Thanks to such free mapping sites as MapQuest and Yahoo Maps, it's been a while since road warriors have had to sketch out a route with a yellow highlighter, guessing which shortcuts to take or avoid. Instead, they can just type in start and destination addresses and print out crisply labeled, turn-by-turn directions, with the only cost being some printer ink.
Microsoft's Streets & Trips 2005 and DeLorme's Street Atlas USA 2005 aren't free, which would seem to put them at a disadvantage. But these two Windows applications provide more information about where you're going and how to get there, as we found on a test drive from New York City to the Delaware shore.
Both include encyclopedic road maps of the United States that can zoom in and out and easily handle directions for trips with multiple destinations and stops. They can process such variables as estimated gas mileage, projected speed, fuel costs and hours driven per day to schedule travel time, rest stops and overnight stays. (Streets & Trips can also get updates on road construction from a Web database.)
Both programs include a wide, but not exhaustive, listing of such points of interest as restaurants, lodging and attractions. Unfortunately, neither one can update these listings; they can't learn about new roads, restaurant or hotels -- a major shortfall compared with the free mapping sites.
Lastly, both programs print directions in a variety of clear, simple formats. But they free you from this old-fashioned approach: Streets & Trips and Street Atlas also come in versions that bundle Global Positioning System receivers, ready to be plugged into laptops for use on the road.
With GPS enabled, these programs can track your position and use the satellite-linked system to plot and recalculate routes instantly -- very useful if, despite all the navigational assistance, you make a wrong turn. Both programs can search for nearby points of interest, so you won't wander aimlessly looking for the next crab shack or Tex-Mex joint.
Microsoft provides a more intuitive interface for trip planning, even with the addition of a pane for GPS data. (Its GPS bundle, including a compact, Microsoft-brand receiver, costs $129, vs. $40 for the software-only release; both require Win 98 or newer.) But its utility fades once you set out on the road: Its directions come in the form of too-small text, coupled with detailed maps that will be hard for a co-pilot to read -- assuming he or she doesn't get carsick from the effort.
DeLorme's trip-planning screens are almost laughably cluttered, with four panes and 11 tabs to click through. Entering a street address takes too many steps -- it's easier to click on a rough location with your mouse.
Once you're out on Highway 61, though, Street Atlas ($130 with an Earthmate GPS receiver, $50 by itself, Win 98 SE or newer) becomes a lot better. DeLorme put some thought into making Atlas easy to use in motion. You can set the program to display one trip segment at a time, using large, high-contrast type and graphics. It can also call out each turn in a badly synthesized voice and responds to basic spoken commands, such as "next turn" or "be quiet."
The additional $80 or $90 for these GPS receivers can seem like a lot. (Streets & Trips offers a third option, the ability to move maps to handheld organizers and phones running Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system; DeLorme charges extra for this.) But that extra hardware lends these programs much of the utility of car-navigation systems that cost hundreds of dollars.
Which to choose? Once you're rolling, Street Atlas works better. And if you don't require that type of on-the-go trip advice, you probably don't need either program: Stick to printouts from the free mapping sites.