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More than any other Web 2.0 tool, online maps and satellite photos add depth to the Web by connecting it with real-world topography. Maps allow you to chart a trip and get around in real time, and their aerial views of grasslands, mountaintops, and city grids also provide a new perspective of the planet.
Naturally, realtors, environmentalists, and tourists were among the first to take advantage of Google Maps when it made satellite views of the globe free last year. Google's open code spawned countless third-party mashups by creative users, who have mapped everything from subway stops to UFO sightings. Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask.com have followed suit by creating mapping services with even more features and customization than Google's. Curiously, Mapquest has changed the least and still lacks satellite pictures but remains the most popular direction-finding tool on the Internet.
Yahoo Maps displays real-time road hazards and construction zones to help you plan a trip without hassles.
Unfortunately, sometimes digital maps are more effective at driving you crazy
than helping you find driving directions. We occasionally found glitches in the directions provided by all of the mapping tools, many of which remain in beta testing. So which service does the best job of getting you from point A to point B?
When we looked up how to get from our favorite hilltop park to CNET's downtown offices, each of the five mapping services estimated a seven- to nine-minute drive down the same winding streets and then onto the freeway. As we wanted to avoid the interstate, the Shortest Distance option in Mapquest and Windows Live Local let us navigate just the surface streets, while Mapquest alone let us check boxes to eliminate highways and tolls.
Both the Yahoo Maps beta and Ask.com's Maps and Directions enabled us to bypass the highway through a workaround using the multipoint directions feature. To avoid the highway, we right-clicked a third, local street and dragged it between our point of departure and the final destination. This level of customization, combined with views of real-time traffic data, makes Yahoo Maps the best planner for a complicated trip. And while Windows Live Local is the only other service that flags traffic hot spots and estimates driving speeds in real time, Yahoo additionally showed many construction zones to help us stay clear of bumps in the road. If you want to take those directions along in the car, you can print any of these digital maps, but only Google and Yahoo provide a free option for use on smart phones. As for planning a jogging route, only Ask's Maps and Directions lets you choose walking directions.
Google Maps zooms in close to locations on every continent, such as this mysterious view of Baghdad.
The aerial images within these digital maps can get dazzlingly close to the ground, tempting you to circle the globe for a closer look at landmarks and daydream about your next adventure. Online mapping services cobble together their bird's-eye views by licensing third-party sources of photos snapped from satellites and airplanes. That's why the aerial views offered by Google, Windows Live, and Ask often resemble a mosaic or a patchwork quilt. Mapquest currently does not offer satellite images.
Yahoo does the best job of smoothing out the gaps between its varied sources of imagery, while showing far-flung locales on all continents. However, Yahoo's average display of one square meter of ground per pixel didn't come as close as those of Google and Ask.
By contrast, while Ask Maps showed a vivid six square inches of ground per pixel, it lacks images for Africa, South America, and Asia. On the other hand, Google took us closer to Tokyo, Baghdad, Lima, and Nairobi and elsewhere than its rivals did.
The bird's-eye views afforded by Windows Live Local bring the high-rises of New York City tantalizingly close.
Windows Live Local showed as broad a range of places as Google and Yahoo, but outside of North America and Europe, its pictures were sometimes more distant than Yahoo's. However, Windows Live Local throws in its own unique, bird's-eye views that let you check out more than 100 select U.S. and European city centers from four angles.
Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Mapquest all connect city business directories with their maps. Currently, Ask does not. We found Yahoo Local's listings most helpful, as many companies have been rated by Yahoo users over the years. For example, you can locate Chicago on Yahoo Maps, then search for "best pizza" and find the dives that the locals gave four stars or more. A similar search on Windows Live Local and Google Maps retrieves only pizza places with "best" in their name. Overall we preferred Yahoo's and Windows Live's nested lists of businesses to Google's seemingly random suggestions of services.
Yahoo Maps shows you where to find businesses listed with Yahoo Local. Our search for "best pizza" in Chicago retrieved dozens of restaurants that users had raved about and rated with four stars or more.
We found Google Maps to be faster than other dynamic mapping tools, thanks to its many servers worldwide and robust AJAX technologies. Windows Live was only slightly slower. The Yahoo Maps beta, built around Macromedia Flash, was faster than Ask but still suffered momentary page-loading delays. Yet Ask Maps, despite its AJAX backbone, took the longest to draw a page--as long as 15 seconds. Mapquest loads in a snap, but it doesn't display real-world pictures.
Mashups and add-ons
Looking for designer sneakers, organic coffee, or biking trails in your neighborhood? Some developer has probably mapped all that and more
by merging data with online maps
from Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft. Being first on the block to show satellite views and open its code to developers, Google Maps has inspired more mashups than blogs such as Google Sightseeing
and Google Maps Mania
can count. You can find examples of developers' tweaks to Yahoo Maps here
. The attractive Atlas
mashup uses Windows Live to track Wi-Fi hot spots, blogs, and more, and Microsoft tracks Local's sightseeing offerings here
. Ask currently lacks mashups.
Personalization and integration
Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft aim to make their maps work easily with their other Web-based tools, but none have created a seamless suite yet. We like that Google offers convenient links to its Maps from within Gmail
, which can recognize and flag locations within an e-mail message. But unlike Google and Ask Maps, Yahoo Maps can also keep track of your recent locations, if you sign in.
Ask Maps and Directions allowed us to get walking directions so that we could take the scenic jogging route around a hill.
The Windows Live Local beta offers deep integration with other Microsoft products. You can add a selected map to your MSN Spaces blog or send maps back and forth to a buddy via Windows Live Messenger. There's even a free add-in for Microsoft Outlook. We also like Windows Live Local's floating scratchpad, which saves your notes and lets you e-mail or blog them via MSN Spaces. You can build collections, share them with chosen users, and save them with the Favorites beta bookmarking tool. Ask.com and Mapquest currently lack such integration.
The innovative Google Maps, no longer in beta testing, has been surpassed in features by its competitors, as has the venerable Mapquest. Yahoo's and Microsoft's traffic data make their maps more useful for getting around in cities, while the multipoint directions offered by Yahoo and Ask are best for long or complex journeys.
Windows Live Local enables you to sign in and save your favorite maps. You can stick a pushpin on favorite locations, take notes and upload a picture to them, then share and save those collections.
While each mapping service offers keyboard shortcuts, additional ease-of-use tweaks make the Yahoo Maps beta more intuitive for customizing a trip. For instance, each service allows you to grab a URL of a particular map, but only Yahoo Maps displays that URL within the address bar of your Web browser for quick cutting and pasting. At the same time, Google Maps' natural language skills made it easier for us to type a single line of text, such as "hotels, new york," and get a fast result. As for finding places to stay or shop once you find a destination, we favor Yahoo Maps' community-ranked business listings. Yahoo's consistency, ease of use, and strong features earned it our Editors' Choice award for best online mapping service.
But which mapping service makes the most of the dynamic Web? While we found Yahoo to be the most practical directions finder--and Google the best worldwide tour guide--Microsoft's integration of maps with its other Windows Live tools intrigued us. Only Microsoft enables you to save locations as pushpins on Local maps, then write notes and upload pictures to them. A Google Maps users' Pin the Map mashup
lets you do the same, and sites such as Wayfaring
step you through the mashup process, but most users won't troll the Web to find such gems. Google sits back and lets its users do the work of adding new features, but Microsoft puts those innovations front and center. While we'd rave more about Windows Live Local's capabilities if it weren't limited to other Microsoft properties, we believe that Microsoft's Local Scratchpad is at least moving in the right direction toward providing its users with a personalized suite of online tools.
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