Mapping Apps Review

Some Revisions. March 2024. 

For years I used the excellent 'Viewranger' app for maps and planning trips but this disappeared into the vortex of global capitalism and re-emerged, much changed, as part of Outdooractive, a German company with international aspirations. 

I have searched far and wide for a better replacement, applying three main criteria namely whether the free versions:

  • Gave you good quality maps, preferably usable offline, 
  • Allowed me to upload my routes and for you to access them. 
  • Would import my detailed notes on interesting or entertaining places on the routes. 

This wasn’t straightforward mostly because my needs will probably be different from yours as a user and my experience is muddied but also because I am a paying user of some of the apps and not others. Starting at the end, my conclusion was that, compared to Viewranger, they were all inferior, imperfect and irritating. 

Two major issues for me were:

  • They want to subjugate your ideas about where you can or want to go to those generated by their software. One algorithm to rule them all! 

  • The degree of interoperability between the apps is lousy. This was key. I need to make the routes available on a variety of platforms. 

What causes the problems? 

A GPX file basically comprises a line on a map, the mapping equivalent of a simple .txt file. You can usually add detail like text notes, graphics and waypoints. But when you try to export and import all this into another mapping app, while the gpx line on the map survives, quite a bit of that extra detail is lost.

It all reminds an old goat like me of the Wordstar vs WordPerfect vs MS Word wars in the 1990's. When exporting a document from one to the other, the content invariably got mangled. In the mapping world, we are still stuck in that software time warp. 

My impression is that these problems are not technically insurmountable. Rather, the companies involved seem to be intent on exploiting them with the aim of locking you into their platform, becoming the ‘de facto’ standard of the mapping world and thereby attracting more advertising. More money pump than hobby app.  They then stuff their sites with content freely provided by OpenStreetMaps and users like me, with the added bait of 'features'. 

Particular bugbears of mine are: 

  • Performance stats to encourage you to treat your ride simply as an exercise routine. 
  • Algorithmically created and usually hopelessly inaccurate route assessments.
  • Dull notes on places on the route, often scraped off Wikipedia. 
  • Advertising. I know this is the price to be paid for a free app, but the targeting is usually hopeless.

My response was this blog, pootler.co.uk. My gpx route files are all here for you to upload to the mapping app of your choice together with the (rather good) Outdooractive versions of the route notes as pdf files I know this is a bit steampunk in use; you end up with the map on one app and in all likelihood the notes on another. But it is all free, you get to use the app of your choice and, as they say on Broadway, whaddya do? Your alternative is to use the apps themselves, where the routes will appear with truncated versions of notes. Sorry, but frankly I cannot refigure the text for each of the seven apps I cover.

So, here are my impressions on some of the most popular mapping apps based on the Android options. I don't use Apple but assume their versions are similar. These are Outdooractive, Ordnance Survey, BikeMap, Route You, Komoot, Ride with GPS and Google Maps.

I know that many of you use other apps, but to generalise many of them, and especially the American ones, seem to be aimed at tarmac munching lycra ninja’s who never want to lose sight of their heart rate or cadence data. MapMyRide is a good example.(It is also costly, and keen on data harvesting, probably for the benefit of Under Armour who own it). 

But firstly, to save time & space, I will catalogue some recurring features and gripes that might affect you as a user. Keep in mind that you usually have to register (for free) to make any use of these apps at all. Also, it is more than possible that I have misunderstood aspects of how they are supposed to work. I make no apology for that; they should be intuitive. 

Maps. OS maps are the best maps I have seen anywhere in the world. You can get them on the OS app, naturally, and also on Outdooractive; but you have to be a paying punter in both cases. If you are not, or are using one of the other apps, you will get OpenStreetMap or their own proprietary offerings. I imagine these make fewer demands on memory and bandwidth. They mostly seem quite similar, but some apps add additional overlays of their own devising. Landscape and aerial options are common. The formatting and fonts are important. In some the proprietary mapping the colours are not bold enough and the font too small to be easily readable.

Social Media Aspirations. Most apps use ‘community’ features as a honeypot to trap you in their walled garden. The result is a variety of third rate detail, unwanted features and functionality that complicate and clutter the app. 

Discovery functions are related. All of the apps except Google prompt you to upload and share routes. The result is route search functions rendered unusable by millions of uploads from the ‘Community’ nearly all of which are simply lines on a map and virtual garbage. Maybe you are inspired to follow someone’s commute, journey to Tesco or a simple line on the map’, all probably posted by the zombies that post pics of their breakfast on Instagram. Some apps have algorithms to evaluate all of these. These are usually based not on their inherent quality but on whether the creator was a paying subscriber or obedient to the route suggestions generated by their ill-informed algorithms.   

Pricing. This varies and changes, so check it. Some offer a trial period. Many want to you pay monthly. Management likes the steady income!

Planning & Tracking. If you care where you are going, you will probably want to be able to use something with a bigger screen than a phone to plan your trips. The automated route planning features work better on a computer, but are still usually irritating. They have firm but badly informed ideas about the best way of doing things and then usually overly-complicate the job of tweaking and making changes.

Personally, I find it easier to create a route manually, but some of the apps try hard to steer you away from such ridiculous independence. They want to play Mum, steering you away from puddles by adding in classifications of difficulty and notifications of dangers which often range from the laughable to the positively misleading. Some of this reflects understandable inadequacies in their base mapping.

Advertising 

All of these carry some advertising, some more than others. The relevance varies but for me it usually hovers around zero. You usually get a lot less if you pay for the app. 

OK........ Reviews.

Outdooractive.   If you pony up, this German app offers a good selection of maps including Harvey’s. 

The website interface is the most comprehensive but as a result complicated and cluttered by an effort to make itself relevant to a wide range of outdoor activities across the planet from (I kid you not) horse drawn sleigh riding to inline skating. 

Early reviews from former Viewranger users were not flattering but it has improved since and the android app is a bit more straightforward than the website. The free subscription initially suggests that you upgrade but then takes you to OpenStreetMap and a simple toolbar with icons that give you access to (and thankfully hide) a lot of the other features. (Skyline views might be nice in the Alps, but don’t show you much in the Aylesbury Vale!)

Frankly, I am less critical now that I have tested the competition and it does retain useful features, not least the ability to see the waypoints on the app albeit well hidden. They tell me that this is because these are aimed at users of voice navigation. I know of absolutely no-one who pootles about that uses that capability on a bike and fondly imagine that many of those who used it in London are now dead. 

Now, it is the app I use most. It tracks reliably, doesn't focus as much on forcing you into the walled garden, and I really like the ability to save both the route AND waypoint notes as pdf's. Beyond It does most things I need even if it could be clearer. And on it, my stuff appears somewhere (if not always on the map itself) in fairly full form. Also, they retained their wonderful Viewranger support and development team

But they know where I live so why does my map default to the Congo? (Been there,  interesting, not for cyclists!).

OS / Ordnance Survey.

My paid for version of the OS App is straightforward and uncluttered by either a superfluity of advertising or fancy features. You have two choices. The free offering has more functionality but the map is unimpressive and suffers from the formatting problems that I highlighted earlier. The paid for offering gives you proper and downloadable OS maps but limited functionality. They offer two main sets of maps. The 'standard' map is freely available but far less impressive. Their helpdesk is slow but genuinely helpful and have used some of my feedback which makes me feel I am not entirely wasting my time!

In terms of my own routes, the summary notes appear on the map but my waypoint notes are only visible in the website version, not in the app. I can understand why if the goal is clarity and simplicity, but this does make it less useful as a one stop guide 'on the road' 

I have two further gripes. One is that the app still seems a bit buggy to me, both when creating and following a route. And, far from encouraging community content, they seem to want to try to suppress it. Unusually, they don't support user-generated 'collections' which helps you to find other routes by creators your have found reliable. If you use their ‘find routes’ function, you are offered the highlighted choice of ‘recommended routes’ or ‘all routes’. They use highlighting to nudge you towards the former and in this case ‘recommended’ doesn’t seem to reflect quality, so much as a preference for the large organisations and firms they choose to cosy up to. That is odd because otherwise this app has the least intrusive or irrelevant commercial content. 

BikeMap

I like the clear and simple layout of my paid-for version of BikeMap. It tracks a route well and the ‘landscape’ map in particular is the best of the proprietary map offerings. Like Outdooractive, after registering and logging into the free version, it invites you to upgrade and then takes you to a map without much fuss. Advertising is limited. All good so far.

My uploaded routes on the app appear with summary information but no waypoint detail which is par for the course. 

Beyond that it I find it buggy. The last time I used it (Apr'24) it proved impossible to download the map I wanted, it mangled a gpx import and the tracking failed. Maybe it is me, if so they need to make it more idiot proof

It does appear to make more demands on the battery than other apps. In contrast to the OS, the help desk is quick but rarely helpful. 

Route You

I tried the free version of this very commercially oriented Belgian app.  On opening the app, it takes you to a screen inviting you to those ‘discover’ or ‘plan’ options. All the previous apps offer those options, but don’t place them centre stage. In the hope of finding the map, I pressed plan. This took me to a very large advert for eBay which I closed, only to be greeted to an equally intrusive advert for Google Pixel. When I did find the map, I was unimpressed in terms of both clarity and detail.

I uploaded my own routes but was intensely irritated by their automatically adding a pile of other superfluous detail to fuel their algorithmic and inept evaluation system. They then added even more 'guidebook' stuff, presumably sourced from users or scraped off the internet, that was neither informative, useful or entertaining. That being said, the app keeps most of my formatting and the helpdesk did respond promptly to my queries which is a plus. 

Trying to plan a route on the free version on the website was equally afflicted by adverts. The mapping reflects its heritage. I can see it might work better if I was in the Low Countries with their wonderful numbered-node routing system. But for the UK? Not for me. 

Komoot

Komoot is much the same. On opening the app, it suggests that I ‘get inspired’. It then offers me some ‘tips for the weekend’, all but a tiny minority of which were irrelevant. But don’t worry! They have alternatives. Rather than a bike ride in Herts, how about a hiking tour in Germany?  I return to the first page where it tells me that Dajana (who she?) went on a bike ride. Good for her.  I am not inspired. 

Again, uploaded routes on the app appear with summary information but no waypoint detail.

Trying the 'plan' function revealed a map. I inserted the start point and destination for a route. It asks for my fitness level. Why? I know where I want to go and far it is. It then makes suggestions. They are awful. I can’t find any obvious way of adjusting it. In fairness, the PC version does provide you with some means of filtering stuff. 

Google Maps

This option has the great advantage of ubiquity and being free. As you might expect features such as voice navigation seem to be rather more polished, even if you do sometimes end up being routed up a river or the wrong way up a motorway. (It happened. In France). You can import gpx files together with some summary detail, although it is a bit of a fiddle. Nothing else though, and as you know local detail is mostly limited to places that wish to relieve you of your money. For me, this is one for trips around town. 

Ride with GPS 

This is an American app.  As of now (Oct 23) I have uploaded my routes to this system but have not tried to use it for navigation. They do seem quite restrictive in terms of what you can do for free, and are far too keen on stats; but the advertising doesn't seem too intrusive. 

Summary

As you can see I am less than enchanted by what is on offer. For route creation I am still vacillating between OS and Outdooractive at least until my subscriptions run out. The free versions of Komoot and Route You place the harvesting of ‘community’ generated content at the centre of an effort to bombard you with advertising, and Komoot in particular is costly. They will be uninstalled forthwith. But my routes have been uploaded so if you don’t share my distaste, they can be found there if you look for them. There are links on the blog. Link: Pootler Bike Routes




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