Rating: 4 / 5
This is actually a comparison of two product alternatives for putting topographic software on a Windows Mobile platform smartphone with a true GPS.
The 4/5 rating is for one of those, Memory-Map Navigator, with the caveat that I haven't owned it very long. A good part of the reason for a '4' rather than a '5' rating is that all of these products seem challenging to use well, and because I can see room for improvement in terms of both overall functionality as well as user interface, ease of use.
Smartphone topo mapping options: National Geographic Pocket Topo versus Memory-Map Navigator
I used National Geographic PocketTopo software on my Windows Mobile platform smartphone in thru-hiking the PCT last year (2008), in conjunction with their state series maps for CA, OR, and WA. Total cost was $25 for the Pocket Topo software plus about $100 per state, so a bit over $300, but as I live in the NW, I already owned the OR and WA state products.
In preparing for an Appalachian Trail thru-hike attempt in 2010, I opted to try an alternative product by http://www.memory-map.com, their "Navigator" product --- in part because I don't own NG Topo map data for any of the various states that the AT passes through, so it would have cost quite a bit to obtain NG Topo maps for all of those (hundreds of dollars). Memory-Map sells three levels of their product (all the same thing but each with additional features unlocked): Discoverer, Navigator, and Professional. Discoverer comes along free if you buy one of their state map products (a little over $70), but its use is limited to maps that you purchase from memory-map.com (the same restriction applies to PocketTopo with NG Topo maps). But if you either upgrade to (for $50 more) or just buy in the first place ($100) the Memory-Map Navigator product, you have the ability to import maps from other sources, and USGS maps are available online for free --- all of them for the U.S. via http://www.libremap.org, and some more focused collections exist elsewhere. Or at least, I was able to find all of the Applachian Trail (AT) USGS maps collected in one place, and used a freeware downloading tool to easily bring them onto my hard drive for import into Memory-Map software.
My experience with Memory-Map is thus far pretty limited, but based on my PCT experience with Topo software last year and in some wrestling to figure out how to put free AT maps onto Memory-Map software this year, I'm favorably impressed with Memory-Map. It's still not easy (!), but it's certainly do-able for a person that has some basic comfort level with dealing with computers, as well as a bit of patience, and if you want or need Topo maps for more than a state or two, I think it's cheaper. Caveat on this latter point: I've not explored the options of National Geographics new approach, Topo "Explorer"; perhaps it's price effective for a person that mostly hikes in their own state (and buys the NG state series map), and only occasionally ventures outside their state for limited excursions. (?)
Some tips if you try the Memory-Map approach:
(1) One challenge for whatever software you use is getting the trail(s) to show up on your maps. Yes, major trails like the PCT and AT are hard coded onto most USGS maps in the form of fairly faint dashed lines on the map itself, but it's nice to have a more clear, bold line show up in whatever color you feel you can see best, and it's also nice to have a more up-to-date plot as these trails change location in places over time (and USGS maps are very seldom updated). If you can find a current, accurate trail plot in almost any format, http://www.gpsbabel.org offers a wonderful (and free) piece of conversion software that allows you to convert that trail data into the format your software understands.
(2) If you go with Memory-Map software, note that the maps you can download for free will lack elevation data and indexing information (names of places and features on the map). But Memory-Map.com offers this data for free --- you can download it from their website and then import it into your system. This issue doesn't apply to PocketTopo as you're locked into using Topo brand (purchased) map data only.
(3) If you find a bunch of interesting maps all linked to from the same page, a really useful add-on for the Firefox browser is called "DownThemAll!", and does exactly what it sounds like. This was very helpful to me in downloading 249 maps from http://trailogic.com/atquadlist.html in preparation for the AT hike next year. I'm pretty sure that similar shareware or freeware products exist that aren't tied to a particular browser.
Point-by-point product comparison
What follows is a point-by-point comparison of the PocketTopo product versus Memory-Map Navigator as used on my smartphone. This isn't meant to be complete or comprehensive, but just summarizes the key points from my subjective point of view after using PocketTopo a lot and spending a few days playing around with Memory-Map Navigator. In particular, it's possible that there are flaws in the latter product that I haven't encountered yet. Another caveat is that Memory-Map only works on Windows Mobile platforms, plus it works in at least some manner on various standalone GPS products (Garmin, Magellan, etc). I believe PocketTopo might support an older Palm platform, but don't recall for certain; I of course used it on my Windows Mobile platform smartphone too.
1. Locked in: With PocketTopo, you can only use maps purchased from National Geographic Topo products. With Memory-Map software, you can pay to get a (slightly) higher end product that allows import of maps from any source, albeit with a bit of work and fiddling/learning curve on your part. IMO this is huge, insofar as all USGS maps in the US are available for free, and maps for some other countries are available too (not necessarily free ...). Note that Memory-Map is a product that's pretty well known and used outside of the U.S.
2. Buggy: I ran into multiple bugs (software flaws) in PocketTopo. I've not *yet* run into any with Memory-Map software. Important for me is that when I reported bugs a year or two ago --- including IMO very severe --- National Geographic folks informed me that they have no plans to release an update, whereas on the Memory-Map web page they list changes (enhancements and bug fixes) from various version releases they've made.
One PocketTopo bug I encountered was that when I asked it to show me UTM coordinates for my current position, it gave me coordinates that were (very substantially) wrong! Another was that if I exported a decently large map, at some unclear point in export size it would simply fail to export correct elevation data.
3. Memory-Map Navigator has a one-click button to toggle between two views (different scale perspectives on the same location). Very handy. Topo, OTOH, offers five levels of scale for all their maps; with Memory-Map you typically get three, and if you're importing your own maps you have to separately import and process each level --- such that I might not always bring other levels in. Both products offer the option of bringing in just the 1:25,000 scale to save space on the mobile device. FWIW, I almost always use just the 1:25,000 scale, though if I had 1:100,000 or 1:250,000 available, I think I might use one of those a bit more with Navigaors superior interface to swap those views.
4. Both devices allow you to see the elevation of any point on the map, but it's easier to do with Memory-Map Navigator. And per above, if you export a fairly large map with PocketTopo, the elevation data you get is bogus (though at least usually obviously so, like a negative number).
I tyically wear an altimeter, and it can be nice to calibrate it using elevation from the GPS. To be clear, not elevation that the GPS calculates, but elevation data read off the map for the specific point I'm standing on, which I'm sure is more accurate.
5. Memory-Map Navigator provides a scale bar on the bottom of the mobile device screen, which I'm already finding very handy. PocketTopo doesn't have this, and I recall multiple times in the past when I was wondering how far a "screenful" of map represented.
6. Memory-Map Navigators scrolling speed and just generally "working-with-the-software" speed doesn't seem to degrade as much as the map sizes get larger. On both the PCT last year and the AT next year, my approach has been to split the trail into multiple pieces, but sill in fairly large chunks --- in part so I can delete maps off of my smartphone as I move north to free up space for photographs I take along the way. For example, I've got all of the state of Virginia USGS quads that the AT passes through in a series of 60 quad 1:25,000 scale maps in total, which takes up nearly 300 MB on my microSD card in my phone. As far as I can tell, the software works with this as fast as it does with the 11-map chunk that represents the small section of Geogia that the trail passes through. My recollection of PocketTopo is that I would have found the Virginia chunk to be measurably slower to work with, at least in terms of load time if nothing else.
7. With PocketTopo what you export to the mobile device is map data within a defined rectangle, much in the same way that you specify an area to print. With Memory-Map Navigator you can either create a map chunk by merging individual USGS quads together and export that set in one go (regardless of overall shape), or you can more flexibly define a polygon area to export using their track creation tool and export that. Exporting chunks of a never-straight PCT trail last year required me to iteratively choose between exporting many small rectangles that I would have to individually load when I got to the appropriate part of the trail vs. including a lot of map (and therefore microSD card space used) that I knew that I wouldn't need. Hmm, and related, I *think* that MM Navigator will automatically load the correct map based on GPS location, though I haven't worked with this enough to confirm.
8. I do like the PocketTopo feature that allows me to turn off the GPS to save power if I'm browsing maps but don't need to see my current position. With Memory-Map Navigator, the GPS appears to be permanently on whenever the application is running. But at least it's fairly quick to load and then exit the application. And it's a menu operation on PocketTopo, which means it takes an extra step and that I either take the time to pull out the stylus or I take a stab with a finger nail and about 1/3 of the time hit the wrong menu item and then have to wait until that can be resolved. So while I like PocketTopo better on this feature, even so the user interface takes back some of the "points" from this win.
9. Slightly related is that both products have a mode where your current location is centered in the screen, vs. a mode where you can scroll around regardless of current position. But the controls for Memory-Map Navigator are easier, more intuitive; with PocketTopo I would periodically get irritated when I would try to scroll away to look at something and it would snap me back to my current position.
10. Both products offer an elevation profile view, both on their desktop versions *and* on their mobile versions --- the the one for Memory-Map Navigator is pretty buried (virtually hidden) in their menu structure, you have to know exactly where and how to look for it. But per previous, with PocketTopo if the map size is very large, elevation data isn't exported due to an obvious bug in the software, so this feature becomes unusable in that case. It's not a high priority feature for me, just occasionally a neat gee-whiz. But maybe not on the more up-and-down AT, if I can easily carve out defined chunks of the trail (track overlay) to see what's coming --- it's possible this could help a bit in planning (?).
There are certainly other comparison points that could be made and --- again, I didn't do any exhaustive analysis here, these are just points that struck me in the context of my own experience and in how I personally see myself using them. At this point I'm feeling that --- despite quite a bit of time and energy (and learning curves) to make the switchover, that I'm glad that I did. I'll also say that in a couple of interactions with the company behind the Memory-Map software I found their customer service to be quite good. Before I purchased anything, I got a couple of email replies with helpful details in response to questions, and when they delayed shipping a map DVD product that I purchased, they basically insisted that they give me a second equivalent product for free in recompense (I actually told them I didn't think it was that big a deal, but they tossed in an intelligently chosen adjacent state's worth of data anyway). In the context of how National Geographic has opted to sort of lock away volunteer-provided content that used to be easily available via their "mapxchange" process, I'm particularly pleased to find that the Memory-Map alternative is backed up by decent customer service.