- ✓Great for armchair travel planning
- ✓good communication with provided GPS receiver
- ✓plenty of printout options
- ✓easy to use
- ✕Patchy map detail across Europe
- ✕A notebook is an unwieldy in-car navigation companion
- ✕GPS receiver uses a wired connection
With handheld and smartphone-based navigation software sharing the limelight with standalone solutions, it's easy to forget that GPS-based navigation used to be the domain of notebook computers. There are still a number of such solutions available, and Microsoft's AutoRoute is an example. The new 2006 edition comes in two versions: with a GPS receiver for £149.99 (inc. VAT) and software-only for £44.99 (inc. VAT).
Installation is straightforward, although you should note that this is a space-hungry application. The ideal scenario is to install the software and all maps direct to your hard drive, so that the software can run without recourse to a CD-ROM. This will consume 1GB of space. If you are short of storage space, a second installation option requires only 400MB, but you will need the map CD to hand when using the software.
We tested the £149 (inc. VAT) version of AutoRoute 2006 that comes with a GPS receiver. This uses a wired connection to your notebook, the supplied cable having a USB connector for the notebook end and a proprietary connector at the GPS end. The single rubber suction pad is fine for securing the receiver to a car's windscreen. Pairing with the receiver was straightforward: it took just a few seconds for AutoRoute to gather data from the GPS device and plot the current position.
Microsoft’s map provider is Navteq. AutoRoute 2006 comes with map data for 27 European countries, but not all are covered to the same level of detail. The product box is unspecific about what you get, so just for the record, here’s the detail.
Street-level mapping and address-finding is included for Austria, Belgium, Denmark, south-central Finland, Germany, Athens, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, England, Scotland and Wales, and for urban areas of France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Northern Ireland.
There is some street-level coverage, but no address-finding for the Channel Islands, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Liechtenstein, Monaco, San Marino, Slovakia, and Vatican City.
AutoRoute 2006 can track your progress towards a destination and deliver spoken instructions. But using navigation software on a notebook is an entirely different experience compared to a handheld, a smartphone or a dedicated navigation system, and pre-planning is perhaps a more natural way to use the software.
This is most apparent in the kinds of output AutoRoute 2006 offers. With a route planned you can choose, for example, to print text-based driving directions, turn-by-turn maps, strip maps with the map and driving directions side by side, and even a black-and-white faxable version of any of these options. Map-lovers will no doubt also enjoy the terrain and political maps that accompany the more usual roadmaps, and the way that tapping the ‘Search the Web’ toolbar icon takes you to the MSN search results for your currently selected location. We were impressed that this doesn't force Microsoft's Internet Explorer to open, working quite happily with Firefox.
There are several ways to find a location, the most simple being to type an address into a toolbar that sits at the top of the screen. Entering a house number and street name calls up a scrollable list of all possible matches, from which you select the one you want. This is plotted on a map, and you can continue to add more places, which appear in a list whose order is simple to change.
If you have a postcode but no street name, you can enter this and it will be plotted and can be used as a stop on a trip. The software found full seven-digit postcodes in England with no trouble at all. If you happen to know the latitude and longitude of a location, you can use this to find it on a map. An if you're searching for places within England, Scotland or Wales you can even use Ordnance Survey Grid references.
Points of interest (PoIs) are important, and the software claims to have no less than 865,000 of these -- 80,000 of them in the UK. You use a special pane to locate PoIs, which are searched for within a set radius of either a single location or an entire driving route. You can choose to show all points of interest, or just a selection.
A nice feature for anyone with a little time on their hands between appointments is the Drivetime Zone. This lets you create a zone around a location by telling the software how long you have. It will then overlay onto the map how far you can get in the time available. Used in conjunction with the PoI system, Drivetime Zone could prove very useful. But do take care: centred on Charing Cross in London and giving ourselves half an hour of driving time, AutoRoute 2006 suggested we could make it to Banstead in the south, St Albans in the north, Slough in the west and Dartford in the East -- an extremely ambitious itinerary.
To execute fine control over your driving, you can tell the software to factor in the time you want to start and stop driving, your driving speeds on five different road types, as well as fuel consumption and costs (with the option to configure low tank warnings based on its calculations).
AutoRoute 2006 includes a copy of Pocket Streets for your Windows Mobile Pocket PC, and this allows you to carry around map extracts exported from the main program. You can zoom into these extracts and show PoIs, but the features are minimal and Pocket Streets offers no route-finding capability.
AutoRoute 2006 can be used in-car, and will get you from place to place efficiently. It delivers good-quality output on-screen and in the form of verbal directions. The real joy of a notebook-based route planning tool is in pre-planning, though, and here AutoRoute 2006 also performs well. You can add your own locations and draw onto maps, make use of the plentiful print outputs, and work out how to occupy your time in gaps between meetings.