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Tech Lab

Digital maps to treasure

I’m getting out of town this summer — way out, as my Congolese wife has grown homesick for the land of her birth. For me the fun has begun already, since it’s an excuse to indulge my longstanding love of digital maps.

The available offerings are quite good and getting better fast. In the past couple of weeks, Google Inc. has launched a major upgrade of its Google Maps service for desktop computers, making it an excellent resource for travel planning. I’ve also come across some good mobile options from Finnish phone maker Nokia Corp. and a German company called Skobbler. Each offers apps that include downloadable maps, so you can use your smartphone as a GPS navigator even if it’s disconnected from the cellular network.

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The new Google Maps is a lively, hypercaffeinated makeover of the classic online service. Everything happens faster, and every on-screen feature boasts a livelier, more accessible visual style. Run a search for local coffee shops and the most popular results appear on the map itself, instead of being listed in a box alongside. Zoom in closer — the visual effect is smooth as ice — and the names of more shops appear. Click on one and an on-screen card delivers the highlights — phone number, hours of operation, a Google Street View photo of the front door. And in some cases, you will get a visual tour of the interior; Google is hiring freelance photographers to map the insides of many businesses.

Serious travel planners will get a kick out of planning a road trip. Type “Boston to Chicago” for a driving route. Want to go by way of Niagara Falls? Just drag the highlighted route across the map and Google Maps instantly recalculates. Air travel planning is just as slick because Google has added a connection to its air travel reservation service, Google Flights. Click the airline icon and you will see the lowest price for an air ticket and a link where you can buy.

Many of you will not yet have access to the new Google Maps, as the company is rolling it out slowly. That will give you time to get ready. You will need a computer running Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Vista, 7 or 8; Windows XP won’t do. Users of Apple Inc.’s Mac machines must run the latest Mountain Lion operating system. And you will need to use either Google’s own Chrome browser, or the popular Firefox browser.

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Google is planning a mobile upgrade as well, but not just yet. But then Google Maps for iOS and Android is already quite good. In fact, the Android version is even better than I’d realized. Normally, you must have a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection to use it, but Google Maps for Android can be used offline as well. Say you’re going to a a small town in Montana. Before you go, you can download a town map onto your phone.

Even if cell service is lousy there, you will be able to find your way. Too bad this feature isn’t available yet for Apple devices like the iPhone.

But German software company Skobbler is filling the gap. Skobbler offers mobile map apps for Apple and Android devices that allow the user to download a whole country’s worth of maps. The company relies on OpenStreetMap, a Wikipedia-like organization of volunteers who have gradually mapped much of the world over the past decade. The results are so good that major companies like MapQuest Inc. use OpenStreetMap products.

Skobbler’s GPS Navigation 2 for iOS devices costs 99 cents; the company’s GPS Nav and Maps for Android sells for a buck. Both offer turn-by-turn navigation and allow you to download maps of entire countries, making them excellent tools for world travelers. You will pay for map downloads; a complete map of the United States costs $2.99, or you can subscribe to the entire world map for a one-time fee of $7.99.

The few of you with Nokia smartphones running Microsoft’s Windows Phone software can get all the maps you want free. Nokia owns Navteq, one of the world’s top map makers. The company’s Here app for Windows Phone uses these excellent maps to deliver reliable turn-by-turn navigation. And a Windows Phone user can download all the apps his phone’s memory can hold, at no charge.

They speak French in Congo, so I won’t have much luck asking for directions to the US Embassy. But with the right map apps, I’ll find it myself.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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