Mac GIS software review, Part 1

With the announcement today by Apple of the new Mac Mini and hifi stereo I thought it would be a fitting time to review the current state of GIS on Macs. As anyone who is familiar with GIS knows, the Mac has been virtually ignored by the GIS community in terms of software options. However, there are a few options that serve different markets and have different price points and thus a review was born. Read more after the jump.

As some one who teaches GIS at the University level and is an avowed Mac user, GIS has been the one sore spot for me for years. Specifically, when I show up at conferences with a Mac people always say “They look real cool but ArcGIS doesn’t work on them so I would never be able to use one anyplace but home”. Moreover, when it comes to purchasing computers for our labs, or my office for that matter, I always have to purchase Windows boxes in order to run ArcGIS. Yet, all is not lost for Mac lovers who need/want to perform real GIS analysis. There are some options available and they range from sophisticated GIS systems to GIS viewers. In order to provide a guide to Mac users I have compiled a short but sweet review of several different GIS options for Mac users. The review consists of both subjective and objective categories and its NOT intended to rank the different systems in terms of which is best, but rather to provide users a guide of what each system provides in terms of functions. The four different categories looked at are as follows:

  • Basic Information: Cost, software, main market.
  • Major Features: What are the main features of the system.
  • Ease of Use/Sophistication: Subjective determination of how easy the software is to use, is it intuitive? Confusing, etc..
  • Analysis Challenge: A review of the ability of each system to complete a simple set of analysis functions. (Add a shapefile, query the data, create a buffer around the queried data and export it as a shapefile)

The different GIS systems reviewed were:

Importantly, there are four other GIS systems that will be reviewed in the second part of the review to be posted at a later date. The main reason for the two-part review is that the 4 other systems are a little more challenging for me to get working. Of course if anyone has any other systems they think I should review I would be happy to take suggestions. The other four systems to be reviewed later are:

  • GRASS GIS
  • MFWorks
  • TNTlite
  • Canvas X GIS

My World GIS

Basic Information

The My World Package is produced by the GEODE Initiative (Geographic Data in education) that is based at Northwestern University. The main market for this GIS is education, both at the primary and secondary level, and the GEODE website actually has curriculum available for the middle and high school levels that covers different environmental areas. Because of this educational focus, and development through an NSF grant, the cost of the system is pretty low, with individual seats costing $59, classrooms costing $99 and a site license costing $399. The software, while it runs on OSX, is actually a Java platform so that it runs on any system without any real problems. This being said the Java implementation also misses some of the cool Mac features that would be possible had it been written natively for Macs.

Major Features:

In terms of features My World is a fairly capable system, allowing the importing of .shp files, tabular data (csv., tab, and acsii), data from the internet, presumably from WMS and WFS servers and their own world watcher files. It appears that it is NOT possible to geocode address data, but you can add data purely from a table format (X and Y coordinates). In terms of projections, My World is capable of handling different projections, but appears to prefer data in Lat and Long when importing it. All the standard GIS navigation features were present in the system, including:

  • Interactive Zoom in and Zoom out
  • Measurement tool
  • Information tool
  • Interactive selection tool
  • Move map button
  • Pointer tool
  • Open Table data

Once data is in the system numerous analysis features are available and easy to use. In particular I liked the Histogram feature, which allows a user to see a histogram of selected fields within their data. While a simple analysis, it worked quickly and easily and provided a nice snapshot view of the data in graph form. Other analysis features included within the system are:

  • Selection: By attribute and spatial relationship (distance, intersection of layers, within a layer).
  • Combine: Combines areas of intersecting layers or joining layers (polygons only).
  • Add Attribute: Creates new attribute data in a layer by math operations.
  • Buffer: Creates a buffer around a layer feature.
  • Create Grids: Creates a gird from a point layer by interpolation or density.
  • Create Lines/Polygons from Grids: Creates a new line or polygon layer from a grid layer.

In addition to these analysis features the system also allows the user to edit shapefiles and create new polygons. This editing feature is actually kind of surprising in a system that is aimed at the education market, especially middle school and high school education. While not on the same level of ArcGIS in terms of editing, My World did a nice job and allowed some semi-professional editing of layers.

Ease of Use

Overall the My World system was very easy to use, as one would expect from a system aimed at middle and hi8gh school kids. Adding data and performing analysis was all very straightforward and full of pop ups that tell you when you should be doing something. In addition there is a nice online help section which provides a complete discussion of each feature found in the software. While not anywhere as full featured as ArcGIS, it seems to hit the sweet spot in terms of basic analysis and viewing features while retaining ease of use.

Analysis Challenge

My World sailed through the basic analysis challenge, easily creating an attribute selection followed by a 1 mile buffer around the points and then allowing me to save both layers as shapefiles.

Overall Results

Overall, I found the My World GIS software to be quite a nice little package, particularly for its stated market, education. While no where near as full featured as ArcGIS or many other full GIS systems, My World provided a nice package of ease of use, solid analysis features, and good cost. Add to this package the availability of canned curriculum and it should be fairly popular amongst the middle and high school set. While this won’t get me to drop my Windows machine, it could do in a pinch.

Quantum GIS

Basic Information

Quantum GIS is an Open Source GIS system that runs on all manner of operating systems, from Windows to Unix to Linux and OSX. Because of its open source nature there is no real designated market, rather it appears to be aimed at creating a functional GIS system that works across platforms. Unlike My World, which is a Java program, QGIS was developed using Qt and C++ and thus misses some of the cool features, and look, of a program written natively for the Mac. One thing that can’t be beaten with QGIS is the price, which like most open source programs is free.

Major Features

In terms of analysis functions, QGIS is a more powerful system than is My World, allowing both vector and raster based analysis functions. First off QGIS supports more data options than My World, including shapefiles, Arcinfo coverages, Mapinfo, and all other OGR formats. In addition, QGIS also supports a large number of raster data formats as well as Post GIS data layers. Other data entry means are also supported including adding X and Y coordinates from table format. However, as with My World GIS, I was unable to find anyway to Geocode data in an address table. In terms of normal GIS functions QGIS has all the standard GIS navigation functions:

  • Zoom control: Zoom in, out, to layer, to selected, and full extent.
  • Measurement tool
  • Identify tool
  • Interactive selection tool
  • Move map button
  • Pointer tool
  • Open Table data

It is with advanced functions that QGIS both soars and falters as a GIS. In terms of soaring, QGIS has the potential to perform a great deal of analysis on both vector and raster data. Unfortunately, in terms of actually being able to easily perform the analysis is where QGIS falls down, because hardly any analysis functions are built into QGIS. Specifically, QGIS has a plugin manager that allows you to load and use plugins to perform various different functions such as add data from a GPS, Georeferencing data, and even modeling biodiversity. Where the problem lies is that there are not really any analysis plugins and thus conducting analysis is difficult to say the least. While there is a buffer tool it would not work with shapefiles natively and required that shapefiles be imported into Post GIS format, which I couldn’t get to work correctly. Thus, overall there is great potential to perform analysis with the creation of plugins, but as of now there are not many analysis plugins for QGIS.

Ease of Use

Overall QGIS was actually very easy to use and looked like a standard Java application running on the Mac. Although there are not really any analysis plugins, I found that the plugin manager worked very nicely and that it allowed the user to easily add and remove functions. Moreover, adding data and changing symbology was as easy and straightforward as one would expect from a competent GIS program. Moreover, QGIS even has documentation (installation and user guide) that are available for download and clearly and concisely written.

Analysis Challenge

Unfortunately, QGIS failed the analysis challenge with great speed. As stated in the major features section, the tools necessary to perform the analysis are not present at the current time, or at least in a manner in which I could find them and put them to use.

Overall Results

Overall I found the QGIS software to be a software system that holds great promise, but that right now is still in its infancy. As of now it is probably best used as a viewer of different data formats (which it does quite well) and not as much as an analysis machine. However as stated before, the potential is there for this to be a very powerful analysis tool as more plugins are created.

uDig

Basic Information

UDig is another open source GIS system with a special emphasis on data that is on WMS and WFS servers and runs across multiple platforms such as Windows, Linux, and OSX. As with My World it to is a Java program, which as has been stated before, means that it misses out on some of the great Mac functionality of a natively written program. Moreover, as with QGIS, it to is free, meaning that if you have problems with it you can’t complain because the price is right.

Major Features

As with all of the software looked at so far, uDig allows users to add shapefiles, but also adds other data types such as PostGIS, WMS and WFS data, tabular data and raster data. While I could not find anyway to geocode address data with uDig I did see a screenshot on their webpage which looked like it had the capability. Importantly, I tried to find a plugin for it but could not find a geocoding plugin for the Mac. In terms of standard GIS navigation functions uDig doesn’t appear to have as many of the normal features that the others had. In particular the basic GIS functions it had are as follows:

  • Zoom Control: Zoom in and out and full extent.
  • Identify tool
  • Interactive selection tool
  • Move map button

Noticeably missing from this list is an open table button, measure tool, and pointer tool. In fact I was never able to open data in a table format nor select point data and view it in table format. However, I was able to get individual points to show up in a modified table format using the select tool, but not an entire group of points that I had selected. Importantly, this does not mean it can’t be done somehow, just that I (Arcview authorized trainer, University professor, author of a book on spatial analysis of crime) could not figure out how to do it. In terms of other analysis functions I could not really find any built into the program other than some fairly advanced editing tools. As with QGIS, there is a vast potential of plugins that can be added once they are written, but as of now there are not really any analysis plugins to be had. To be fair to the guys who developed uDig, it has only been around for about a year and when creating open source software you tend to do it on your own time. Thus, I find it hard to levee any criticisms at the analysis functions just yet.

Ease of Use

In comparison to the other software systems reviewed I found uDig to be less user friendly in some ways. Specifically, when adding data the process always requires a wizard instead of a quick dedicated button to add layers. In addition, the selection tool didn’t seem to work very well and the lack of a table view was not very friendly. Moreover, the java programming seemed to take longer to re-draw then with other programs, making it feel slow. Again, as with the comments about the analysis functions, much of this may be due to the early stage of its development.

Analysis Challenge

Unfortunately, as with QGIS, uDig failed the analysis challenge. As stated in the major features section, the tools necessary to perform the analysis are not present at the current time, or at least in a manner in which I could find them and put them to use.

Overall

Overall I found the uDig software to be a software system that holds promise, but that right now is still in its infancy. As of now it is probably best used as a viewer of different data formats with particular emphasis on wms and wfs data and not as much as an analysis machine. However as stated before, the potential is there for this to be a very powerful analysis tool as more plugins are created.

ESRI ArcExplorer

Basic Information

The last, but not least, GIS software to be reviewed is from the 800 pound gorilla ESRI. As opposed to the other software reviewed thus far, ArcExplorer (AE) can best be termed a viewer rather than a full fledged GIS system. In fact when talking with the ESRI people they do not really consider that they have a GIS system for Macs only the ArcExplorer viewer. As for the specifics, AE is aimed at the education market, according to ESRI, and is given away for free. As with several other programs running on OSX, it is a Java program and not natively written to work on a Mac.

Major Features

In terms of data AE only supports ESRI file types, particularly shapefiles. In addition, AE does have the ability to receive data being served up from the geography network and other wms data sources. As with all other software reviewed here there appears to be no way to geocode data using AE, nor could I find a way to add X and Y coordinates from a table. As far as standard GIS navigation, this is an ESRI product, so it has all the usual features including:

  • Zoom control: Zoom in, out, to layer, and full extent.
  • Measurement tool
  • Identify tool
  • Find
  • Locate Address
  • Map Tips
  • Interactive selection tool
  • Pan
  • Pointer tool
  • Query builder

Noticeably absent from AE is an open table button, although the locate address is a nice addition. As for advanced analysis features, AE really doesn’t have any besides the power to query and create a buffer. Interestingly, ESRI has made a conscious decision to keep the analysis functions basic and to also avoid the ability to export data as a shapefile. Importantly, from what I have been told ESRI has no intention of updating AE and thus do not expect any more analysis functions to be built in in the future.

Ease of Use

In terms of use, if you have ever used Arcview you should have no problem using AE. While adding data felt kind of clunky and slow at times, overall the experience was like using an older version of Arcview (before 3.0). One personal gripe I have is with the identify button, which is so large and bulbous as to make it difficult to actually hit the point you are trying to identify.

Analysis Challenge

While not a complete failure AE was not a complete success at the analysis challenge either. In particular, AE was more than capable of performing the query and creating the buffer, but without any way to export the query it failed.

Overall Results

As a GIS software system AE is less than ideal because of its inability to save or export data, small amount of analysis functions and the fact that it will not be updated. However as a viewer of ESRI and geography network data it is more than capable. Moreover if you are only needing to perform queries or create buffers AE is more than capable as well.

Final Comments

At the end of the first round of the Mac GIS review it is a bit of a bleak outlook for Mac users. In particular, all of the software seems to have included the Mac as an afterthought or courtesy rather than creating a piece of software for the Mac. Moreover, none of the software systems are what anyone using a Windows box would call complete systems. While each piece of software had its strong points each failed to live up to any of the current software choices available on Windows. Importantly, there are still four other systems to review, but as of now the outlook for Mac users is not exactly rosy.