Map/Navigation Software: DeLorme vs. Microsoft

Drive smarter with guidance from PC-based software.

I take many road trips, often on routes I haven't traveled, to places I haven't been, and often in a large motor home. Many trips are for business, so I need to get to the right place at the right time. I rely on a computer to plan the trip, then drive the trip. Little GPS receivers are cute, cheap, helpful -- but limited. But fortunately, my vehicle has plenty of space for a laptop that is visible to the driver. So I drive with computer-based, GPS-controlled map/navigation software running on a big computer screen.

There are two major software products in this category, Microsoft Streets and Trips, and DeLorme Street Atlas USA, and I think one strongly out-classes the other. Here's what and why...

DeLorme vs. Microsoft

Is a laptop really necessary to take a drive? Many newer cars (including one of mine) have GPS sat-nav. And the pocket-sized GPS systems are affordable and wonderful additions to any car. Of course, web sites with maps are helpful to plan a trip and print directions. And don't give up on good old paper maps, still as useful as ever. But none of these provide all the capabilities I desire -- only a full map/navigation program on a computer can do that. But which one? My motor home laptop has both DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2009 and Microsoft Street and Trips 2008.

After using both, many times on many trips, I have a preference. I think DeLorme Street Atlas does more, and does it better. It has many thoughtful and helpful features that aren't found in online or printed maps, or in Microsoft Streets and Trips, which for my needs is weak on features and a pain to use.

You might wonder, with free maps on web sites, and portable or built-in GPS-controlled sat-nav systems in cars, why buy and use mapping software? If you just need directions to an address across town, almost any map tool will help you. But if you need to plan a trip beyond a local point A to point B drive, mapping software gives you much more.

When I'm head out of town in my car or my RV (a motor home that is my office on wheels), I rely on mapping software on a laptop computer to help me plan a complex trip, then guide me along it. Using mapping software on a laptop doesn't require an Internet connection, unlike map web sites. Plus, a laptop screen is many times larger and more detailed than a portable or built-in sat-nav device, so I can see more of the route, and more details, all at once. And, typing in addresses and exploring the route is much easier on a laptop's keyboard than on the touch screen of a sat-nav system.

I especially value how mapping software makes it easy to explore alternative routes. Instead of just accepting what the computer tells me is the way to go, I can look at the area I'm heading into, at any level of detail from cross-country to street-by-street, all on a large laptop screen. I can discover points of interest along the way. Then, I can override the route the computer suggests, specify way-points to precisely control the route, then see the distances and times of each segment.

I drive with the laptop's screen in view, guided by map/navigation software, controlled by a little GPS receiver on the dash. If you're thinking that your vehicle doesn't have space by the driver for a large laptop, the new netbook-type laptops are much smaller. Or, since all you need while driving is to see the map display, consider adding an external smaller screen. A wide variety of 12-volt power monitors are available for vehicles; they might be marketed as monitors for a backup camera or DVD but often can be connected directly to a laptop. Put the smaller screen where you can see it, connected to the laptop on the passenger seat or floor or center console or whatever works in your vehicle.

Planning a trip

First and foremost I need the ability to determine how to get from point A to point B. I enter my starting and ending address and get the software's opinion of the route to take. This is sometimes exactly what I want, but often, I need additional control over the route, to take different roads than the software chooses (maybe I know about traffic jams or interesting sites), and to make interim stops.

DeLorme makes it easy to tweak the route by adding any number of waypoints as Stops, and -– wonderful feature -– Via points that let me override the software's decision about my route to go "my way".

When creating a route, both products give priority to certain types of roads, such as choosing Interstate highways instead of US or state highways. But this not always the right choice. For instance, leaving my area of San Diego County to get to eastbound Interstate 8, experience dictates that I take some city streets and lesser state highways, a route that is much shorter in distance and time. But both programs want me to go to I-15, then to I-8 since they are presumed to be the fastest highways. This is easy to adjust with DeLorme -- I just add one or more Via locations and the software then shifts the route to MY way.

Both products calculate estimated driving time, based on both distance and type of road. But DeLorme lets me control this in three ways. Street Atlas USA organizes roads into 10 types, from Limited Access Roads (freeways) to Unimproved Local Roads (dirt) and many types in-between. I can choose types of roads I prefer, roads that are OK when preferred road types aren't nearby, and roads to avoid, such as (in my case driving a large motor home) Toll Roads, Ferries, Forest Roads, and dirt roads. For each type of road, I can specify my average speed, in cities, and separately, on the open road. Then, when the route is calculated, the route is much more to my liking, and the estimated time of each segment is much more accurate. This is especially helpful because when driving a motor home towing a Jeep my speed on various road types is different than if I was driving a car.

Driving with satellite navigation

In my RV I put the laptop on the huge dash so I can see the screen while driving, just like a built-in navigation system but with a larger screen and better software. I put my DeLorme LT-20 GPS receiver in the windshield, and the navigation software shows me exactly where I am as I drive. It shows me the next turn I must make, and how far I am from it. As I drive, the GPS constantly updates my position and next-turn distance. (The DeLorme LT-20 seems to work fine on my dash, though I wish it wasn't bright yellow.)

While both map/navigation products can use a GPS receiver for live tracking, I find DeLorme's approach is more helpful than Microsoft's while driving. Street Atlas USA shows me three map panels at once, zoomed to different levels. The large panel is a "neighborhood" map of where I am, so I can see street names and upcoming roads and sights, very helpful as I look out the windshield at the real world. The mid-size panel shows a larger region so I can see upcoming towns and major shifts in my route. The smallest panel shows where I am in a larger regional context. It's quite a lot of helpful information, and I can see it all without touching the keyboard -– just what I want while driving.

In contrast, being parked with hands-on-keyboard is usually necessary to use Microsoft Streets and Trips, because the interface uses tiny buttons, all crammed together.

When using a GPS, both programs track my current location, and can therefore display information on upcoming turns. Unfortunately, DeLorme Street Atlas USA uses long words such as "southbound" at the beginning of some turn instructions, and this often pushes the key information -– the name of the street or exit -– right off the screen. However, when it fits on the screen, DeLorme's displayed directions are much larger and easier to read than Microsoft's.

Both programs try to provide detailed guidance through major turns, intersections and freeway interchanges. They do this by automatically zooming in to a close-up -- sometimes an extreme close-up -- of the roads, showing exactly where to drive, where to turn, etc. DeLorme provides better road transition guidance, thanks to its more sophisticated and useful on-screen design. It usually zooms in just the right amount so I can see where I am and what turns I need to make -- even in complex interchange. However, DeLorme's road details aren't always precise, and it is sometimes wrong by hundreds of feet. This can make certain driving transitions difficult because the screen shows the roadway in one place and my vehicle in another, yet my eyes show me right in the middle of the road.

I think the GPS information is usually accurate, and often very precise. In fact, it's fun to watch the trail of my twists and turns in a parking lot. I can use DeLorme to save the location of a specific parking place and be guided back to it -- exactly.

Microsoft's navigation is not so helpful. The sum is less than the parts. The product seems randomly designed, as if features exist to be competitive -- bullet points on a product box -- but not to actually help the user. As I compared the two programs in a wide variety of situations, I kept wondering, has anyone at Microsoft actually used Streets and Trips while driving?

My attitude about altitude

The main use of a GPS is to determine current location. But the radio signals received from Global Position System (GPS) satellites are so precise, the mapping software can also compute direction of travel, speed, and elevation/altitude. Both programs have a GPS screen that displays this information, but unfortunately, neither program lets me customize to see the information I really care about.

Both products have a large display of my current speed, which has helped me determine that my vehicle speedometer is accurate, but beyond that it is unnecessary information. Both also show direction of travel, which is useful.

But what I'd really like to see is elevation/altitude, information that isn't provided by other vehicle instruments. In my part of the country -– southern California and the western states -- a drive can go from thousands of feet above to more than two hundred feet below sea level -- in one hour! I'm a pilot, and in an airplane altitude information is useful to avoid running into tall things like mountains. But even if they remain planted on the ground, I think drivers would like to know their current elevation too.

DeLorme provides the current elevation, but I have to go to the GPS screen to see it (along with Latitude and Longitude), and then it's too small to read. The GPS screen is not useful while driving because the truly interesting information is in a tiny font.

My wish is to see current elevation in one of the large boxes that DeLorme puts on the main NavMode screen that is used while driving. There's space, because I don't need TWO boxes to tell me the direction I'm traveling, one a moving compass pointer and the other just Heading letters such as "N" or "SW" -- it's the same information! Another waste of space is the GPS Fix info. This satellite reception information is already on the GPS screen, and I don't need to monitor it via a large font while driving; what would I do about it?

I hope DeLorme switches one of the unnecessary boxes to shows Elevation instead; the other could be used for smaller-font Latitude, Longitude and a much smaller GPS Fix indicator, all in one box. Even better, perhaps DeLorme can let the user configure what is displayed on the NavMode screen.

Software instability

I should mention that I haven't had a technical problem with DeLorme software, but Microsoft Streets and Trips GPS tracking died. I was driving from Gila Bend, Arizona, north on state route 85, to get to I-10 and on to Phoenix. The map froze and stopped showing my current location, then eventually popped up a message, too tiny to read while driving. Once I pulled over, I could read that there was a GPS device problem. Really? I closed Microsoft's software, started DeLorme's software, and the LT-20 GPS worked fine.

I first guessed that because this route is mostly north for more than a half-hour, the GPS receiver in the windshield could not reliably "see" the satellites in the southern sky. But all along the route Microsoft's software showed my current speed, including when I slowed way down in a construction zone, and that also requires seeing the satellites. Maybe there was a problem using a DeLorme GPS receiver with Microsoft software, but since this combination worked for hours before and after, I don't suspect this. My final guess is that there were one or more times when the GPS was not providing useful data to the software, and Microsoft's software gave up, while DeLorme's software hung in there until the GPS data improved.

Whatever the cause, I'm concerned about how Microsoft Streets and Trips handled the GPS signal problem. If there sometimes is insufficient satellite signal, I don't want a "fine-print" error box that requires that I pull over, read the message, then close the box. Instead I just want the system to resume working once it can. If a notification is necessary, it should be much larger, and the message should go away once the GPS resumes working. The size of information on the screen is where DeLorme usually (but not always) "gets it" about providing readable guidance while driving.

Voice guidance

Both programs can "speak" driving instructions, which is desirable when it's smarter to watch the road than watch the map screen. However, in both programs I ended up turning it off -– the voice drove me crazy.

A small problem was digital voice quality; some words were pronounced oddly or confusingly, and Microsoft's voice was difficult to understand.

DeLorme especially likes to speak directions in reference to compass headings, but monitoring a compass, common when I'm piloting an airplane, is not the right place to look when driving. And DeLorme sometimes speaks in uncommon language, putting the word "hundred" into highway numbers such as "Interstate highway four-hundred-and-five" -- not wrong, just odd and distracting.

But the worst voice-guidance problem, by far, arises from map inaccuracies. Sometimes the voice starts hollering at me to get back on the road, return to the route, or similar. Yet my view through the windshield shows me squarely in the middle of the highway. The software's digital brain thinks I'm plowing through the woods (or off a cliff) because the GPS and the map don't always agree on the location of the road. A glance at the map shows this -– the software adds GPS position dots as I drive, and at time there are not on the map-displayed road. I assume the GPS system is not wrong in determining my latitude/longitude, so I think the dots on the map really show where I am.

The real problem, which might affect you or might not, is the the location of roads on the map. Sometimes, perhaps too often, it is wrong. It can be comical -– I'm on the only road around, it's been there for decades, yet the mapping software has it in the wrong place and keeps telling me to get back on the road. I ended up turning off the voice to retain my sanity. Too bad, it could be a valuable feature.

Route accuracy

I've used many versions of mapping software over the years, and my biggest complaint is always map errors. Having a somewhat off-track map is annoying with satellite navigation voice guidance. But when the map is showing me exactly where to drive, and is wrong, I get annoyed.

When I'm driving my 40-feet of motor home, it's difficult to make tight turns, so there are certain roads I don't want to enter. And when I'm towing my Jeep behind the coach, I can't back-up, not one foot, so avoiding wrong roads is mandatory. There will always be missing roads due to a time-gap between when roads are built or changed, and when maps are updated. I'm sure the map companies have a difficult job. But some errors and omissions persist for years. 

When I lived in La Jolla, many maps recommended a road to my address that actually went right through a lovely old house. There was no such road and never had been according to old-timers, so I had to tell some visitors how to NOT go.

I could fill this article with the map software road errors I've discovered even in limited driving -- very distressing.

For example, California highway 56 in San Diego County opened in mid-2004, but it did not exist in DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2006. I  don't understand how the opening of a new 6 lane freeway that was on AAA maps as under-construction, then as completed, was overlooked for a year or two longer by DeLorme.

I tried to find a hundred-year-old route from I-15 near Baker to go south to I-40, right through a national monument, and DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2009 says there's no such road. And when navigating from I-15 to Pahrump, Nevada, DeLorme tried to take me on what I knew from other maps was many miles of bad road. A friend didn't know, took that route, and says he really didn't like bouncing his motor home down 16 miles of gravel and ruts.

There's a notoriously difficult stretch of mountain highway across central Wyoming, US-14A, yet DeLorme recommends it as the fastest route. Probably this recommendation is because it is a "US" highway, but this is a poor indication of a road's true nature. (Even US-14, the non-Alt route is challenging, so many take US-16 across central Wyoming, still a mountain road.)

DeLorme lets me draw in a new road that it can then use. It's a wonderful feature that has helped me update the map. But I haven't found how to tell it what kind of road I'm drawing, so it doesn't always want to use the new road and it doesn't know which speed estimate to apply. On the flip-side, I've run into several gates or otherwise blocked roads that the map told me to use, but I don't find a way to remove or block out a wrong road to avoid it in the future. As I said, getting it all right is a really big challenge for the map maker, so I wish I could do more to update the map as I encounter discrepancies.

Microsoft Streets and Trips has similar accuracy problems, though not always the same specific mistakes. Microsoft seems to be oblivious to the need for map accuracy feedback from customers. DeLorme provides a way to submit reports, which is good, except there's no response -- it's a one-way black hole.

This points to a glaring gap in both programs: After the product is purchased, the user is abandoned. Updated map data is not provided to customers as corrections are presumably made by the software maker. I assume both Microsoft and DeLorme constantly improve their maps during the year. Why can't I get these updates?

The only way I know of to get new and corrected roads is to buy the next year's version of the product -- which requires waiting for the next year. In the Internet age, that is unnecessary.

My wish is that all map software makers treat my map purchase as a renewable subscription, so along with the basic software, I get regular updates on roads and points of interest (how about weekly or at least monthly?). Focus on continually improving the maps. Treat customers as on-the-road partners providing real-world feedback. Then give the benefit of that effort back to the customers with frequent updates. This approach could also help retain customer in the face of more and more sat-nav systems in many new cars, and ever-cheaper portable GPS systems (I just saw one for $80). Computer-based map software could provide what car GPS systems often lack -- continuous improvement in the customer's experience.

At present, map software can't be the only source of guidance. When a route I'm considering is of critical concern (especially driving the RV), I also check online maps, but often I get the best information from printed maps, which (surprisingly) can be more accurate than their digital cousins. Printed maps from AAA rarely disappoint me (though their guide books are weak). To give me both the big picture and let me drill down on details, in my motor home I carry several DeLorme map books of individual states (and hope to acquire more -- they are a terrific reference).

Points of Interest

Of course, there's more to driving than just making the right turns. DeLorme has packed Street Atlas USA with information about places and resources along the route -- points of interest (POI), they call it. It's useful, though I sometimes can't find something that feels like it should be listed. For instance, Yellowstone National Park, the nation's largest and oldest, is a huge destination for travelers, but it is not a destination known to DeLorme, apparently because it is not a town. It takes some stumbling around to locate and plot a drive to Yellowstone. That's crazy!

It's especially frustrating because there's a lot of good stuff to discover in DeLorme's POI database, but I find it slow, clumsy and non-intuitive to access.

On my wish list is information that would make this product a must-have for RV drivers and truck drivers -- guidance for "big rig" vehicles. There are roads that are too narrow or twisty (such as US-14 in Wyoming), underpasses and tunnels that are too low, bridges that have a load limit, and roads that do not allow large vehicles. California and probably other states even have many roads that are forbidden to typical "40 ft" motor homes. This vital information is readily available in various printed maps such as from Rand-McNally, so why not have it in DeLorme's map database too?

On-screen design

The screens displayed by the two programs couldn't be more different. Even the maps are different in style and appearance.

Microsoft Streets and Trips provides several map styles, including one that tries to show terrain, but I don't find it helpful. The satellite navigation in my 2008 Jeep Liberty can tilt the map to represent the region in front of me, and it's my favorite map mode. But the attempt by Microsoft's 2008 mapping software was not acceptable to me. For instance, it usually showed me much more of the route I'd already driven than the route ahead, wasting lots of screen space on useless information.

DeLorme has added this feature to Street Atlas USA 2009, but it often updates too slowly to use while driving.

In general, the information displayed in Microsoft Streets and Trips, ranging from the lines representing roads, to the names of streets, to the text describing other things, to the program's buttons and controls, are so thin and/or small and/or cramped that I can barely read it even with the laptop on my lap -– never mind, sitting on my RV's dash. The program lets me increase the size of some fonts and items, but doesn't provide enough control to overcome this problem.

In contrast, the display of DeLorme Street Atlas USA is mostly wonderful. Roads and text are easy to see, and I never have to shove my nose up to the screen to read anything important. However, DeLorme has some confusing aspects, such as key menus and controls in illogical or inconsistent places. I still spend too much time clicking around trying to find where to do something I've done before. I also get confused by how DeLorme saves my maps and trips, asking me to agree to things that aren't explained.

I keep thinking there are other ways to use it that I haven't yet located. Yet in other parts of the program there aren't enough options. I'm constantly right-clicking, expecting to find an option that applies to what I'm doing, but it is not available unless I wander through the menus, confusingly split between top, bottom, right-click, and various buttons and dialogs.

DeLorme's map-movement mode is counter-intuitive to me. I keep wanting to use PageUp/PageDown keys to move the map, and the mouse to drag around the visible portion of the map. But instead, these actions zoom the map in/out. I can only drag the map's displayed area if I click very near the edge of a side of the map. I don't understand why other map clicks do zooming, because DeLorme provides other good ways to do this, including zoom in/out buttons and the ability to drag a rectangle and zoom it to full screen. I'm sure it's difficult to come up with a navigation scheme to control the three-dimensions via a keyboard, but I don't think DeLorme's is quite right.

In contrast, Microsoft Streets and Trips lets me intuitively move around the map, and separately zoom in/out.

Another small but annoying mystery, perhaps related to how DeLorme's menus and buttons are configured, is my periodic difficulty determining "is it on?". Even though I use the program frequently, and believe I'm doing the same steps every time, about half the time as I start down the street on a new route, I see that the map is not updating. It's still showing me in my driveway. Or, if I'm in some far-off place, it sometimes shows me in another far-off place -- not moving. Yet it indicates the GPS is "on" and it usually shows my speed, but nothing else. So, I have to pull over somewhere (not easy in a motor home), then click here and there until it seems to come back to life. Sometimes this takes two or three attempts. Now and then I feel the need to reboot the computer.

It might be that I'm missing a key step, but I feel the program doesn't solidly tell me whether it is ready to go -- until I start rolling and then discover "not". But even with some confusing areas, the power of DeLorme Street Atlas USA shines through.

I could say that Microsoft software is easier to use simply because there's less of it to use, but the generic interface makes even simple things frustrating.

Recommendation: DeLorme Street Atlas USA

Even if you have web maps, other satellite navigation systems, and a mountain of printed maps, I think mapping software is a big help for both trip planning and en-route guidance.

While software satisfaction is a matter of personal opinion, I think Microsoft Streets and Trips 2008 isn't very good for on-the-road use. It has fewer features than DeLorme, and is hard to read and use while driving. (If my copy of this software was returnable, I'd get a refund.)

DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2009 has a superior screen design, more practical and useful capabilities while planning a trip, and is mostly easy to work with. And it is much better as a live driving guide.

I recommend DeLorme Street Atlas USA on a laptop, used with a DeLorme GPS receiver. Head-to-head with Microsoft, DeLorme does more, does it better, and is fun to use. Happy trails!