Sure, getting from point A to point B is still a big reason for using one of the Internet's many mapping sites, but these days there's a lot more to Web maps than just directions. I looked at the five biggest names in online maps--Ask City, Google Maps, MapQuest, Microsoft Live Search Maps, and Yahoo Maps--and found that annotation and other tools gave Microsoft Live and Ask City a slight edge over Yahoo Maps, and a substantial advantage over Google Maps and MapQuest. I also tried a slew of location-based services . And don't miss our guide to the top map mashups .
Chart a Course for the Best Mapping Sites
Traffic reports, 3D views, and the ability to add notes are among the new features that help take the bumps out of your travels. Click on the text link or the icon below to see our ranked chart of the five mapping services we tested.
There are enough drawing tools on this site to keep you busy for hours gussying up your maps. You can add text notes or draw segmented lines, squares, circles, and polygons, in any of ten colors. It's easy to undo individual additions or to clear the map completely.
One great Ask City feature is that it lets you add a stickpin to any location and fill it with an image and notes. You can save snapshots of up to ten maps (including all your gaudy annotations). Click Permalink to save a link to the map, or send others the link via e-mail.
Options in the Search panel enable you to look for a local business, movie theater, concert, or other event, or generate maps and directions. In late July I searched for "Harry Potter" and "Pasadena," and Ask City's middle Results panel listed ten local theaters playing the movie, each pinned onto a map in the right-hand panel. The three windows let you dynamically view changes on custom maps. In the Results panel, for example, clicking the name of a business--say, a restaurant or hotel--usually brings up a Citysearch review.
Once you search for a specific type of business ("manicures," for example), Ask City supplies a list of businesses in the area, with the neighborhood highlighted on the map. Way cool.
Another appealing Ask City feature: Click any of the written directions in your route to have that area appear on the map, along with a second, smaller inset map corresponding to the specific route section. You can add up to ten stops to the map at a time.
If you'll be walking, click the Walking tab on a plotted route to see directions optimized for traveling by shank's mare. I was even able to create and save a walking tour in Paris, in case I ever travel there again. Right-click your map to add the location, or snap to the closest address, and stick in a location pin.
The service's directions and map panels have minimize and maximize icons for resizing the contents; however, on conventional 4:3 monitors, you might need to scroll to the right to see them.
Google Maps and MapQuest
When I think of mapping sites, I think Google. So it's too bad that the service's interface is so cluttered, especially compared with the clean interfaces of the other top mapping sites I visited.
One of the best things about Google Maps is that it lets you dynamically change the route of a trip: Start a route with a mouse click, choose the start and end locations, and then just drag a section of the route and drop it elsewhere on the map. In a flash, the directions on the map change--as do the written directions. That's a great feature for rerouting if you should discover a backup on your route (and you will, trust me) by clicking the Traffic button.
Right-click the route to add more yellow pushpin stops, or add stops via the written directions in the Search Results panel; or you can drag and drop written instructions to rearrange the route.
Google Maps also lets you create your own mashup by adding content from hundreds of sources. For instance, the My Maps feature can now display elevation contour lines or gas prices (the latter via the Gas Buddy plug-in).
You can save up to 100 map locations, but doing so requires that you log in to a Google account (click Sign in to start creating one). To make your maps easier to retrieve, use Google's My Maps tab. Another option is to create a link for sending maps via e-mail. However, the only data you can send to a cell phone is a business location.
Unfortunately, Google Maps' annotation tools are paltry compared with those of Ask City and Live Search Maps. Google does let you add placemarks and include .rtf, .html, and other files; you can draw segment lines and shapes, but you can't draw circles, and you can't embed text directly on the map.
Even worse, I spent way more time figuring out the service's controls than I did actually creating and annotating my maps. Google Maps simply isn't as easy to use as Live Search Maps or Yahoo Maps. After much struggling, I discovered that the annotation tools were available only if I chose Create new map under the My Maps tab.
I was also bewildered by the right-click options, which changed depending on the map view. For instance, a "clear map" button to start over was available in a business search, but not in the map's own search feature.
If you're looking for an easy-to-use mapping service that's not all fancy-shmancy, AOL's MapQuest may be for you. The site focuses primarily on routing and directions, though you can zoom in on specific map locations. To get directions, enter an address or intersection as the starting location. Ditto for the destination. (Click the Maps icon if you just want to explore a map.) You can exclude seasonally closed roads.
MapQuest's step-by-step directions feature expandable maps highlighting each turn or other instruction; click Open or Close at the top of the map to expand the directions.
Clicking the route's starting point or endpoint brings up the helpful 'Zoom to Street Level' link; you have the option of switching to a hybrid satellite view, too.
One nice MapQuest feature is the ability to reorder your route by dragging and dropping the written locations to a new spot on the list. It seems silly, though, that MapQuest doesn't let you save a multistop route.
To arrange for maps on the go, use the Send to Cell option, which dispatches a text link that you click on your mobile phone to open the map and directions in the phone's browser.
The flashing, twirling ads on MapQuest are annoying; they'll eventually stop--until your pointer touches the ad.
Microsoft Live Search Maps and Yahoo Maps
Microsoft Live Search Maps
I didn't think anything would get me off Google Maps, but after using Live Search Maps just once, I was hooked. It's packed with features that make it more like a full-blown application than simply a mapping service. My favorite: the roll-up Scratch pad, which makes saving trips, routes, and maps a breeze (get to it by clicking CollectionsOpen). Of course, in order to save your Scratch pad, you first have to sign in with a free MSN or Hotmail account.
You can use the Scratch pad to draw a path or trail, and a pop-up shows the distance in yards and in miles. The service lets you create a rectangle, square, or other straight-line area, with the color fill or border width of your choice. (One missing feature is the ability to add text directly onto the map.)
Live Search Maps makes it easy to save annotations as a collection (to do this, click Properties, Save). You can share your map via e-mail, or pop it onto the Windows Clipboard for subsequent pasting into an application.
Right-click to zoom to a street or regional level, or to add a pushpin with notes that include a URL and a link to an image. That same right-click lets you start planning a route by adding a 'Drive from' (or 'Drive to') pushpin, and then finishing the route in the written 'Driving directions' panel. (Or you can simply add both 'Drive from' and 'Drive to' pushpins on a map, and click Get directions.)
Unlike Ask City, Live Search Maps doesn't let you force the pushpin to connect to a specific address. But when you're at a street-level view, you can spot and select the location you want (the Las Vegas Hilton, say), which is adequate for most routing needs.
The service's live traffic icons include one that identifies planned events, such as a trade show or baseball game. Two nice touches: The Navigation tool rolls out of the way; and as in Yahoo Maps, a handy minimap aids in navigation.
Live Search Maps shows the typical road, aerial, and hybrid map views, but much more stunning are the Virtual Earth 3D views. Still, as with the 3D images on Google Maps, the novelty wears off surprisingly quickly: After about a dozen 3D views, I found myself using Live Search Maps just to perform straightforward mapping and routing.
By the way, if you want to use Virtual Earth, you'll need to download an ActiveX program--which, to my dismay, attempted to change my browser's home page to Live Search. Microsoft's mapping service also offers you a Location finder, which is a small application that tries to identify your exact current location based either on the Wi-Fi hotspot you're using or on your IP address. But without Wi-Fi, the "Locate me" feature wasn't able to find me when I tested it.
This mapping service is smart about creating a route, but it's not perfect. For example, Yahoo Maps couldn't find "Museum of Natural History, Los Angeles" when I entered it into the 'Get a Map' and 'Get Driving Directions' fields, yet it popped up immediately in the 'Find a Business on the Map' field. The service found New York's Times Square in all three search spots immediately, and it located several street addresses. However, it drove me nuts that the site couldn't find matches for a location I had previously searched for and saved.
When you create a route and hover over any portion of the text directions, the route segment is highlighted on the map (although I would have preferred that it change color rather than simply acquiring a highlight). Clicking the chevron symbol on any written direction will cause its small map portion (which is also individually printable) to unfold.
The service's routing results were accurate, and I liked the nearly instantaneous real-time traffic icons; it was also nice to see road closures displayed. You can send the map and instructions via e-mail. Also, street addresses appear as links in Yahoo Mail messages, leading to Yahoo Maps.
The mapping details on Yahoo Maps really shine. For instance, at the street level, little purple "P" icons signify parking structures. If you look carefully, you will see the details of freeway on- and off-ramps. And you may notice that some maps have color-coded neighborhoods (which, unfortunately, you can't use as a search criterion).
Yahoo Maps is loaded with tools that help you use the site more efficiently. For instance, as you hover over the tool that lets you zoom in and out of a map view, little markers for street, city, state, and country appear. If you're browsing a map and want directions to a particular spot, right-click and choose Drive from here... or Drive to here.... Another nice touch: The minimap insert (which rolls up when not needed) is superimposed on the larger map and makes navigating much more pleasurable.
There's no 3D mapping, but Yahoo Maps provides enough texture on its satellite and hybrid maps to let you discern mountains and hills, and get a sense of other terrain. Yahoo Maps also figured out that not everyone is on a fast connection, so for dial-up users it offers another site that has almost all of the same features but isn't as bandwidth-hungry.
Mapping and Location Services for Your Cell Phone
You're out and about and need some quick information, or you simply want to find out where you are or whether your buddies are close by. Grab your cell phone and try one of these free and low-cost services.
Tell Me All About It
Call Tellme (800/555-8355, or text 83556) and say "weather," "sports," "news," "taxi," "airlines," or "driving directions." You'll see a map, directions, or search request results on your cell phone (you'll need to download a small application first). The service works with AT&T and Sprint phones. Note: Tellme was acquired by Microsoft earlier this year.
Keep Track of Yourself
Trimble Outdoors has a trio of subscription-based tools that use your cell phone to show you exactly where you are and where you have been. In real time, its AllSport GPS records your walk, jog, or bike ride; you can see your route immediately on your cell's screen and keep a record on the service's site. It works with most Garmin and other popular GPS devices (plug-in required). If you're into geocaching, where you try to find hidden treasures or do other tasks using a GPS, you'll get a kick out of Trimble's Geocache Navigator service. Trimble Outdoors also gives you a way to plan routes and trips with street, satellite, and topological maps. The cost for all three is $7 per month.
Get a Jott Jolt
If you have a reminder (or bright column idea) to send to yourself, or a message that you need to get to a friend or a bunch of buddies, use Jott . Call 877/568-8486 and record a voice message up to 30 seconds long that the service transcribes into text and sends as a text alert to the e-mail addresses or mobile phones of your choice. Jott even saves the messages for future reference. You can also import your Web mail address book.
Don't Dodge Me
If you want to locate your pals, or let them find you, sign up for the Dodgeball service, and use your cell phone to let them know where you are and to find out where they are. Available in over 22 cities, Dodgeball lets you broadcast your location by texting your street address or other information about your locale to 36343, along with a text message--and maybe a snapshot of you and Paris. In no time, you'll be surrounded by friends, and maybe a hundred paparazzi.
Find Out Where to Go
Nature calls, even in the big city. So when you're running all around town, you may need to know where you can go on the go. MizPee has the answer, providing the location of clean, dependable lavatories. Use your phone's browser to access the beta service, or (easier) text your city and state to 415/350-2290.
Mapping on its own is great, but a good mashup--data from two inherently different sources combined--is glorious. And often lots of fun. (See " Eight Great, Simple Ways to Hack the Web " for more on the technology.)
Take a Geowalk Walk
I spent an hour exploring the world with the widgets on Geowalk's virtual desktop . Pop a location into the Geocoder field and click a pushpin on the map. You'll see detailed information and location-related pictures as Geowalk mashes up Wikipedia info and geo-tagged Flickr photos. Tap the More button on the UNESCO World Heritage widget for a neat surprise.
Read a Book, Sip Some Coffee
Silly as it sounds, some people need a regular caffeine-and-literature fix. Findbyclick locates a nearby Starbucks or chain bookstore in over 100 cities in the United States and Europe. Click a link, and you'll get a location; sort the tags to find a spot with Wi-Fi.
Did You Feel That?
Everybody in California is waiting for it: The Big One. When you live in earthquake country, you know it'll happen. That's why I'm a fan of the U.S. Geological Survey's mashup of Yahoo Maps and real-time, worldwide earthquake reports.
Map Your New Craigslist Digs
Craigslist.org is famous for finding the apartment that's just perfect for you. But if you're tired of the drudgery of scrolling through the classified-ad site's endless lists, try MapsKrieg --its mashup helps do the job for you. Just choose a region, or enter a specific city and state, and browse around the pushpins to find the ideal location--like a fully furnished five-star flat in Tribeca for only $4400 a month. If you prefer searching by price (no kidding!), try Housing Maps instead.
When you travel to Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Las Vegas, or some other big city, don't get taken and pay too much for your ride around town. TaxiWiz gives you an estimate of the fare for trips in seven major cities, reducing the chances that you'll be fleeced by unscrupulous taxicab drivers. For instance, a trip from L.A. International Airport to my office in Pasadena shouldn't run more than $75. (Never mind, I'll pick you up.) There's also a mobile version of the service if you can't get to a PC.
Personalize Your Mashup Map
Use Platial and consider yourself a neogeographer--someone who shares locations of personal significance with family, friends, or strangers. Two of my favorite Platial offerings: Jordi's Mad Jaunt Across America and Baostar's best spots in Orange County, California, for a Zen fix .
Duck and Cover
No matter where you go, there's something to worry about. The Global Incident Map does a tremendous job of letting you track terrorist attacks and other potential calamities. The mashup integrates data from newspapers, Web news reports, and other sources with Google Maps. Click an entry on the map for more info and a link to a detailed report on the incident.
Look at Clouds From Both Sides
Hey, Bill, is it cloudy in Seattle? Don't bother looking up--of course it is. Get a view of the clouds over any location worldwide at DaylightMap's Clouds page . The satellite and hybrid views appear through the haze of cumulus (or are they nimbus?) clouds. The NASA images are are updated every 6 hours.
Banks, Traffic, and More
Most mashups come with one service. But MoreMap is the Grand Poobah of map mashups. The site supplies access to mapping mashes for banks, movie theaters, traffic conditions, radio stations, weather, earthquakes, and other categories. Find your way with the Directions modules; the site's free registration lets you store your favorite places and access them from any Internet-connected PC.