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  • Memory-Map V5
  • 1:50,000: Single region £49.95 (£69.95 Premium); three region disc £119.95 (£169.95 Premium) full country £199.95 (DVD) (£299.95 Premium)
  • 1:25,000: National Parks £99.95, Scotland regions £79.95, Long Distance Trails, National Trails, £49.95-£99.95
  • www.memory-map.co.uk

We love maps, particularly OS ones. It's great to spread a big map over a table and pore over the route options to the accompaniment of a good mug of tea. However, the noise is all about digital mapping and GPS gubbinses these days, and with some justification. There're only so many routes you can mark on a paper map before it starts to get a bit illegible, a paper map won't tell you where you've been and if you want to work out how much climbing you're in for you'll be counting contours for ages.

In essence, mapping software has a fairly simple job to do. It needs to let you plot out a proposed route and then print it out and/or upload it to a GPS receiver. Although in fact what you're usually dealing with is a "track" rather than a "route" - in GPS parlance, a route is a series of waypoints while a track is an actual wiggly line following (accuracy of map and GPS permitting) the trail on the ground. For off-road riding, tracks are considerably more useful.

The other key bit of functionality is to download tracks from your GPS and look at them on the map, showing you where you've been. Chances are that you'll want to edit the track a bit and save a "clean" version for future use or to share with someone else.

Those are the basic essentials. So how well does Memory-Map v5 handle them? The first thing that you need to do is to get hold of the right maps. MM is supplied on CD or DVD and includes Ordnance Survey mapping and the software to do useful things with it. For the 1:50,000 scale Landranger-style maps, the country is divided into six regions, or you can get discs with two/three region bundles or, if you're feeling particularly enthusiastic, a DVD with the whole country on it. That'll cost you £199.95 (or £299.95 if you want aerial photography as well), which sounds expensive but compares quite favourably with the £1,300 that all 204 Landranger map sheets would cost you in paper form.

There's a potential problem for the future, though. If you decide to adopt Memory-Map as your mapping software of choice and buy a region or two, and then in a couple of years want another region, you might find that the software's been upgraded. And if that happens, the mapping that you've got won't work in the new version. So you'll need to buy it again. Memory-Map has special upgrade pricing to cover this eventuality (as it's what has already happened a couple of times with new releases), but it could still work out quite pricey. To be fair, this isn't just an issue with Memory-Map - similar things affect all mapping software providers, as it's a consequence of the way Ordnance Survey licenses the data. But that doesn't alter the fact that it's a potential pain in the wallet.

But leaving futureproofing aside, once you've installed the software and maps and run Memory-Map, you get a screen with a big map on it and some buttons and menus across the top. The first thing you'll probably try and do is to move about, which is simple enough - either use the cursor keys on your keyboard or just drag it around with the mouse. The mouse pointer gives you grid references and elevation as you wave it around, which is handy. Then you might want to zoom in or out, which again is simply a matter of selecting the right tool or using keyboard shortcuts.

In Memory-Map, zooming is a different operation to changing mapping scale. While it has map data at various scales, it doesn't automatically switch between them at certain zoom thresholds. So if you're looking at 1:50,000 mapping and zoom out to look at half the country, it'll sit there and render umpteen tiles of 1:50,000 mapping that you can't read rather than bumping up to the 1:250,000 or 1:1,000,000 scales. If you want a clearer overview of a large area you need to change mapping manually.

A handy feature is the ability to have two windows on screen. They can be synchronized so that you can look at a small-scale map in one (for context) and a large-scale map in the other (for trails) and have them stay centred on the same thing. This is useful if you're plotting out a route, as you can stay zoomed in to accurately follow the trail but also be able to see where you are. What's not useful when plotting out a route is that the map doesn't auto-scroll when you get near the edges - you end up clicking out your line on the map with the mouse and scrolling with the cursor keys.

Routes and tracks

There are two ways in which GPS receivers and mapping software can tell you where to go, or where you've been. In GPS-land, a route is an ordered list of waypoints, with a waypoint simply being a recorded location - a junction, other landmark, anything that's in a particular place and isn't likely to move. If you're following a route on a GPS, it'll simply tell you the direction and distance of the next waypoint. This is useful if you're in a boat at sea, mildly useful if you're on foot in open ground and not really very useful at all on a bike and riding on trails - the way the trail is going tends to only intermittently coincide with the direction of the next waypoint. This is where tracks come in. As you move about with your GPS turned on, it's recording where you are every few seconds and plotting out your exact path, corners and all. This is called a track. These are a lot more useful for riding, and fortunately you can plot out a track in your software and then upload it to your GPS and follow it. They take up a lot more memory than routes, but most GPS receivers have ample space these days.

Memory-Map refers to anything that's not the actual map itself as "overlays". They can be tracks, routes, waypoints or other location data, either downloaded from a GPS receiver or plotted straight into MM itself. By default all overlay data is stored in your "My Documents" folder, which makes it easier to find them from outside Memory-Map and makes them more likely to get backed up.

The software can both import and save all sorts of different formats, so there's a fair chance that you'll be able to do something useful with routes or tracks that you've got from someone who uses some other mapping software. It'll also talk to all major brands of GPS to up- or download data. It's slightly limited in that it'll only upload tracks to the "Saved tracks" bit of your GPS, which on some models is quite severely space-limited.

Memory-Map also feels rather more at home manipulating routes than tracks (see boxout if you're unsure of the difference). You can plot out a track directly, but (unless we've missed something obvious) the only way to edit it is to convert it to a route, move the waypoints around and then convert it back into a track. The software will also only generate a printed route card for a route (perhaps sensibly enough) - you can convert your track to a route and then generate a route card, but it'll be really long because there'll be a huge number of waypoints in it. All the attributes for overlays, be they routes, tracks or whatever else, can be edited via the Overlay Properties dialogue, although this is a somewhat unwieldy affair as it presents absolutely everything in one dialogue. We can't help thinking that it would make sense to present the actual properties of the data (track distance, elevation gain and so on) from presentation attributes like color and line width. But that might just be us.

The 3D World feature uses elevation data to render a 3D view of your route so that you can see all the hills and valleys and things. If you've got the Premium Edition you can use aerial photography to get a lifelike rendition of the hills, otherwise the map gets draped on top. You can't switch from one to the other on the fly - you need to close the 3D window, change the view in the main Memory-Map screen and then reopen 3D World. You can "fly" along your route, which is fun for a while but seems inessential.

Memory-Map has a host of other features, some of which are more useful than others for mountain bikers. If you've got a combined GPS/HRM gizmo it'll download your heart rate and speed data alongside the location data and then plot graphs showing how well you were going along your route, which is potentially interesting for training obsessives. You can display live location data from a connected GPS, but you're unlikely to be carting a laptop around with you. You also get a version that'll run on a PDA, which is a more practical proposition for use "in the field" but, we suspect, still a bit unwieldy for riding.

Positives: Powerful, lots of features, versatile import/export filters, wide GPS compatibility

Negatives: Interface quirks, possibly does rather more than most people need it to do, costly upgrades


Verdict

There's no denying that Memory-Map is a very powerful bit of software. It's packed with features to the extent that we can't see anybody needing all of them, particularly not if you're coming from a mountain bike route-planning perspective. In that sense you're paying for more than you need, but we suspect that the various possibly-superfluous features don't add much to the cost. They do add to interface confusion, though, and Memory-Map does seem to make some things a bit trickier than they perhaps ought to be. Not so tricky that you can't get the hang of it fairly quickly, though. We'd probably save ourselves some pennies and do without the aerial photography, particularly since a lot of the places that mountain bikers like to frequent all look the same from the air - a big bunch of trees...