App review: MapQuest for Android with turn-by-turn spoken navigation directions

mapquest android navigation

Yesterday, MapQuest unveiled their Android mapping application. This new app offers something fantastic – navigation with spoken turn by turn directions. I took it for a spin and can safely say that this is the new best free navigation package for Android.

Everything you expect from a decent GPS package is in this app – spoken directions and street names, traffic information, points of interest and voice recognition. Even though they are by no means the first Android map app with turn by turn directions, the MapQuest interface is by far the easiest to use. Maps are also very clean and crisp, making use of data from map leader Navteq.

Navigation results can be provided for driving or walking, but not for public transit or bikes like in Google Maps. The quick link bar at the bottom of the map can instantly display any of the categories on your map, and you can minimize the bar by clicking its down arrow.

Maps load and scroll very fast, and even on a sluggish data connection, I rarely had any blank map tiles. In addition to this, map tiles can be locally cached.

The new MapQuest for Android can be found in the Android market at this link. You can also scan the QR code in the video after the jump – probably one of the first ever QR codes completely made out of Lego!

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[Full disclosure: AOL is the parent company of both MapQuest and Gadling]

Google Maps adds biking directions

We were pretty jazzed when Google Maps added public transit directions for various cities around the world. Some of us don’t own cars (have you tried to park in Manhattan?) and we don’t always bother renting one when we travel. So, you can imagine our joy now that Google Maps has also added biking directions.

The biking directions help riders stick to dedicated trails and bike lanes, which keeps everyone safe. Google has more than 12,000 miles of trails included in its maps along with data on bike lanes and recommended streets for more than 150 cities thanks to its partnership with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Perhaps best of all, the biking directions seek to avoid hills. Though, if you want the inclines for exercise, you can always edit the directions just like you can the driving directions in Google Maps.

With Spring fast approaching and people beginning to get excited to once again resume outdoor activities, Google Maps biking directions are a fantastic addition to a travelers toolkit. That said, we don’t recommend you pull out your iPhone and attempt to access Google Maps while biking through traffic.

Poll: Is your GPS male or female?

I’ve been in plenty of cars on several continents that had GPS units. I’ve heard robotic male Aussies instruct me through a roundabout and seductive French women tell me to U-turn in 300 meters. And for giggles, I’ve set the devices to Chinese, Portuguese and several other languages that I do not speak or understand simply to hear them come out of a tiny box mounted on my windshield. But, at the end of the day, I need to hear my directions in English and I like to hear them dictated in a woman’s voice (particularly one with a sensual British accent). I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s the truth.

What about you? Do you set your GPS to a male or female voice? Vote in our poll and explain your preference in the comments below.

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Photo by flickr user Jimmy_Joe.

Know the limitations of GPS when hiking

There is no doubt that using a GPS has changed the way we travel. Adding one of the little devices to our cars allows us to navigate effortlessly to our destinations and has all but eliminated our need to carry road maps or stop off at the local gas station to ask for directions. That same technology can be of benefit when we leave the vehicle behind and hit a hiking trail as well, although hikers should be aware of the limitations of their devices, and be prepared to use their common sense and good judgment when employing such a device.

Hand held GPS units are very common and inexpensive these days. Most are small, light weight and battery operated, allowing them to be dropped into your backpack when you head out for the day. They generally offer such features as trail maps, suggested points of interest, and topographical data, all of which can be helpful for finding your way in the backcountry.

But unlike GPS devices in our cars, our hand held units don’t do “turn-by-turn” navigation while out in the wilderness, mostly because there are no clear cut roads or landmarks that can be used in the same fashion as when we are on the streets, and natural obstacles can abound. Hikers are instead provided with a general indication of where their destination is from their current position in an “as the crow flies” fashion, and they are forced to navigate to that destination themselves. When doing so, they’ll generally take advantage of the GPS’s built in electronic compass and topographical information to assist them, but more importantly, they’ll need to constantly survey the terrain, adjusting their course as needed, in order to reach their end point successfully.
Speaking of terrain, it can also have a direct impact on the performance of your GPS device while hiking. In order to find your location, you’ll need a clear view of the sky overhead, and that works fine when you’re in a wide open field. But many trekkers have found their hand held GPS can’t connect to the orbiting satellites when they are under a thick canopy of trees or deep in a canyon or gorge where the sky is obscured by the rock walls. It is important to know how your device will perform on the trails that you’ll be hiking so as to avoid a surprise that may leave you lost in the woods and without alternative methods of find your way.

The battery life of our hand held GPS units are also a cause for concern, as they can chew through a full charge in to time at all if you’re not careful. That means you’ll need to carry more batteries in your backpack, which hampers the portability of the device to a degree. And should you run out of juice while on the trail, then your expensive electronic toy becomes useless. Make sure it is fully charged before heading out, and that you’re aware of how long the batteries last under typical conditions. Also keep in mind that cold weather will have an impact on battery life as well, often reducing run times dramatically.

Most of this isn’t new information of course, and experienced hikers have learned that a GPS can be an invaluable tool. However, they’ve also learned not to become overly reliant on the devices, preferring instead to continue to use the time tested skills of reading maps and compasses to find their way. Those skills are enhanced however by being able to turn on the GPS, take some quick readings to find your bearings, plot your course on the map, and set out for your destination, returning to the GPS from time to time to ensure that you’re still on course and making adjustments as necessary.

Despite some of these drawbacks to the use of a hand held GPS, they can be quite a powerful addition to anyone’s mandatory gear list. They are an excellent navigational tool, as long as the person using it is familiar with both the strengths and limitations of such a device. Finding our way in the backcountry has never been so easy, and we’re definitely safer than ever while on the trail.

Climb aboard one of Christopher Columbus’s ships

Whether or not one thinks that Christopher Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic to the Americas is a day to celebrate, the 1492 journey of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria was an amazing feat.

Although Columbus and his men made it to the Bahamas on October 12– more then 500 years ago, it’s still possible to see what it would have been like to travel on one of these ships during the 15th century.

These days, life-size replicas of the Santa Maria, the Niña and the Pinta serve as floating museums. Although the Santa Maria is permanently located on the Scioto River in downtown Columbus, Ohio, the Niña–and most recently the Pinta, travel to various ports.

The Niña, built to commemorate 500 years of Columbus’s voyage, has been to 425 ports since its beginning. The Pinta, larger than the original version, was built in 2006 and also serves as a dockside charter that can be rented out for parties whenever it is docked.

Both of those ships are owned by the Columbus Foundation in the British Virgin Islands.

Tomorrow is the last day that the Pinta and the Niña will be in Huntington, West Virginia. On the 16th to the 20th, they’ll be in Marietta, Ohio and will finish off October in Steubenville, another Ohio river town.

For the schedule that includes the rest of the year, click here. The two ships will finish off the 2009 season in Pensacola, Florida.

As a note: The Santa Maria will be open until October 25th when it will close until April 2010.