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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 4 Issue 10October 2010
In This Issue
How do you get there from here? Use your computer to get maps and directions
There are now numerous ways to get maps and driving directions using your computer. Here's my advice on how to get started.
How do you get there from here? Use your computer to get maps and directions

When I was a student at MIT back in the early 1980's, one day I was walking down the street in Cambridge when a car pulled up and the driver asked me for directions. Little did he know that he had struck gold! I took off my army-surplus backpack, pulled out my spiral-bound atlas of the Boston area that I always carried with me, and helped him figure how to get where he needed to go. That paper atlas was good, but it didn't indicate which streets were one-way, so over the years I had drawn in little arrows so I'd know at a glance. When streets in Cambridge changed because of construction or development and I bought newer atlases to replace my worn-out ones, only to discover that the maps had not changed, so I wrote to the publisher to point out their mistakes.

Fast forward to 1999. I had been in business a few months, and my spiral-bound atlas was a sun-faded fixture in my car. After each client appointment I'd spend 10 to 15 minutes looking at the maps to figure out the most reasonable way to drive to my next client. As I got busier, this sitting-and-thinking time was starting to add up. There had to be a better way!

MapQuest.com: Free Maps, Directions, and more
In a now-defunct computer magazine (anyone remember MacUser Magazine?) I read about a free website called MapQuest (http://www.mapquest.com). It was the solution I had been looking for! Now, instead of looking at my paper atlas and improvising in the moment, I spend a few minutes each evening planning my next day's driving. I simply go to mapquest.com, click on Directions, type in the street addresses I'll be driving to, and print out the turn-by-turn directions from each location to the next. This gets me where I need to go, saving me a lot of time and effort. And, since I see many clients more than once, keeping the printouts to use again saves me time on each future visit.

Many roads lead to roam
MapQuest isn't the only game in town. Comparable websites like Google Maps (http://maps.google.com), MapsOnUs (http://www.mapsonus.com), and others offer similar functions, each with their own style.

Map it!
Go to any of these web sites and enter:
  • A street address in the US: 1 Main St, San Francisco, CA
  • A street address outside the US: 1 Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris, France
  • An intersection: Winter St & Wyman St, Waltham, MA
  • The name of a city or town: Alamo, TX
  • A zip code: 90210
  • Latitude and longitude coordinates: 43, -72
and you'll get a map centered on that location. You can then "zoom in" to see more detail (down to streets and intersections), "zoom out" to see less detail (entire cities, states, countries, and continents), or simply scroll around to see what's nearby. You can also switch to a satellite view of your map to see aerial photos, probably taken within the past three years. The photo of my house still shows my old Volvo parked in my driveway!

Drive it!
Click "Get Directions," enter your starting and ending addresses, and you'll get turn-by-turn driving directions, including the estimated distance and driving time. You can also use any combination of the variations listed above, e.g., you can ask for directions from a street address to an intersection.

Can't get there from here
If you ask for something silly, like how to drive from Boston to Paris, or Rome to Sydney, you'll get the politely phrased error, "unable to calculate directions." However, ask for directions from Boston to Nantucket and you'll get a route that includes the step "Take the Hyannis-Nantucket Ferry (Check schedule/fares)" and the map will show your route crossing the water!

You're smarter than this calculator
While these web sites have detailed street information, you're still smarter when it comes to common sense and local knowledge. For example, these computer-generated directions may tell you to take a left turn through a particular intersection, but you may know from your own experience that it has no traffic light and is difficult to get through when traffic is heavy. If you were planning the route, you'd probably avoid that intersection. If only there was a way to tell these mapping web sites to do that....

The options make the trip
Before you hit the road, you should know:
  • The default method for calculating directions is typically "Shortest Time." This option will choose the theoretically fastest route (typically favoring highways over surface roads) because it assumes you can always drive at the posted speed limit. Since that isn't always possible, "Shortest Time" isn't always the smartest choice, especially during rush hour, in bad weather, or when there are construction detours or slowdowns. Because of this, I recommend also trying the other option, "Shortest Distance" (which may take more time), and seeing which of the two gives you a more sensible route.
  • You can specify that your route should avoid highways or tolls roads.
Customizing your route
These are my favorite features:
  • You can modify your route by deleting a given step ("I don't want to take that turn onto Main Street"), and the directions will recalculate.
  • You can grab any point along your route and click-and-drag it elsewhere on the map, forcing it to take you a different way ("I do want to take this side street and avoid the center of town").
  • You can add additional destinations, and rearrange their order ("Dinner at the Indian place on Moody St, then ice cream at Toscanini's, then shopping and movie at the mall. Look--it'll save driving time if we have ice cream first!").
  • Although it doesn't change the computer-generated directions, you can also display live traffic conditions (usually shown as green-, yellow-, or red-colored roads) to help you see whether your route is affected.
Unique features
  • Google Maps (http://maps.google.com) has a special feature called "Street View" that you can choose that shows street-level photographs of the roads, buildings, and more, just as you would see from your car. Special vehicles driving on public streets took these pictures in certain metropolitan areas in the US and a few other countries, most within the last year.
  • Google Maps also gives you two traffic options: live traffic conditions (i.e., as of right now) and predicted traffic at, for example, Monday at 5 p.m., which it displays based on past conditions.
The road ahead
I recently bought a portable GPS unit, a Garmin nuvi 255W. In a future newsletter I'll tell you what it's like to drive with it. (It talks!)

Where to go from here
If you know someone who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2010 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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