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NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC WEEKEND EXPLORER 3D
Outdoor Recreation Mapping Software
LOS ANGELES AREA and LOS PADRES, ANGELES, SAN BERNARDINO NATIONAL FORESTS


Initial Report - April 6, 2007
Field Report - June 19, 2007
Long-Term Report - August 15, 2007

National Geographic Weekend Explorer 3D


Initial Report: April 6, 2007

TESTER BIOGRAPHY
Name: Sheila Morrissey
Age: 26
Gender: Female
Height: 5 ft 8 in (1.7 m)
Weight: 150 lb (68 kg)
Computer: iBook with Macintosh OS 10.4.9; 1.2 GHz PowerPC G4; 768 MB RAM + 32 MB video memory
Email Address: geosheila(at)yahoo(dot)com
City, State, Country: Goleta, California, USA

Backpacking Background: I have been hiking and camping since I was born and finally started backpacking in 2005. I usually hike with friends and my dog, Patch, and I frequent national forests where dogs are allowed on the trails. I enjoy hiking in the Sierra Nevada when I have more than a weekend, but I also like hiking locally, especially in Los Padres National Forest. My pack is usually around 25 lb (11 kg), including consumables.

PRODUCT INFORMATION
Manufacturer: National Geographic
Version: Weekend Explorer 3D version 4.2.5
Area: Los Angeles Area
Year of Manufacture: 2006
Manufacturer’s Website: http://www.nationalgeographic.com
MSRP: US$ 29.95

System Requirements: Macintosh OS 10.2 or higher; 350 MHz G3 or better; and 128 MB RAM + 16 MB video memory; or Windows 95, 98, NT, ME, 2000, or XP; 486 DX/66MHz PC or higher; and 64 MB RAM + 8 MB video memory

Description (from software case):

  • 1:24,000 Scale Seamless USGS Maps
  • 3D Views & Fly-thrus
  • Print Custom Maps
  • Updated Streets & Roads
  • GPS Compatible
  • One-Click Elevation Profiles
  • Cities and Recreational Areas: Los Angeles Metro Area, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Big Bear Lake, Laguna Beach, Channel Islands National Park, Santa Monica Mountains N.R.A., Dick Smith Wilderness, Catalina Island, Cucamonga Wilderness, Cleveland National Forest, San Gorgonio Wilderness, and more.
INITIAL IMPRESSIONS AND PRODUCT DESCRIPTION
I must admit I'm a little insulted that Goleta is smack in the middle of National Geographic's "Los Angeles Area". I'm two counties and 100 miles (160 km) north of Los Angeles. Still, I'm glad to see that the software should cover all of my map needs from the Central Coast to Los Angeles. A map on the back of the software case shows the maps included. The area includes all of the coastline from just south of San Simeon (San Luis Obispo County) to just south of San Clemente (Orange County), and all of the Channel Islands National Park and Catalina Island. The included area extends inland to the eastern boundary of the Central Coast ranges, south to the northern boundary of the Transverse ranges and around the San Bernardinos. South of the San Bernardinos, the area runs roughly parallel to the 215 to include all of the Cleveland National Forest.

The software came in a rectangular plastic case, the kind I usually see at the DVD rental store, not a jewel case that typically holds music CDs. Inside there is a four-page "TOPO! Quick Start Guide" that "provides installation instructions, an overview of TOPO!'s key features and a brief tutorial to get you started". There are also two software CDs. The first has written on it, "Installer - Disc 1" and the second has "Los Angeles Area Map Data - Disc 2". Both say that they're formatted for Windows PC and Macintosh, so I did not have to order Macintosh-specific software for use with my computer.

INSTALLATION
The installation instructions didn't seem very daunting, with only four steps for either the Windows or Macintosh setup. As is typical, the installation instructions are shorter and simpler for the Macintosh. I just needed to install Disc 1, double-click on the "TOPO!" icon, double-click on the "Install TOPO!" icon, then follow the on-screen instructions.

I inserted Disc 1, clicked on the disc (which is actually titled "TOPO4"), and clicked on "install TOPO!". The on-screen instructions started out with some information about how the software supports Intel-based Macs, but that doesn't pertain to me. I agreed to the software license agreement and selected my destination volume, the only hard drive on the computer. It says the program requires 65.2 MB of space. No problem. I clicked "install" and had to wait just over one minute for the software installation. There was no "Congratulations, it's installed!" pop-up or anything, I was left hanging.

I opened the TOPO! software and was prompted to register my software serial number. It's written on the inside of the software case. Afterwards, I was given the choice of whether I want "complete update support for application, maps, streets, and other information", "application and bug fix support only", or "none". I chose the free Live Map Update, which required that I sign up for a free TOPO! mapXchange account. I couldn't figure out immediately how to do that, but wanted to in order "to fully enjoy all the features of TOPO!, you need to set up an account in the application."


I was next prompted to insert my TOPO! 4 Installer Disc. Isn't that the disc I already installed? I reinserted the disc and the software decided it wanted to download a newer version: 4.2.8. It took another minute to install "Universal Binaries" that I apparently needed because I have a PowerPC processor. Again, I was kind of left hanging. I guess it's done installing what it needs to.

I was never asked for the Los Angeles Area Map Data disc, but I decided to insert it now. It must need it at some point, right? Nothing happened until I clicked on the screen where a map of the state of Arizona had opened up with the TOPO! software. (This was after I installed the Los Angeles Area Maps Data disc.) I was ordered to copy the data on the disc to my hard drive. It took four minutes to copy. From the tools listed at the top, I correctly guessed to press the "travel" button to get me back over to California.

The state map is darkened except where I have maps from my new software. The lightened outline of my mapped area is not actually the same as the map on the back of the software package. In the program, the mapped area seems to extend a tad further north into the Temblor range than was shown on the package. San Nicolas Island is not included in the software.

It took me more than a week to figure out how to sign up for the mapXchange account, no thanks to the User Guide available from the Help Menu. The only help I got there was this note: "TOPO! asks you to create a new mapXchange or enter existing account information when you first install the application. Simply follow the instructions on your screen. For more information, see Editing mapXchange Account Information." I assumed that was another section in the User Guide, but it isn't. There is no other information about editing my mapXchange account in the User Guide. In an online search, I did find related instructions for editing mapXchange accounts in other TOPO! programs, but following those instructions did not work for me, as there is no Preferences option under the View menu. Instead, I used the TOPO! menu > Preferences > mapXchange.

I still wasn't sure why exactly I needed the account, since I was told by other TOPO! users that it is unnecessary for map updates. I contacted National Geographic's customer service department and was told, "Yes, you need to have this account set up to download updated USGS Quads." They also twice gave me the incorrect instructions for creating the mapXchange account. I understand this may be the correct method for PC users, but no information was provided for Mac users in the User Guide or in my contact with National Geographic, even after I explained that method doesn't work on my system.


TRIAL RUN
So far, the main menu seems to be working very similarly to GoogleEarth, with different buttons for zooming in, adding markers and drawing routes. I only mention the comparison because GoogleEarth is free and can also "tilt" to offer 3D views, measure distances and is compatible with GPS. What this TOPO! software offers me beyond what I can get for free, is elevation profiles and printable topographic maps.

I used TOPO! to zoom in on a relatively new local neighborhood to see if it showed up. It did. I was going to try to map out a dog-walking route just to test out the program. However, I was surprised to see that the trails where I walk my dog on the bluffs aren't on the map (however, they're visible in GoogleEarth). So I tried my bike route to work instead. The streets were all on the map, but only portions of the bike path were there. I had to estimate where the paths went.

My Quick Start Guide said to choose my Route Tool and left click to begin drawing my route. Left click?! I'm on a Mac, I don't do left and right clicks. No matter, I remember from my PC days that a left click is the regular old click. I dragged my mouse along from my house to my office. It was like using using an old paint program from the early 90's to draw on a topo map. Not very exciting or accurate. I had to start again a few times when my line accidentally wiggled off the road. The elevation profile for my bike commute is a pretty cool feature, though, and I think this should be fun to check out hiking trails. So far, the 3D fly-thrus seem pretty useless.

myroute
Profile created with TOPO! and used with permission 2006 National Geographic

Their "seamless" maps and really just lined-up-pretty-well maps. I can clearly see a line where the ocean goes from blue to greyish blue across a USGS topo map divide and the shore of a lagoon doesn't quite match up across the divide. I also found a local neighborhood along my route that is mislabeled and some roads in the San Bernardino National Forest that are no longer in existence, last I checked. The roads I was looking at are on the USGS topo map, so it seems those streets have not been updated. The streets that are updated are colored yellow and overlay the streets on the USGS topo map. It seems only bigger roads are updated (for example, the San Fernando Valley is teeming with crisscrossed updated yellow roads), so I'm afraid that even frequent updates won't help me make sure dirt roads to trailheads are still open.


Field Report: June 19, 2007

BACKPACKING
My first real attempt at using the National Geographic Weekend Explorer 3D software was in planning an overnight trip in the Ojai District of Los Padres National Forest. I was hoping for a short, quiet trip on a new-to-me trail. I used a hiking website and a hiking book to narrow down a trail that I wanted to hike. Most of this particular trail was on the very edge of my recreation map of the area, but the trailhead was off the edge of the map. I used the software to print out a map with the trailhead. Unfortunately, in order to see the trailhead and campgrounds marked on the map, I had to zoom in to the 7.5' Map Series (Map Level 5 on the TOPO! software). That meant I couldn't see the highway on the same screen. While reducing the map size to 50% or 25% was an option, it also meant that the writing and topo lines were too small for me to see clearly. I decided to use a print out of the trail head along with my usual recreation map purchased from the Forest Service. I traced the trail on the software and did the 3D fly through. I still don't understand how this is a useful feature since a regular topographic map already allows me to visualize the terrain. One interesting thing I did notice in doing the 3D fly through is how easily my trail tracing moved off the trail. The route-making feature is only as accurate as my finger can trace along my computer "mouse" touchpad.

I drove to the trailhead and found the software road information to be accurate. As soon as I parked, a group of a dozen or so Scouts jumped out of a couple of vehicles. I hope they had a good trip, but in keeping with my hope for a quiet weekend, I turned around and headed for a different trailhead. I didn't have my computer with me, so this time I just used my recreation map. It was also accurate in leading me to a different trailhead. I had a great trip and when I got home I tried finding the trail on the TOPO! software. This was the first time I noticed that the 100K Map Series (Map Level 4 on the TOPO! software) is in units of meters and the 7.5' Map Series (Map Level 5 on the TOPO! software) is in feet. These are not changable options, but fixed units that differ depending on what map I'm using. I found this extremely irritating, especially because it took me a while to realize that the software was indeed zooming in and out at the same location. The software said nothing of the seasonal road closure to my trailhead. It didn't matter this weekend since the road was open, but I wouldn't have known to call the the ranger station if I didn't have the recreation map, which does show the gate and has a note about the seasonal road closure.

DAY HIKING
I commented in my initial report that I was disappointed the program doesn't show the trails that I most often walk with my dog. I had hoped to find new routes and entrances into the open space area, but the trails aren't on the mapping software. I can still generally locate our typical route on the topo map and found out that we usually do about a 2.5 mi (4 km) morning walk. By holding down Control while clicking on the map (it doesn't matter which tool is in use), I can find out "About this Map" by clicking on a link of the same name. Where we hike, the map contour intervals are 20 ft and the map was current as of 1995. Perhaps the trails didn't exist in 1995.

DRIVING
Roads are drawn as either thin red lines or thick yellow lines, depending on...well, I'm not sure. I used the software to look up the driving route for a local geology field trip. Drive past the Santa Barbara Mission (located on a relatively busy stop-signed intersection, drawn as thick yellow lines), turn right on Mountain Drive (a narrow windy road, drawn as a thin red line) and the road goes past the University of California Santa Barbara. What? This is wrong, UCSB moved from there to its "new" coastal location in 1954. Yet the software says this map was current as of 1995. Continuing to trace my way up Gibraltar Road (a windy mountain road, drawn as a thick yellow line) past the Mount Calvary Monastery, I found that the streets drawn over the topo base map did not line up with the streets on the base map. In some cases, the base map streets and
overlain streets are off by more than 150 ft (45 m). I don't know which is in error, but I don't think it's possible that Gibraltar Road has been moved since 1995. La Cumbre Peak Lookout Road is drawn as a thin red line, but there's no mention of the locked gate at the base of the road. The next thing I noticed was that Painted Cave Road, a single-lane, windy, pot-holed mess of a road was shown on the software with the same thickness street marking as the four-lane Highway 154. It will definitely not be a good idea for me to rely on this software for effective driving directions.

NG
Map created with TOPO! and used with permission 2006 National Geographic &
2006 Tele Atlas, Inc.

The screen capture above shows an elevation profile and part of the topo map for the route I built from the geology field trip. Both red and yellow streets are visible on this map, though there is no clear distinction between the two classification of roads. From the lowest part of the map (I happen to know that is the southernmost part of the map, though I would have to click "compass" and draw a line to find that out with the software), there are two roughly parallel roads running north-south. One is a major highway and the other is the single-lane, potholed road I described above, yet they are both shown in yellow.

NG
Painted Cave Road, an example of a "yellow" road. Freeways are also drawn in yellow.

NG
La Cumbre Peak Road, an example of a "red" road. Most residential streets are also drawn in red.

OTHER USES
When my dog found (and thankfully didn't play with) a stranded baby sea lion on the beach one morning, I came home and checked the topo map to confirm that my roommate and I had given good directions to the Marine Mammal Center so they could check up on it.

RESULTS
On one hand, it's nice having all the local topo maps on one convenient disc. However, I'm especially irritated by three features of this mapping software:

1. I'm horrified to say that these "maps" have no map key. A map is not a map without a key. I expected more from a mapping software. A little tent symbol is obviously a campground, but why should I be expected to spend all sorts of time scrolling around trying to determine whether that particular brand of dark line is a Wilderness Boundary or a Condor Sanctuary? I would like to see some sort of floating map key with a scale always on my screen. 

2. The units keep switching. I shouldn't have to do unit conversions while on the trail! Of course, this wasn't clarified in the non-existent map key. Sometimes a mountain is just "2,000" and sometimes it's just "6,000". It's up to me to decide what units they've chosen to use this time. I know now that I can find the contour interval by holding Control while clicking on the map, but that isn't possible on a printed map.

3. The software is unforgiving. Several times I've accidentally closed a window, only to be asked whether I would like to "Save", "Don't Save" or "Cancel". The "Cancel" button should be retitled the "Cause TOPO! To Crash" button. Apple-Alt-Esc (Mac's answer to Control-Alt-Delete) doesn't even show the crashed TOPO! software, so I have to restart my computer each time I mess up. The reason I've accidentally closed the window is that I'm continually confused by the fact that the TOPO! icon on my dock doesn't change when I enter the program. Instead, the icon remains idle and a new icon appears at the bottom of my dock. This doesn't happen with any other program I own, so I can't explain why this happens.


Long-Term Report: August 15, 2007

BACKPACKING
I used the software to help plan another weekend backpacking trip into the
Sespe Wilderness in the Mt. Pinos Ranger District of the Los Padres National Forest. I started by reading driving directions to the trailhead in a guidebook. I found the roads on the software, but only because I'm already somewhat familiar with the area because there is no search function to find roads or driving routes. My main trouble trying to find the roads on the software was that there is no scale on the map. I know I've already mentioned this problem repeatedly, but it really makes using this software very difficult. When I found the road that led to the trailhead, it was called simply Forest Route 7N03, so I wasn't certain I had located the right road. The road really is Forest Route 7N03, but it's also called Mutau Road. I usually use the road names because they're easier to remember and are also what I found in my guidebook. The trailhead was not labeled at all on the software. My experiences with this software during the field testing period have led me to not quite trust the results, especially for driving directions, without double-checking with another source. So at this point, I opened up my Sespe Wilderness trail map by Tom Harrison for comparison. I did indeed find the right road and trailhead using the software, but they were much easier to find on my trail map.

The out-and-back route to the Fishbowls from Cedar Creek trailhead is 10 miles according to the Los Padres National Forest website, 10.8 miles roundtrip according to my Sespe Wilderness trail map, 9.0 miles according to my guidebook, or 9.38 miles according to my handdrawn route on the National Geographic software. The guidebook and software routes are both based on USGS maps and the trail map is a Tom Harrison map, which may account for some of the trail length difference.

I double-clicked on the route that I built in the software to see the 3D fly-over and to build a vertical profile. I still think the 3D fly-over is just a dizzying mess and I have a much easier time visualizing the trail by looking at the topographic map. I never use the vertical exaggeration feature and can't think of a reason why this might be helpful. If I were travelling along a relatively flat trail, I would want to know that and not see giant exaggerated mountains in place of every small hill. The vertical profile is great though. Without having to count contours on the topographic map, I can easily see the elevations along the length of the trail. On this particular trail, I could see that we had an elevation gain of about 1000 ft (300 m) before a short descent to the campground.

I know that trails change and maps can't be updated every time a tree falls, but I do feel that this software failed me on my backpacking trip. We couldn't find one of the two possible trailheads (perhaps due to wildfire damage), so we backtracked to the first trailhead to start our trip. When we returned to my car at the end of the trip, we ended up accidently coming out at another trailhead (I don't know if it's the one we couldn't find originally). We had managed to unknowingly take some connector trail. We must have missed the fork in the trail, but the connector trail we did take was a well-established trail that did not appear on the software. The extra mile of walking along a hot asphalt road at the end of our otherwise fun trip was very unpleasant, especially since I ended up having to carry my 60 lb (27 kg) dog.

DAYHIKING
I gave the software one more shot at finding another one of the local trails that I am already very familiar with and enjoy hiking with my dog. It wasn't shown on the map.

DRIVING
I made one more attempt at looking for driving directions using the software, but in Los Angeles this time. Even the smallest of streets are labeled on the Los Angeles portion of the software, and the division between thick yellow-lined streets (freeways and big boulevards) and thin red-lined streets (smaller residential and commercial streets) actually seems to make sense. My problem with using the USGS base map for driving directions within Los Angeles is that I'll spend my time looking for old landmarks that I find on the map:
oil wells that probably now have buildings built around them to hide the rigs, long-gone mobile home parks, ripped out train tracks and something called "drive-in theaters" that were popular with the ancient people. I decided to use a more modern driving direction website to find my way around Los Angeles instead.

SUMMARY
Many changes need to be made to improve this software, especially the inclusion of map keys and consistent units. The vertical profile builder was the only feature that I liked. The 3D fly-over feature wasn't helpful for me since I'm already comfortable reading topographic maps. I don't think it's fair to expect trails to remain unchanged, but I've learned my lesson about trusting pre-wildfire maps, and will be asking for directions at a ranger station before venturing out in Los Padres once the currently-burning Zaca Fire is contained.  I did think that the map updates would be more current. As far as I can tell, streets were the only thing updated. The trails shown are from the USGS quads, many of which are decades old. Overall, I was very disappointed by this software and I won't use it again now that I've completed this test.

REMARKS
This concludes my Test Series. Thank you to National Geographic and BackpackGearTest.org for providing me with the opportunity to test this software.


Read more reviews of National Geographic gear
Read more gear reviews by Sheila Morrissey

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