Monday, 28 April 2008

The Multimap Alternative

In recent posts I've complained about the automatic (and unannounced) redirection from MS Live Search Maps of UK users to Multimap. I have to say that my complaint is more about the unannounced and seemingly random nature of the redirection, rather than a complaint about the destination.

I always used to use Multimap. Prior to Google Maps and Live Maps it was simply the very best mapping and aerial imagery site for the UK. Nowhere else gave anything like the photographic resolution, though it didn't approach that available today. Clearly many people have turned their backs on Multimap, but it certainly doesn't hurt to go back and have another look.

The site is very different to how it used to look, and has a much cleaner appearance. You can chose between the more traditional navigation ('Basic Maps') and the more modern AJAX style interface ('Interactive Maps'). Bizarrely, and annoyingly, it forgets where you were looking at if you switch types of map, and drops you back at the last place you searched for when you switch between the basic and interactive styles, defaulting to the Lake District if you used the navigation controls rather than the search box.

Choice of maps is definitely Multimap's trump card. At the 500 yards to 1 mile scales you can select either Tele Atlas or Ordnance Survey 1:50k scale maps. Having large area OS maps available like this is excellent. The OS Get-a-map experience offers 1:50k and even 1:25k map extracts, but only in small patches of 400x400 pixels, and you lose a bit off the bottom of that with the copyright statment. Multimap offers a much bigger 933x642 map area on my monitor. It must be borne in mind that whilst this is possibly the best free online OS map display, it is smaller than the alternative non-OS maps from both MS and Google.

The Tele Atlas maps are perhaps more geared towards the UK user, with motorways in blue rather than the Live Maps brown. Comparing map currency between Multimap, Live Maps and Google Maps reveals a complicated picture. No doubt this varies hugely from place to place, but for a patch of my home town of Bromsgrove where there has been some recent building construction, I found Google Maps to have the most recent aerial photography and Live Maps to have the most recent road mapping data. Multimap is an oddball, in that it uses different road data depending upon whether it is in Map mode or Aerial Photo mode with a road overlay. The former uses (c)2007 Tele Atlas, the latter a more up to date (c)2008 Navteq/(c)2007 Intermap.

There is still advertising on the Multimap site and unfortunately it is of the annoying, distracting animated flash banner variety, which is a big minus for me.

On the plus side Multimap gives a continuous display of post code district, grid reference, latitude and longitude. This information is placed below the map area, which entails scrolling. There is some initial awkwardness as you realise your mouse wheel is for scrolling windows and for zooming maps - just make sure you point at the right area of the screen for what you want. A minor niggle, but one that does not tend to arise with the two alternatives as they don't tend to put all that much below the map, if anything. One more plus: Multimap can search by grid reference, which is something the others cannot do.

The left hand pane shows a series of collapsible panels for 'Useful Information', 'hotels and accommodation', 'search history' and 'favourite routes and places'. There doesn't seem to be a way to remove or rearrange these. Personally I'd remove the hotels bar, or at least move it to the bottom, as it will definitely be the least used of those.

The Get Directions section is rather tidy. The routes I've checked all look sensible, and it includes the option for walking as well as driving routes. As an added gimmick It even tells you your carbon footprint for the journey!

The 'Find a Business' section seems awkward to use. When you search it defaults to showing numbered pins in a small map area. These reveal panels with a little more detail when clicked. Alternatively at this point you can select the rather more accessible results list, which is accompanied by a thumbnail map. The listings all seem to be drawn from Thomson's Local Directory, which I'm sure is broad, deep and current. I just can't help feeling that the interface needs more work.

So in summary, Multimap has some unique features which make it of interest to UK users, in particular Ordnance Survey maps and grid references. It doesn't do everything as good as Live Maps or Google Earth, but I think overall we just have an embarrassment of riches. My advice is to try the features of each and use different tools for different jobs.

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