When I travel in my home country of Canada I enjoy the convenience of being able to access local maps and point-of-interest information using a 3G connection combined with the stock Maps app and a range of more specialized offerings such as Urbanspoon and Yelp. When travelling outside of my home and native land, 3G service is often available, but is exhorbantly expensive, leaving me to seek out WiFi connections in order to find my bearings and locate local hotspots.
Before my wife and I left on our latest international adventure, which took us to the Netherlands, Kenya and Tanzania, I scoured the App Store for apps that allow access to map and point-of-interest data in the absence of an Internet connection. I stumbled across OffMaps 2 which, at first glance, seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Read on to learn more about this app’s features and for a report on how well it performed on the road.
Your Offline Map Library
When you open up OffMaps 2, you’re greeted with a selection of maps that have already been downloaded to your device. By default, the maps are shown in icon view, with most maps represented by a characteristic photo from the area they cover. When list mode is selected, maps are grouped by country and each entry includes an information button that allows you to view the area covered by the map and download Wikipedia articles, if available. More on Wikipedia later.
The Map Store
Clicking the Store button in the upper right-hand corner of the main screen reveals OffMaps 2’s integrated map store. You can locate maps either by typing a location into the search box or by browsing through the map catalogue. Maps with a three-star rating contain an extensive point-of-interest database, which includes restaurants, hotels, museums and landmarks. Conversely, those with a one-star rating have a more limited database.
OffMaps 2’s $0.99 purchase price includes 2 free maps. For an additional $0.99 you can purchase a credit for three more maps, and paying $5.99 will get you unlimited access to maps. Maps are stored in a vector formatting, making them relatively small and allowing for high quality display on the iPhone 4’s Retina Display, and updates are provided free of charge. If you travel frequently, it’s probably worth springing for unlimited access, which you can share between your iPhone and iPad. Having spent $70 on GPS software in the past, spending $5.99 for maps and point-of-interest data for thousands of destinations worldwide seems very reasonable.
OpenStreetMaps: The Wikipedia of Maps
OffMaps 2 gets its map data from OpenStreetMaps (OSM), which is often referred to as the “Wikipedia of Street Maps”. OSM is a collaborative project with the goal of creating a free, editable map of the world. Map data comes from a variety of sources including portable GPS devices, aerial photography and numerous free sources.
The accuracy and depth of the data that is available through OSM varies from place-to-place. Some cities, such as Amsterdam, contain extensive information, including transit routes and street numbers. Data is more limited for developing countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. The database for my home city of Vancouver is fairly rich, with some exceptions. For example, very few streets contain addresses – meaning it’s easy to locate a specific street, but often difficult to pinpoint a specific address.
Finding Your Way
After selecting a map from your library, OffMaps 2 will show your current position using a familiar blue dot, assuming you’re within the area encompassed by the selected map. Click the blue dot and a circular menu of popular point-of-interest categories pops up – a nice touch. Viewing items in these categories on the map is as simple as clicking on their icon. For example, clicking on the knife and fork icon drops pins for restaurants in the area. Using the circular menu you can also bookmark your current location and share your coordinates by e-mail. The e-mail feature is generally only useful if you happen to find a WiFi connection close by, though it could be used to record the location of a favourite restaurant or museum that you came across in your travels.
Clicking the button in the upper right-hand corner allows you to access the Guide, a collection of points-of-interest divided into categories, as well as saved bookmarks and previously downloaded Wikipedia articles. The Guide contains all the categories you would expect and the main categories are further divided into sections – for example, restaurants are grouped based on the type of cuisine. The Streets icon, represented by a sign-post with an arrow, allows you to browse or search through all the streets in the area. Some maps contain an extensive library of specific street addresses, while others will only tell you where the street is located – useful for short streets, but of limited value for longer ones.
As is the case with Maps, OffMaps 2 can make use of the built-in compass to indicate which direction you’re heading. Surprisingly handy when a jet-lagged traveller in a unfamiliar territory.
Wikipedia To Go
For many destinations, OffMaps 2 gives you the option of downloading geotagged Wikipedia articles. For example, I left for Amsterdam with 118 articles and 519 images stored on my iPhone. Having this wealth of information at my fingertips added another dimension to the places we visited. Wikipedia entries can be sorted by either Name or Distance and can even be shown as pins on the map. Additionally, you can search through the list of Wikipedia articles to find the information you’re looking for.
The most recent version of Offmaps 2 includes toptable restaurant recommendations. The amount of information provided for restaurants can be extensive, including things such as signature dishes, hours of operation and even a complete menu. Currently the database includes thousands of restaurants in the UK, as well as listings for Paris, Dublin, Barcelona and New York City. toptable was recently acquired by OpenTable and I’m hoping this will mean that the database of available restaurants will increase over time.
OffMaps 2 On Safari
My wife and I put OffMaps 2 through its paces in several cities in the Netherlands, Kenya and Tanzania. We found the database to be extensive in Amsterdam and OffMaps 2 proved to very useful for finding our hotel and a variety of museums and other attractions we visited while we were in town. While most of our exploration was on foot, the integrated tram maps were handy when the weather turned chilly.
The database was less extensive in Kenya and Tanzania, but OffMaps 2 still served as a useful travel companion in these exotic destinations. We used the app to locate a world-famous elephant orphanage near Nairobi, to get directions to the airport in Arusha and to find a place to eat in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar. We also found it handy to be able to drop a bookmark when we went out for a stroll to ensure that we’d be able to find our way back to the hotel.
Beware of Carrier Charges
You’ll need to take your iPhone out of Airplane Mode in order to use the integrated GPS. Unfortunately this also means that people will be able to call you, which could cause you to rack up significant international roaming charges. Some carriers, including Rogers here in Canada, will charge your account while someone leaves you a voicemail – so you could get dinged even if you don’t answer the call.
I recommend that you check with your carrier before leaving to avoid surprises when you return home. Other strategies include removing your SIM card when you’re travelling (making sure to keep it handy in case you need to make an emergency call) and only turning Airplane Mode off when you’re using the GPS.
On the surface, OffMaps 2 looks very much like Maps. It’s important to note that all of OffMaps 2’s data is stored on the device itself whereas Maps has access to a huge amount of data on the Internet, including extensive map data from commercial sources. So, in many ways it’s not a fair comparison.
The quality of the map and point-of-interest data ultimately determines OffMaps 2’s usefulness. As noted earlier, the accuracy and completeness of this database varies from place to place. Before you set off on your travels I recommend that you take a look at the map data for the destinations you’ll be visiting to make sure the breadth of data is in line with what you need. In some cases, OffMaps 2 is more suitable as a complement to a traditional guide book or specialized travel app rather than a replacement.
It would also be handy if OffMaps 2 had some form of navigation – even something similar to the list of directions provided in Maps. I was in touch with OffMaps 2 developer, Felix Lamouroux, and he is currently looking into the possibility of integrating offline routing into a future release of the product. Pedestrian and car routes are also a possibility.
The Bottom Line
I was very grateful to have OffMaps 2 during my travels and it earned a place in my 8 Crucial iPhone Apps for Traveling Without Internet roundup. Even being able to see my position on a map when travelling in a foreign land brought a sense of security.
While the map data is lacking in some areas, it is actively improving as more people contribute to the OpenStreetMap database. The addition of an extensive point-of-interest database and the ability to download Wikipedia articles makes OffMaps 2 well worth the price of admission.