Putting Maps on an iPod: a review of different products

Amazingly, despite my gadget freak nature I had largely avoided getting an iPod until very recently. However, a few short weeeks ago my family (thanks again) gave me a new 5G 60 gig do everything you ever wanted and more iPod. While I spent a week or so playing with the music and putting video on it (Get Eye TV 2 if you don't have it already), I finally got around to trying to put USEFUL maps on my iPod. As with everything, there are various different alternatives, some good, some not, some free, some not. Read more after the jump.

As a person who loves gadgets and maps there is not much cooler than being able to put maps on my iPod. As I went to explore putting maps on my iPod, I realized quickly that there are a couple of different categories of maps that can be put on an iPod. The categories break down as such:

  • Subway maps: Maps of various different subways around the world. This is further categorized into free and fee.
  • Directions: Maps that display driving or other directions. These directions further break down into text only and graphical.
  • True Maps: Maps that show an area on the earth. Importantly, these are basically anything not directions.

In my un-scientific study of putting maps on the iPod I basically did a google search for maps on iPod and went through every single response I could find for software/systems that worked with Macs. Thus if there are some map products/services, etc.. missing from the results I apologize in advance.

Subway Maps

While I live in a city that has no real mass transportation except sidewalks I frequently travel to cities that have subways and I am always in search of good, portable, subway maps. The main place I have found for subway maps is ipodsubwaymaps.com. This site offers free dowloadable subway maps of approximately 23 cities around the world, with most of the most popular cities covered. The maps download in a file and the user simply imports them into iPhoto and puts them in a new album. After this is complete you go to iTunes and set your Photo sync preferences to sync with that particular album and viola, you have a subway map in your iPod. While I loved the price, the quality of the maps was a little low and the individual images that make up the subway map were scattered, meaning that the separate images did not form a single complete looking map on my iPod. One way around this is to put the different pictures toegether like a puzzle so that you can see an overview map of the subway and then click on individual pictures to zoom in closer. Overall they worked pretty nicely and as I said, you can't complain too much when you don't pay anything.

An alternative to ipodsubwaymaps, at least for a few select cities, is Visual IT mobile solutions. This company offers subway maps for London, NYC and Paris that can be purchased for a small $2. For those of you who are wondering, for your $2 you get a complete looking map of the subway system which you can zoom in on as well as navigation highlight windwow, which shows you exactly where you are on the map. If $2 wont break you and you need a map for one of the three cities, I would go for the Visual IT map.

Directions:

After subway maps one of the most popular uses for maps on an iPod is finding directions to and from a specific location. While not nearly as nice as a GPS in terms of finding your way around, the ability to cary around directions on your iPod is still a nice feature. One of the first sites I found in my search was PodQuest. This nice free piece of software works with a wide range (15) different internet mapping services to provide you with easy to download and sync with text directions. In case you read that wrong, I said text directions. While this is an article on maps on an iPod, I had to include this service because it just worked really nicely, and I am hoping that they will put actual maps on it in the future. The software installs an icon of a car on you Mac near your wireless indicator and allows you to select one of the 15 different mapping sites it works with from this icon. I chose Google Maps in my tests. I simply selected Google Maps and then eneterred my to and from locations. Once I was ready I selected "Download directions to iPod" from the icon menu and it synced it with my iPod. The one stipulation is that you need to have your iPod in harddrive mode for this to work well. After that I was able to find the directions in my notes section of my iPod. The software allows you to name the directions as well as provide a description upon download and numbers the directions sequentially as they are provided from the map provider. Overall I found the software worked quite well even if it didn't provide me with any actual maps.

My next software test was for the heavily "linked" software system entitled iWay. This little piece of software claims to allow you to download Yahoo maps driving directions, with thumbnail maps for each segment of the directions you create. I say "claims" because I never got the software to work despite trying 5 times on two different Macs (one universal one PowerPC). Each time I would download the maps it would produce errors when trying to unstuff the maps. However, from what I can tell when it works the maps look really nice. If anyone has any suggestions I would be happy to try again.

True Maps:

The last section is for putting true maps on your iPod. When I say "true maps" I am simply meaning putting a map not involving driving directions on your iPod. In looking to do this I came across two main ways, one fairly rough and one fairly eloquent. Unfortunately, the eloquent method involved software I don't have and so I was unable to test it. The first way is a rather down and dirty method provided by Ian Meyer, in which he walks you through putting a Google map(s) on your iPod. This method is fairly rough because it simply involves screen captures, cropping, and importing the screen capture(s) into a new photo album. While the example involves directions, it is not solely used for directions and one could stich together a city fairly easily with a little practice. Overall, this method is not very heavy on difficulty and the directions provided by Ian are fairly straightforward.

Method two involves a much more eloquent solution, so eloquent that I don't yet have the software to try it out. However, the pictures on the website showing how it worked looked so good that I had to include it. The solution was created by J Buhler and it involves a python script that was written to take an image and splice it into several different thumbnail images which can be selected to provide a zoom in picture. In order to make it work correctly you need Python Image Library, which I don't have. However, from the images of it working on his iPod it looked really cool and thus I had to include it. If anyone has an experience with using this script please send me a comment or a picture or two.

Conclusion

Overall, putting maps on the iPod is still in its infancy and as such it is still not quite working in an ideal manner. Ideally I would like to be able to quickly and easily download images of a city that provide a full view of the city in the thumbnails which can be individually selected to be zoomed in on. Moreover, I would like to be able to add my own maps quickly and easily from a GIS or add tracks from a GPS from when I run with my forerunner. As stated I think mapping is still in its infacy when it comes to iPods, but like all other things iPod I think there will be a buregoning market soon enough.