HOME PC Alamode About Us HELP
Reviews Columns Features   Archives  

Software Review of:
Rand McNally Road Atlas
Palm Pak


Susan Ives is a past president of Alamo PC.

From the June, 2002 issue of PC Alamode Magazine

I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth. My brother gave me the Palm Pak Rand McNally Road Atlas for Christmas. I thanked him profusely. I hope he doesn't read this review, because although the thought was great, the atlas is a disappointment.

The atlas is a secure card that displays more than 640,000 miles of interstate roads in the contiguous 48 states. It works with the m125, m130, i705 & m500 series of Palm handhelds, the ones that have a slot for a secure card. Retail price is about $40, but you can probably find it $10 cheaper if you shop around on the Internet. Amazon sells it for $39.95. You can get it locally at Comp USA, Best Buy, or anyplace that sells Palms and accessories.

I knew I was in trouble when I figured out that the card came with a 6-page user manual and more than 40 pages of license and warranty warnings. This is not a good sign.

Here's how it works
First you can find and display a map - a very small map. To get to this point, you click on the word FIND on the crescent-shaped navigation bar on the left of the screen. After selecting your state from a dropdown menu, you pick the first letter of the city, then scroll through the cities until you find the one you want. This map then pops up. 

You can zoom in or out by using the onscreen + and - icons, or the physical buttons on your Palm. You can scroll to a new area of the map by dragging your stylus across it. If you tap on one of the unlabeled roads or cities you can request that it be identified with a label. 

Not all cities are listed. When I poked around the area of Pennsylvania where I grew up, I noted that I couldn't find Trevose, my hometown, Feasterville, the township seat, or Oakford, the closest village. The closest town was Langhorne, 7 miles away. In the northeast, where towns seem to change names every mile or so, it helps to know exactly where you are. That's what an atlas is for.

I grew up about 100 yards from the Philadelphia county line. Even when I zoomed out enough to show the place where Philadelphia should have been, it wasn't labeled. Philadelphia may no longer be the third largest city in the US, but it hasn't completely disappeared. I also noticed that the toll roads weren't identified as such, nor were the bridges that get you over the river into Jersey. Neither was New Jersey, for that matter.

The circled arrows are highway exits. You can request information about gas, food, lodging and ATM machines at an exit by tapping on it. There are also other icons that display tourist attractions, but the selection is eclectic. The attractions in Austin included the bats, but not the State Capitol. 

You might notice that the scale in the screen capture is 9 miles to the inch. This means that you get about 20 miles on a Palm's slightly bigger than 2-inch screen. Anything much more detailed than this gets so crowded that you can't read it. The roads are smaller than frog hairs and in a city the size of San Antonio there are so many highway exits that the entire screen is buzzing with colliding green arrows. If you blow it up much bigger, you get one town and one road. Not much use. You can also save map views - the VIEW tab does that - so you can return to them quickly. 

The middle tab on the crescent is called DIRECTIONS. Click on this and select any two cities in the US. It will produce city to city driving directions. This is s-l-o-w. I tried generating directions from San Antonio to Philadelphia and it took about 8 minutes. San Antonio to Austin (basically, take I-35 all the way) took about 15 seconds. Directions are available for 12,000 cities.

The instructions suggest that you can speed things up by downloading a map from the card to internal memory. The map of Texas is 1.1 MB. The entire internal memory of my Palm is 8 MB. I don't want to use 1/8 of my space for a map - that's why I got a Palm that accepts a card. 

The other advertised feature of the program is the ability to calculate city to city mileage between major cities. Not many are listed - maybe 100. Nice to have but no big deal.

There are some other controls - they crammed a lot into a small space. The eye in the upper right corner is a display filter that lets you eliminate some of the map symbol clutter. The shaded area with the arrow next to it gives you all of the map options and controls; you can also access these by using the Palm's built-in file icon. The dotted box with the arrow lets you draw a frame on the screen to zoom in on a precise area.

You can't print the maps. There is a toggle that lets you display the paper atlas page from Rand McNally's print Road Atlas. If I had a print atlas at hand, I wouldn't be using this program.

The Road Atlas Expansion Card will support any GPS unit that is NMEA 0183 compliant and that can be attached to the serial port of the Palm handheld. There is a GPS demo available on the card. I suspect that hooking this up to a GPS could turn this into a genuinely useful program, but I don't travel to unknown parts often enough to warrant buying another $200 gizmo.

You've probably figured out that I have three main complaints about the program: it's too small, too slow and takes up too much room. The manual suggests that you have 1-2 free MB of internal memory to run the program even from the card, and, as mentioned, that downloading maps makes it run faster. I'm not willing to devote half my computing power to an atlas.

The 2.2" screen is really too small for a map. That's not Rand McNally's fault. They've done a good job squeezing 650,000 miles of road onto this small space. I can see using the for real world navigation if I was stuck somewhere unexpectedly, but for a cross-country trip I'd bring a real road atlas. If I needed directions, I'd ask. 

And it is slow, compared to my desktop computer. Each time you change zoom levels the redrawing is painful. 

For all my crabbing, this is a breakthrough product. Someone had to be first, and Rand McNally was the hero. The drawbacks are with the Palm technology: itty-bitty screen, slow processor, cramped memory. The program does the best it can with what it has to work with. The program won a best in show at COMDEX 2001 for best mobile/handheld software. 

I'd rate this program as a novelty rather than a productivity enhancement. If you really need a usable atlas, spend $18.99 on the Rand McNally Deluxe spiral bound 2002 Road Atlas. It will get you from here to there and back again a lot easier than the Palm version.

Copyright© 1996-2010
Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
San Antonio, TX USA