 15 minutes, you really won’t have a lot of time to evaluate how well it will work on your phone.

Final thoughts: For an app that’s already in version 4, and has been around since 2009, it’s still not in very good shape, especially for the price they’re asking. While the ability to create georeferenced multimedia trips sounds pretty cool, the actual program function just isn’t reliable enough to make this worthwhile. And as a GPS mapping app, it’s missing a lot of functionality. If you want MyTopo topo maps, either BackCountry Navigator or Topo Maps would be a better choice; while neither of those is perfect, they have more of the GPS functions you really need to have, are far easier to use, and offer in-app map caching and mapset management. And for a solid general GPS map app, you’d do better with OruxMaps, which has a lot more features, and is free.




Creating Offline Maps For Android Apps With MOBAC – II

Continuing on from the previous post, I’m going to create a mapset atlas using Mobile Atlas Creator (MOBAC) for offline use with a compatible Android application. An “atlas” can contain multiple mapsets of data from different sources, covering different areas, and with different data resolutions. I’m going to create an atlas with mapsets using:

  • OpenStreetMap road maps
  • Microsoft aerial maps (“Virtual Earth”)
  • USGS topographic maps

I’ll start with the OpenstreetMap maps, by selecting that map type from the dropdown menu, and also select the area I’m interested in. The first step is to choose the zoom levels I want data for:

zoomlevels

Higher zoom levels correspond to a higher resolution, but this will also require more map tiles to be downloaded for a given area; lower zooms are lower resolution, but cover much more area. For aerial photos, you might want to get the highest possible resolution => high zoom, whereas for street maps, lower resolution may be adequate => low zoom. As you click on zoom levels, you’ll get a running total of all the map tiles that will need to be downloaded. Since you can also have multiple mapsets in a single atlas, each containing different kinds of data covering different areas,  you could have a lower-resolution road mapset covering a larger area, and then have a high-resolution aerial photo mapset covering a smaller area. Sometimes there’s no data for the zoom level you’ve selected. The area I’ve select is fairly small, and I’ll used it zoomed in close, so I’ll check the 15 and 16 zoom boxes.

The next section in the control panel lets you combine and modify the original data tiles into a different size and/or image format; unless you have a good reason to, you should leave these advanced settings alone:

customtiles

Next is the Atlas Content definition section:

Atlas Content

First step is to give my atlas a name by right-clicking on it and choosing “Rename”; I’ll call it “KV” here (hit return to save the name). Next, I want to give a name to the mapset with the OpenStreetMap maps; I’ll call it “OSM in the “Name” section, and add it to the atlas with the “Add selection” button; this section now looks like this:

atlascontent2

I now repeat the process for Microsoft aerial data and USGS topo maps by:

  • Choosing the map source
  • Choosing the zoom levels
  • Giving the mapset a name, and pressing “Add selection”

finalac

Next, I need to select the type of map data I’m creating, based on the Android app I’ll be using it with. In this example, I plan to use the data with an app called “TrekBuddy”, so I select that type:

tbtared

“tared” means it’s compressed into the .tar format; there’s an option for untared, but compressed will save on space and number of files.

Now the atlas is ready for creation; click the “Create atlas” button, and MOBAC will start downloading map tiles and assembling them into the atlas:

2010-09-12_170134

Once completed, you’ll find the atlas files in a subdirectory of the “Atlases” directory (default location for “Atlases” is the directory that the MOBAC program is in, but you can change that in the program Settings). The subdirectory be named using the atlas name, with the date and time of creation appended to it. You’ll need to copy the appropriate map files for your app to the appropriate directory on your Android unit, possibly renaming them as well; more on this in upcoming posts.

As map tiles are downloaded, they’re saved in a special cache, so if you need them again they won’t have be downloaded afresh. The Tile store coverage control can show you what areas have map tiles for a particular map type and zoom level:

tilestore

The Settings section lets you:

  • Set the distance unit (metric/imperial)
  • Choose which map sources to show in the dropdown, and set the program language
  • Set an expiration date for downloaded and cached tiles
  • Show you how many tiles are cached for each map type, and how much space they’re taking up
  • Set maximum map size allowed (different programs may have restrictions on this)
  • Set the default storage directory for atlases
  • Configure network connections.

There’s one final section that lets you load a GPX file, create waypoints on the map, and export them in standard GPX format – pretty straightforward to figure out.

I’ll review TrekBuddy soon, and use these maps for the demo. But next up, another app that creates mapsets for Android apps, but this one uses scanned map images and aerial photos instead of online map services.




Creating Offline Maps For Android Apps With MOBAC – I

Some Android apps can download and store cached map data from online data sources like Google Maps and OpenStreetMap servers. I’ve already posted about a few of these:

.. and expect to post about many more of them in the future. But in-app caching has limitations:

  • Map sources are limited to online map services
  • Map variety is usually fairly limited
  • Map selection process is limited by the size of the Android unit
  • Issues with download speed and bandwidth caps (WiFi and cellular data connections)

There are also a fair number of Android apps that don’t cache map data directly, but instead use offline mapsets created with desktop software. While perhaps less convenient than direct in-app caching in that they require you to prepare the mapsets on a desktop and then transfer them to your Android unit, they have some significant advantages:

  • Desktop interface usually offers more options, and is easier to use
  • Choice of online map servers can be larger
  • Map management is somewhat easier
  • In addition to online map sources, you can also create mapsets from scanned maps, aerial/satellite photos, and output from mapping software (GIS)

I’m going to be posting on a number of these offline mapset apps in the coming months. Some of them have their own custom mapset creation software, and I’ll cover those separately. But there are several free programs out there that can create mapsets for more than one of these apps, and I thought I’d cover a couple of these first before moving on to the apps themselves. After all, the apps aren’t worth that much without usable maps already in hand.

The first program I’ll be looking at is Mobile Atlas Creator, aka MOBAC, which downloads map tiles from online map services, and converts them into an app-appropriate format. This is a Swiss army knife app, as it creates offline maps not only for a fair number of Android apps, but also for programs that run on Windows, Windows Mobile and Symbian platforms, and even some standard handheld GPS units from Garmin and Magellan. It’s a Java program, so it should run in Windows, Linux and OS X; Java 1.6 required (check this at the Java website). While the current stable release is version 1.7, I’ll be looking at the most recent 1.8 beta release.

No program installation required; just unzip the contents into Start the program up using the .jar program file. There’s a separate Window executable in the distribution, but I think that’s just a stub to start up the .jar file. Documentation is minimal. Program screen looks like this:

mobacoverview

There are two sections to the program view. The left pane contains program controls, while the larger right pane has the map view. Navigating the map view is a little different than other programs:

  • To scroll the map view, click and drag with the right mouse button (not the usual left button).
  • Zoom in and out using either the zoom control at upper left, or with the mouse wheel.
  • Use the left mouse button to select an area you want to download map data for. With the grid control at upper left “disabled”, you can freely select any area. With the grid enabled for a particular zoom level, a red grid is laid on top of the map, and selection is automatically “quantized” to full grid squares:

zoomgrid

gridsquares

You have to select grid squares in adjacent groups by clicking and dragging; you can’t turn on/off individual squares separate from the rest with Alt-click or Ctrl-click, as you can with some other similar mapset programs (e.g. Garmin’s Mapsource).

The control panel consists of a number of discrete sections, which can be minimized/maximized by clicking on the blue arrows. First section displays the area you’ve selected at right:

coordselection

You can also enter coordinates manually, then press the “Select entered coordinates” button to refresh the selected area.

Next, there’s a dropdown menu with a list of preprogrammed map sources:

maplist

There are currently 56 map sources in this list, some of which cover all of the world, others which are only good for limited areas (and some, like the mytopo.com server, that don’t seem to be currently working at all). Using the Settings section, you can choose to turn off mapsets that you’re not interested in, as well as update the map sources:

selectmaps

You can even add your own map services, though the process is a bit technical, and requires that the map tiles be in a very specific format. Most of these map sources are freely redistributable, and aren’t limited by licensing terms. For some of the commercial sources, (Google Maps, Microsoft/Bing), it’s not clear. In my post on MultiMap, I noted that caching of map tiles is allowed by Google under certain circumstances, and I thought that MultiMap met those restrictions; for MOBAC, I’m not so sure. Bing’s map licensing tends to be a bit looser than Google’s, but even there I’m not sure. Consult a lawyer.

Next post: Creating a mapset for use with an Android app.




BackCountry Navigator – Offline Topo Maps And Aerial Photos For GPS Navigation

Application Name: BackCountry Navigator

Description: Topographic maps, GPS navigation.

Publisher’s website: BackCountry Navigator

Cost: $9.99; 15-day demo version available

Version/date reviewed: v.1.0  /  8-13-10

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

BCnav_QR
Android Market (mobile app only)
Android Market (browser)


BackCountry Navigator can download and display maps and aerial photos from a variety of different  sources:

 

  • USGS 1:24K topographic maps, both in their original form and updated/terrain-shaded from MyTopo.com
  • USGS 1-meter color and black & white (DOQQ) aerial photos
  • OpenStreetMap road maps
  • Landsat color satellite imagery (30-meter resolution)
  • Topographic/aerial maps from Italy, Spain, Australia and Canada

If you have a good Internet connection, BackCountry Navigator will download/display maps on the fly. But it also lets you select an area, and then downloads those map tiles for use during times when your unit is offline.
bcn1

Figure 1: Here’s the starting screen, with the excellent MyTopo.com US topo maps shown. A good part of the display at the bottom is taken up with demo info that will disappear if you buy the program; but even so, a lot of the maps is obscured by screen info and controls. You can expand the view to a “full-screen”  option from the program menu, but even there, you only gain a bit of space at the top. I’d like to see the option of turning off unwanted controls, or having them only appear if you touch the screen, the way Gaia GPS handles them.The default view is with the GPS off, and the only way to turn it on or off is through the menu button; it would be nice to have a GPS on/off button onscreen. Also, that on-screen green arrow is only there to mark the north direction, not your actual position. The green arrow might be useful if you set the program to have your current direction of movement be up on the screen (where the map rotates to match your orientation), as it will give you a solid North reference. But if you have the map always set so that North is up, as I usually do, it doesn’t really serve any useful function, and obscures part of the map.

The controls at upper-left are for selecting an area of the map for downloading for offline use; I’d prefer to see those accessed from the menu, since you won’t be using those a good part of the time. The blue button at the upper-right moves you to successive screens, like the Compass and Trip Computer screens:

compass

Figure 2: On the Compass screen,the outer dial of the compass can be rotated with your finger to get a bearing, but I don’t understand why there isn’t a simple digital readout that gives you your true compass heading without you having to spin the dial.

tc

Figure 3: The Trip Computer is nice, though I’m hoping additional options will be added (e.g. time of day, distance traveled).

select

Figure 4: Selecting an area to download offline maps for is straightforward.  Press the “Sculpt Map” button at top right (the map square with the green arrow on it), then click and drag in the map area to select the desired map you want maps downloaded for. Click the map square with the red “X” to de-select the area, and start anew.

download

Figure 5: When you’re ready, click the folder-with red-arrow icon to download the maps; you’ll get this screen that lets you select what kind of maps to download, and what zoom levels. The higher the zoom level, the more detail the map will have.Download times will depend on the zoom level selected (higher zooms mean longer times), the map area (larger is longer), and the responsiveness of the map server. Some servers, like those for standard USGS topo maps and black-and-white aerial photos, tended to hang during the download.

bcn2

Figure 6: When the GPS tracking is turned on from the main menu, the controls at upper left change. The red flag lets you record a waypoint at your current location, and brings up a screen that lets you enter waypoint parameters.

waypointscreen

Figure 7:  But while you can change a waypoint position by modifying the coordinates, you can’t create a waypoint at a different location directly on the map screen, a major drawback.

The blue arrow (in Figure 6) brings your current position into the center if you’ve scrolled the map to a different location; the red button starts recording a track, and the blue button that appears during track recording turns it off again. In order to record any data, you have to have started a new trip file, or loaded a previous one, from the Menu => GPS Data options. There are instructions on the website on how to transfer a GPX file to your Android unit, and import that data into a trip file, but I was unsuccessful when I tried this – the import would just hang. And, as of yet, you can’t export data from this program into either GPX or KML format for use with other programs, which is a big minus.

Here are some examples of other maps available for viewing and download with this program:

US aerial Italian topo Canadian topo Australian aerial/road

Other Issues:

The biggest problem I ran into with this program was that it crashed pretty much every time I used it out in the field, invoking the “Force Close” error message. This is a big problem if you’re recording a track or other data, as you lose everything you’ve recorded up to that point. These problems can often be unit-specific, so you might have better luck with yours. There also doesn’t seem to be a way currently to delete saved files to free up space; one you download a map file for offline use, you’re stuck with it taking up space even if you don’t need it anymore. I’d also like to see alternate coordinate systems/datums as an option, specifically UTM, since it’s often used in mapping.

Final Thoughts:

There’s a lot of useful features in this program I really like, like the US color aerial photos, and the topo/photo data from other countries. But at least on my phone (Droid X), the regular crashing of the program renders it unusable; you should check it thoroughly on your system with the 15-day demo to make sure it doesn’t do the same. And the current inability to export tracks and waypoints collected with this program is a major drawback. From the publisher’s website, it’s clear that he’s working on adding more features and fixing bugs, and I’m sure this program will become better with time; I expect to revisit it in a few months to see how it has progressed, and may change my opinion of it. But for now, I can’t recommend it, especially at the current price; I’d recommend Topo Maps/Gaia GPS as a better and cheaper alternative for those in the US who only need topographic maps.




Topo Maps (aka Gaia GPS): Online/Offline USGS Topo And OpenStreetMap Maps

Application Name: Topo Maps (aka Gaia GPS)

Description: Topographic maps, OSM maps, GPS navigation.

Publisher’s website: Gaia GPS

Cost: $7.99; Free limited Lite version available (with ads)

Version/date reviewed: v. 1.4  /  8-17-10

Phone/OS: Droid X / Android 2.2

Topo_maps
Topo Maps (paid)
Android market link
Android Market (browser)

Topo_maps_lite
Topo Maps Lite
Android market link
Android Market (browser)


This is a port of the iPhone application Gaia GPS; the Android app is labeled “Gaia GPS”, but it’s listed as “Topo Maps” in the Android Market.

This application lets you upload and view USGS topographic maps and OpenStreetMap/CloudMade imagery in both online modes (loading map data on the fly), and offline modes (where you select map areas, and the imagery is cached for offline use). Map data loaded in online mode is also cached on the fly for offline use (up to 1000 tiles), so if you’re in an area where connectivity drops in and out, you won’t lose the map view. The Lite version limits the number of cached tiles to 50, which can cover a surprisingly large area; it also comes with ads. The full paid version lets you cache up to 10,000 tiles, which can cover a huge area. It also does GPS tracking, saves waypoints, and comes with a digital compass heading readout.

Map types available for download currently include:

  • USGS topo maps from MyTopo.com; these are terrain-shaded, and look very good. But don’t expect road data to be fully up-to-date on these; some of these maps haven’t been updated in 30-odd years. In US National Forest areas, the update USFS topo maps are used, and these were updated as recently as 10 years ago. You’ll see a sample of this in the descriptions below.
  • Five different map styles all based on OpenStreetMap data, which should have more up-to-date road data than the MyTopo maps. Because they’re all generated from the same data, it’s likely that you’ll only wind up using one or two of these on a regular basis. Unlike the MyTopo maps, which never had a problem download success with these CloudMade/OSM maps was spotty – sometimes they downloaded quickly, other times they took a while.
cloudmadetopo
Cloudmade Topo
OpenStreetMapRoad
OpenStreetMap Road
cloudmaderoad
Cloudmade Road
cloudmadeshaded
Cloudmade Shaded
midnight
Midnight

Figure 1: Samples of OpenStreetMap data. An alternate type of imagery, like USGS aerial photography or Google Maps views, would be a nice option to have.

interface

Figure 2: You can set up the interface to be completely open and clutter-free, which is a nice touch. After you get a GPS lock, the orange arrow will show your current position.

onscreen

Figure 3: Tap on the screen, and zoom in/out buttons will show up at the bottom. You’ll also get green arrows; tap on those, and you’ll have the option of displaying both your current coordinates at the bottom, and additional controls at upper right. To get rid of those again, just tap on the screen, then tap on the green arrows next to those on-screen displays. Coordinates supported include latitude/longitude, UTM, and MGRS, all in WGS84 datum.

The on-screen controls at upper-right will:

  • Switch you into tracking mode (the bullseye pattern), where your position stays in the center as you move, and the map scrolls to keep you there. You can scroll the map manually by dragging, and this disables tracking mode until you press that control again.
  • Set waypoints with the flag icon (more below)
  • Choose the map type to display with the map icon; you’ll get a radio button list of available map types.

demo

Figure 4: The latest version adds a digital compass bearing readout to the screen, which is a nice addition; you can turn this off in the Settings section if you want. It works best when you’re standing still; when you’re moving, the direction reading can become very unstable. The ad-supported Lite version blocks a fair amount of the screen at the bottom, though the coordinate display is still available.

Waypoint

Figure 5: Pressing the waypoint flag icon brings up three choices:

  • Drop Pin – you scroll the map until the pin is where you want it, then set it at that position.
  • Drop Pin Near Me – drops a pin at your current location, and lets you set a name for that waypoint
  • Save My Location – Similar to “Drop Pin Near Me”, but saves a waypoint labeled “My Bookmark” with the date and time automatically appended, instead of you having to name that point.

download

Figure 6: From the menu, you can access the Download Map section to cache map tiles for offline use. This is available for all map types except Cloudmade Topo, which is a shame – that would be a useful type for areas outside the US where topo maps are hard to come by. You select the area you want to cache maps for by tapping and dragging; you’ll also need to select the highest zoom level you want maps for. Higher zooms mean better detail, but also require more map tiles to be downloaded.

Once an area is selected, you’ll enter a name for that downloaded map area, and optionally some notes. If you don’t need the map in the future, you have the option of deleting it, as well as deleting all map tiles cached during online use.

Other Issues:

The porting over from the iPhone version is still going on, and there’s a list of features that will be added in the near future on the website. You should check this to see whether any features you need will be added soon. For me, the major features still not in place include no track recording and no track/waypoint import or export, which severely limit this program’s utility.

I didn’t have any issues with program crashes or force-closes. However, sometimes the program will stop tracking your position on the map. Choosing the “My Location” mode from the menu, or turning tracking mode off and on will bring your screen position icon to the right spot, but the program sometimes doesn’t resume tracking after that; the only option is to exit and then re-start the program. Hopefully this will get fixed soon. As I mentioned above, MyTopo map tiles always downloaded reliably, but CloudMade and OpenStreetMap tiles wouldn’t always download as quickly. I also find it annoying that, like some other programs, Gaia GPS insists on loading itself into system memory on startup. As far as I’m concerned, unless it’s some kind of utility that needs to run continuously, no program should load itself into memory until the owner manually starts it up; when it exits, it should unload itself completely.

Final thoughts:

I like the program’s clean interface, and generally it works well. The current feature set is a little light to justify its current high price; I’d like to see the authors price it more reasonably now, and increase the price as the feature set improves. There are free programs that can do similar things, and I’ll be covering some of those in the near future. But those free apps usually require quite a bit of work to prepare topo maps for offline use, and Topo Maps / Gaia GPS simplifies that process tremendously. Overall, I would recommend at least trying out the free Lite version, and keep track of additional features being added. Personally, even though I have a full-featured demo version supplied by the publisher, I expect to buy a copy of this program in the near future for my own use.