A lot of my computer supports clients have heard me jest that I suspect that civilisation stops at the M25

Phyllis Pearsall

Phyllis Pearsall, creator of the London A-Z

This being the case, I have thought for almost 40 years that the only map I really need is the A-Z of London. People keep saying how much of a cultural icon of London is Harry Beck’s map of the Underground, but I think the A-Z is just as much a London icon.

The digital incarnation of the London A-Z is by no means perfect, but it’s always seemed to me to be the natural way of finding my way around – especially when visiting new clients.

So, one of many reasons that I can feel a bit queasy about leaving London is that I can no longer guarantee to find my way around with just a smartphone.

Yes, I know that Google Maps are free and cover the whole country, but the big disadvantage of Google Maps is that you have to access them online. If you haven’t got any wifi, 4G or 3G coverage then you are stuffed. Even if you do have an internet connection, it can often be too slow to download Google Maps in a reasonable time. This can be a bit stress-inducing if you need a map to find your destination in a strange place. So I bet I’m not alone in printing out the relevant Google Maps page before I set off for the sticks. The other thing about Google Maps, of course, is that there is something deeply irritating about having an American corporation give me directions on how to get about in my own country (the same irritation as having American software challenge my command of the English language).

Maps.me logoAnyway, Google Maps may now be a thing of the past for me as I’ve just discovered Maps.me. It’s an entirely free app for IOS (ie iPads and iPhones) and for Android tablets and phones. More to the point, you can download any map of any region in the world and use it “offline” – ie without an internet connection.

I haven’t played with it very much yet, but the fact that I can search for any postcode in the UK, and then zoom in to see even the smallest street, takes care of a lot of the requirements of a street map. It doesn’t pretend to be a “sat nav” app. There’s no street-by-street guidance or audio instructions. It can, however, make a stab at plotting a journey from one place to another and tell you how far you’ll travel. Mind you, I wouldn’t take this too seriously as it estimates, for instance, that it will take just eighteen minutes to do the 5.2 miles from Clapham High Street to Notting Hill Gate. I suppose this might be useful for people who only travel at 4am (probably by Batmobile), but not so useful for the rest of us.

Lincoln map

Part of the centre of Lincoln. You can’t see it here, but there’s always a useful scale indicator on Map.me.

It can track your current location, so it’s easy to see where you are on the map in relation to where you want to be.

On the subject of tracking, it’s really quite annoying that this app tracks your location even if the app is only running in the background. I can only think that this is reporting your location back somewhere. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that people like me are not necessarily paranoid because we think information about us is being hoovered up and reported to people who don’t need to know it. To be fair to Maps.me, they do make it quite clear that if you choose to use the tracking feature then it will keep tracking you in the background. Moreover, the London A-Z mapping app does exactly the same thing.

In use, Maps.me is a tiny bit clunky in that if you punch in a postcode for Maps.me to locate, it zooms right out to show the whole country and puts a pin on the location. You then have to perform three or four “zoom in” operations to see the detail you need. Not a huge problem, but an automatic “zoom in” would make things smoother. When you do get to the scale you want, the map is clear and easily legible.

Trafalgar Square roundaboutIn case, you are wondering if there are any ads or “in-app purchases” to fund this free app, the answer is “yes and no”. There are no in-app purchases and no obvious ads but, just like Google Maps, some local enterprises are pinpointed on the maps, so I guess the odd advertising pound is changing hands somewhere along the line. I haven’t found this advertising too irritating. One slight caveat is that the maps are created and updated by users, so if you are too sniffy to use Wikipedia because you think its content can’t be trusted, then you won’t like this either. Mind you, there are plenty of reputable commercial sat-nav packages out there that have been known to lead people, literally, up the garden path, so you pays your money (or not) and you takes your choice.

All in all, I think Maps.me is probably going to justify its use of about 500mb of my iPhone storage. It’ll certainly help me feel slightly more secure when venturing into the terra incognita of “beyond the M25”.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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