If you're taking a long-distance trip, or just trying to find your way around town, your computer can help.
Mapping and routing software, once the province of expensive, high-powered workstations, is available on the desktop, with prices and features to fit every budget.
These products can not only help you get where you're going, but also give you a chance to display your business data in a geographical setting. For example, you can put your customers in a database and then display or print their locations on a custom map to make sales calls or deliveries more efficient. You can calculate the fastest route on a multi-city trip, or the most scenic, and print out detailed directions.
If you're really into high-tech travel, many mapping programs now come in versions that work with a new generation of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receivers that plug into laptop computers to display your exact location on a screen map.
This doesn't mean you can throw away your old atlas and street maps altogether. The maps these programs produce don't have the detail of the real thing. Neither your computer nor your printer can match the output from a high-resolution color press.
I've also found that the computerized map information is occasionally inaccurate or out of date, particularly at the limits of the software's capacity to zoom in on a given area.
But used judiciously in conjunction with real maps, these programs can make travel planning quicker and easier and provide you with useful geographic information and tips on local parks, recreation facilities and tourist attractions.
Mapping programs fall into two general categories. One type is what I call road atlas software, which will help you plan a trip from Baltimore to Dubuque but doesn't provide details of either city. The other provides street-level maps of particular areas that will let you zoom in and out or find any address just by typing it in.
Today we'll talk about two atlas programs at opposite ends of the price spectrum: Automap Pro, the high-end $295 cousin to the popular Automap program, and DeLorme's Map 'N Go, a new $59 CD-ROM offering that has many of the same features at a fraction of the price. Both run under Microsoft Windows.
Each offers a full, computerized, searchable road atlas of the United States (DeLorme's comes with a printed atlas, too). Both present you with an overview map, allow you to zoom in on any section of the country at a variety of magnifications, and print any map displayed on your screen.
DeLorme's Map 'N Go offers far greater detail. For example, it zooms as far down as a map of central Baltimore, with major streets and landmarks clearly labeled. Automap Pro provides only a few major highways in and out of the city. And not surprisingly from a company that started in the map publishing business and expanded into software, DeLorme's maps are far better drawn and colored.
Map 'N Go shows you all cities, towns, road names and other features by default. Automap Pro lets you choose the level of detail from a variety of databases and overlays that include ZIP codes, larger cities, small towns, phone exchanges, forests and other features in addition to your own business data.
Unlike the DeLorme product, Automap does not name every road on the map by default, but if you click on any road or point of interest, its label appears. I found this vaguely annoying, but others may like a less cluttered map,
In the printing department, Map 'N Go is the clear winner. Its printouts are beautifully detailed and look far more like the real thing, although some might prefer Automap's cruder but simpler design for basic routing instructions.
While Automap Pro will allow you to search for and zoom in on place names (such as Owings Mills, Md.), Map 'N Go will also search by ZIP code and phone exchange, in addition to locality.
Both offer the ability to produce detailed maps and instructions for trips. In fact, both allow you to set up a list of cities or towns you want to visit. Then they'll calculate the shortest route (in miles) or quickest route (in hours) and produce marked-up maps as well as step-by-step driving directions, with interim mileage between points and estimated driving times.
In this area, Automap Pro's customization features are more sophisticated. For example, if you have to visit customers in seven or eight cities and time is of the essence, Automap Pro will rearrange your stopping points in the order that will result in the shortest trip.
Both programs allow you to set preferences for different types of roads (i.e., use interstates or avoid them), and to customize estimated speeds on various types of highways to suit your driving.
In addition, Automap allows you to set up several different "vehicles," such as a standard car or delivery truck, with different speed characteristics and custom driving schedules and rest stops at regular intervals. It also provides cost estimates based on mileage or hours.
For pleasure travelers, Map 'N Go will produce a list of museums, parks, hotels and other points of interest within 5, 10 or 20 miles of your route. You can click on any item to read more about it, display a photo or hear a description (if you have a sound board).
The programs take different approaches to printing instructions for your journey. Map 'N Go produces beautiful, segmented maps of your trip with written instructions in the margins, much like the Trip-Tiks the American Automobile Association provides its members. Unfortunately, these take forever to print out, particularly for a lengthy trip.
Automap Pro does not provide automatic, detailed map segments, but it will produce a separate list of instructions that can actually be easier to use, particularly if you're driving alone.
Automap Pro's strength is its database capabilities, which allow you to set up and display any information that can be described geographically, such as customer lists, organization memberships or delivery sites and assign each a different level of importance in creating visual overlays.
You can add an item by pointing to its location on the map and hitting the insert key, or you can use a separate database editor, which saves information in dBase-compatible format. You also can import information from external databases.
If you need this kind of business information, Automap Pro may well be worth the extra money. Otherwise, I would recommend Map 'N Go, whose only real shortcoming is its inability to print out a basic set of trip directions without the accompanying map. If this kind of list is important, you might also want to consider the inexpensive basic Automap program, which lacks the professional version's data-handling and customization features but retains most of its other functions.
For information, contact DeLorme Mapping, Lower Main Street, P.O. Box 298, Freeport, Maine 04032, and Automap Inc., 1309 114th Ave. SE, Suite 110, Bellevue, Wash. 98004.
Michael J. Himowitz is a staff writer for The Baltimore Sun.