Cd Roms That Steer You Right

Planning a trip can be a good part of the enjoyment of a vacation. Today, the combination of maps, computer graphics, and intelligent software can make the process a lot more fun.

Market researchers have been using computerized map databases for years, but now the technology is available for consumers. The programs come in two flavors: Trip planners suggest routes, estimate driving times, and tell you about attractions and places to eat and sleep. Street atlases provide detailed maps that can pinpoint addresses and, at the largest scale, show every block in a city or town.

MAP IT OUT. I tried some Windows CD-ROM packages (table) and found that all had their strengths and weaknesses. DeLorme's programs, one for planning trips and one for producing street maps, aren't the easiest to use. But the point of this software is maps, and DeLorme, an old-line mapmaker in Freeport, Me., has the best, hands down. On-screen, its maps combine a wealth of detail with great readability (see accompanying maps). On paper--a color printer is desirable but not essential--they rival commercial printed maps.

DeLorme Map 'n' Go is a solid trip planner probably best for experienced travelers. But it lacks the "wizards" that automate such tasks as choosing overnight stops in the Microsoft Corp. and Rand McNally & Co. versions. With DeLorme, you plan a trip by typing in the origin, destination, and any points you want to hit along the way. The program rewards you with a set of strip maps resembling a AAA Triptik. The maps include driving instructions, distances, estimated driving times (based on your specifications for speeds on different types of roads), and page references to a companion highway atlas.

You'd expect good maps from Rand McNally, and for the most part, TripMaker and StreetFinder deliver. While DeLorme's version is great if you know where you want to go and just need to know how to get there, it doesn't have TripMaker features that offer suggestions on planning a trip based on the sorts of things you like to do and the region you plan to visit. The trip maps it produces, while not as detailed as DeLorme's, include reference keys to the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which comes with the program. Both TripMaker and Map 'n' Go chose intelligent routes when left to their own devices and make it easy for you to specify the alternative route of your choice.

StreetFinder includes a novel feature that sounds great but turns out to be not very useful. You can plot a course through city streets, which the program converts to written instructions. Unfortunately, the database lacks the detailed local knowledge--one-way streets, turn restrictions, freeway exit names--needed to make the instructions usable. For example, the program cheerfully complied when I plotted a route from Manhattan's Upper West Side to BUSINESS WEEK's midtown offices traveling the wrong way on one-way streets such as Sixth Ave.

DINING, LODGING. Microsoft's Automap products were a disappointment. The Road Atlas trip planner is similar to Rand McNally's but, in an extreme case of a flaw shown by all the programs, gives drastic underestimates of the time needed to drive through urban congestion. For example, it computed that a 44-mile drive through the Washington suburbs could somehow be done in 47 minutes, requiring an average speed of 56 mph. Road Atlas has a strange aversion to interstate highways, often avoiding them even when told to pick the quickest route. And it thinks that Connecticut Ave. near my home is Maryland State Route 390, when in fact it is 185.

The Streets program has a worse flaw: It can't merge maps from its database. That means you can't view the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington Cemetery, or both ends of New York's George Washington Bridge, on the same screen. Although it will automatically open up the map of an adjoining region, the need to swtich back and forth made Streets much clumsier to use than its competitors.

Compton New Media Inc.'s Street Guide crams both highway and street maps onto a single CD-ROM. But it lacks both trip-planning features and the search and navigation tools a good street atlas needs. It comes with a copy of the American Automobile Association Trip Planner, a mostly text CD-ROM version of the automobile club's tour books, but there is no integration between the two programs.

These programs are just the beginning of computerized mapping for consumers. An Avis Inc. test program uses a Trimble Navigation Ltd. global positioning system and satellite links to pinpoint your rental car's position on an Automap display. (You can do this in your own car with a laptop and $1,000 worth of GPS hardware.) In the not-too-distant future, you'll be able to plan a trip on your desktop, then follow your progress on a built-in display in your car. Now, if they could only do something about the traffic.

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