Topographic Mapping

Dr. Tom's Independent Software Reviews


DeLorme Topo USAT 2.0


Since 1976, the only widespread available topographic maps are published by the Maine based company DeLorme (DeLorme's Atlas and Gazetteer series). In spite of their commitment to topographic maps, DeLorme exclusively produced street maps and atlases when they moved to computer mapping in the mid 1980s. Their "Street Atlas USA" has become America's best selling mapping software. Fortunately, in the early 1990s, DeLorme decided to create a software version of their popular "Atlas and Gazetteer" series, which was called "Topo USA". Up to now, Topo USA is the only low-cost topographic mapping software available which covers the entire USA. As Topo's maps allow you to zoom-in up to a scale of 1:24.000, 6 CDs or 1 DVD are necessary to contain all cartographic materials.

The user interface of Topo USA is intuitive and easy to learn. For an introduction of its features, please click on either of the screenshots below!!

Detail Level 9-0 Detail Level 12-4
Fig. 1: Detail Level 9-0
Please click on the image for a closer look!
Fig. 2: Detail Level 12-4
Please click on the image for a closer look!



Map View and "Find" Feature:
Let's begin with Topo USA's search-and-find options. If you are looking for a city/town or a specific landmark, just enter the name into the "Search for" field. Then select the state. If you are using the 6 CDs version, you do well to start Topo USA with the right CD in your CD-drive, otherwise you face one of the shortcomings of the application. You have to shut down Topo, insert the right CD and start up again. If you started with the right CD, you may either use global or local search. The Global Index option conducts a broad search and is designed for searches in the entire US or an individual state. The Local Index option offers a more detailed search and should be used when searching for any point of interest within a specific city, e.g. a certain street, or geographic features within a particular radius. In my test it was sufficient to use the global index. I was looking for a local state park in central PA (Pine Grove Furnace), thus starting Topo using the CD: Northeast. Typing in "pine grove" and selecting Pennsylvania yielded an alphabetically sorted list containing several exact and approximate matches. After clicking on "Pine Grove Furnace", the map view window centered on the selected feature and automatically inserted a name tag. As the chosen feature only appears in higher magnification, Topo displayed this first map in already detailed scale (12-4). Simultaneously, with the main map view, the overview map also centered on the chosen landmark and displayed the further surroundings of the Pine Grove Furnace state park. On the right side, the corresponding geographical data are displayed. The map provides intuitive color patterns, which can be switched to night settings for easier perception when using Topo USA in the dark. Both displays resemble the natural conditions of the landscape and vegetation cover. Besides searching for landmarks in the global and local scale, you can find features by typing-in known latitude and longitude. Every detail map and most of the advanced features (see below) can be printed out into nice paper maps even on an average quality color ink jet printer.


Detail Level 15-0
Fig. 3: Detail Level 15-0
Please click on the image for a closer look!


Detail Levels:
Each map can be viewed in fourteen magnitudes (2-0 to 15-0) each consisting of eight octaves (0 to 7), resulting in a total of 112 zoom levels. Detail level 2-0 displays the entire United States. As you zoom in to higher detail levels, you see less geographic area and more geographic detail. However, most of the detail levels do not reveal more geographic details but simply enlarge the area. I could only find an increase in information when switching to the next full magnitude level (e.g. 2-7 to 3-0). The octaves simply show the selected area in a closer look. Even switching to the next full magnitude does not always result in more detail (e.g. from 8-7 to 9-0). Especially at the top end of Topo's detail levels, zooming-in only results in more location names and contour lines leaving the rest of the map unchanged. This is what is called "empty enlargements"! As DeLorme got its know-how in computer mapping from street atlases, zoom-into urban areas (cities and townships, refer to Figs. 1-3) offers more details than zooming into off-road areas (refer to Fig. 4). The MapDoc function of Topo USA 2.0 allows you to save any map view so that you can easily access it again later. Saved map views have there own file extension *.TP2 and are saved into the C:\DeLorme Docs\MapDocs directory by default. A MapDoc consists of the latitude/longitude of the map center, the current detail level and the current photo zoom.

Zoom Series NYC

Fig. 4: Zoom Series Urban Area
Please click on the image for a closer look!


3-D Option:
Another nice feature of Topo USA which is usually only included into much more expensive packages, is the the possibility to render any selected map view into a 3 dimensional topographic perspective (3-D option). Compared to the earlier 1.0 version, DeLorme improved this feature in Topo USA 2.0 by including a new, more realistic 3-D engine and more realistic shading and land coloring. The perspective views are displayed in a separate window and change dynamically if you re-center the map to another landmark. As I conducted my review on a Pentium 133 MHz dinosaur with 64 MB RAM, I could not enjoy this being the most resource dependent feature of Topo. I already had to be patient when re-centering maps or changing the detail level in the 2-D mode but using the 3-D functions dynamically gave my good old buddy the rest. I was, however, able to conveniently use the 3-D option for single map views. The 3-D control options allow the user to modify pitch, rotation and vertical exaggeration. If you play a little around with them, you might end up with a quite realistic appearance of the mapped landscapes. One shortcoming is however, that you can not modify the angle of illumination, which would allow much more realistic views.

Topo 3-D view

Fig. 5: 3-D view of the same area as in Fig. 1
Please click on the image for a closer look!


Topo USA can also be used to create individual routes on streets, trails or through the "outback". In the "Navigate" control center you may enter either "Shape Points" or "Waypoints". The Shape Points option creates a route using nodes allowing you to record complete routes without including a lot of individual waypoints. The Waypoints option uses waypoints and places a Waypoint Tag each time you click on the map. They are represented by a label on the map, are included in the Route Directions and can contain Lat/Lon and Journal entries. Switching from the Waypoints option to the Shape Points option can be done at any time when creating your route. If you use a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver that supports uploading/downloading, you can even upload/download routes and waypoints. A summary of the route is displayed in the Directions window. Route Directions include: e.g. single distances (legs) , cumulative route distance and bearing for each leg. When using a GPS receiver, you can track your route in real time and include it in your route directory. After recording a route in any of the described ways, you can create an cross-sectional profile of your trip. This feature allows you to preview hikes or backcountry travels so that you know way ahead, how exhausting for you or your vehicle the journey may be. Unfortunately, this very useful feature is only implemented for manually entered routes: You cannot use the streets, roads and trails in Topo USA although they are already vector graphics in the application. This is really a shortcoming of this otherwise great product! In addition, the displayed average grade of a profiled route is calculated over the entire length. If you are mainly traveling through flat land but face several steep climbs or inclines, this measurement does not make a lot of sense. However, if you calculate only the extreme parts of your travel, the measures become more realistic.

Topo Profile

Fig. 6: Navigate with Topo USA: Routes, Directions and Profiles
Please click on the image for a closer look!



Topo's drawing options allow you to mark maps for example with pins and named tags (MapNotes: e.g. free text, Lat./Long., distance and bearing) or draw lines, circles and polygons. You can also get the size of your drawn objects by clicking the "Show Measurement" option to display e.g. distance, area and perimeter as you draw. Another nice feature is that you can save your Draw Objects as a Draw Layer that you can reopen later-on.

Drawing with Topo

Fig. 7: Some of Topo's Drawing Objects: Colored Pins, MapNotes and Polygons Including Measurements



Topo USA 2.0 combines the usefulness of a nationwide mapping program with up-to-date online information about scheduled road construction, weather forecasts and upcoming events relevant for the selected map area. Once you select to include this information, Topo will check whether you are connected to the Internet and automatically retrieve the appropriate updates as you pan your map to different areas. Relevant information for your current map area is directly displayed in your maps by intuitive icons for road construction, whether and events. Switching from the map overview to the query window in the lower right corner of the Topo interface provides you detailed information on the event when you place the mouse cursor on the corresponding icon. If available, further details can be displayed using your default browser (works only with Netscape and MS Internet Explorer, not with Opera!).

More about NetLink

Fig. 8: Up-to-Date Information with NetLink
Please click on the image for more illustrations!


Unfortunately, my old laptop kicked the bucket before I could use it to evaluate Topo USA 2.0's GPS functions. I could not afford to replace it yet and therefore was unable to test Topo's GPS features and the integration of DeLorme's Earthmate GPS receiver which I also intended to test. As I am switching jobs soon, I might be able to test these functions when conducting my field studies soon. In the meanwhile, I only present DeLorme's product description and provide some links to other software reviews covering this topic at the bottom of this chapter.
From DeLorme's description of Topo's GPS features: "Topo USA 2.0 lets you take advantage of the Global Positioning System (GPS) through an interface with several DeLorme-recommended GPS receivers. Connected to DeLorme's GPS receiver, Garmin 30, Trimble Scoutmaster, Magellan, Rockwell or any other fully compatible NMEA receiver and a CD-ROM-equipped laptop, you can display a "bread crumb trail" to track your progress as you travel. Uploaded to Garmin 45 GPS, GPS II, GPS II Plus, GPS III or GPS 12XL hardware, your Topo USA 2.0 route signals your next turn or Stop. You'll never have to ask for directions again! If you have a laptop computer you can see your location on a map in real time as you travel with a GPS receiver and DeLorme Topo USA 2.0. You'll see the names of mountains, streams and other geographic features on the map, in addition to seeing your current position and heading, latitude and longitude coordinates change as you move." Copyright © 1999 and 2000 DeLorme. All rights reserved.
DeLorme writes about the Earthmate® GPS Receiver: "Never Get Lost Again! The Earthmate GPS Receiver is a high-performance, easy-to-use link to the satellite navigation technology of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Earthmate and a laptop PC will show your location on detailed Street Atlas USA® [and Topo USA 2.0] maps. An arrow shows your position in real time on street-level maps, so you always know where you are and where you need to be. Your Best Choice for Quality GPS Earthmate has been developed in partnership with Rockwell/Conexant, the company that pioneered GPS satellite technology. This means you get faster satellite acquisition times and outstanding performance specifically designed to maximize the unique capabilities of award-winning Street Atlas USA and other DeLorme software. Durable with Efficient Power Options Earthmate features a durable housing with a moisture-resistant seal and is designed to withstand a wide variety of road conditions. Unlike many other GPS receivers, Earthmate can be powered by four AAA batteries. This is especially important when using Earthmate with handheld or laptop computers in a car where available power is already being used. (Note: to use Earthmate with Palm Computing® organizers and Windows® CE 2.0 handheld or palm-size PCs, you need the [free downloadable software] SolusT Pro 1.5 software and additional cables)."
Copyright © 1999 and 2000 DeLorme. All rights reserved.

The following reviews tested the GPS feature of DeLorme's Topo USA 2.0 and or the DeLorme Earthmate® GPS Receiver:
New Media Review: http://nmreview.com/reviews/delorme/index.htm
Alpine Extreme: http://www.alpineextreme.com/reviews/topousa2/
David L. Wilson's GPS Accuracy Web Page: http://users.erols.com/dlwilson/postpro.htm
Joe Mehaffey and Jack Yeazel's GPS Information Website: http://joe.mehaffey.com/ot-20.htm
All-OffRoad Hardware & Software Reviews: http://www.all-offroad.com/DirtBikes/Hardware/Reviews/TopoUSA.html



Usage & Evaluation:

Despite a few shortcomings: changing of regional CDs requires to shut-down Topo and restarting it using the right CD, missing details in higher resolutions, inability to profile parts of roads without creating them manually by way- or shapepoints again, minor mistakes in the calculation of grades and the inability to change the angle of light in 3-D views, Topo USA 2.0 offers a lot of mapping fun for a large area (the entire USA) at a very low price: about 100 US $ for the 6 CDs version.
Along with this, everybody who just wants to have a nice software to search for specific geographical places, get an idea about an area, planning an off-road trip and print out good-looking and quite detailed maps, can hardly find a better and cheaper solution. In contrast to this, somebody in the need of more professional software solutions for topographic maps with real detail in higher resolutions should consider one of the below mentioned products. However, he or she has to be prepared to spent much more money for either of the other products and be restricted on a much smaller area covered by the cartographic material.

System Requirements: PC with Intel Pentium 120 MHz (233 MHz recommended); 16 MHz RAM (32 recommended); at least 30 MB HD space; MS Windows 95 or 98; Super VGA card, 16-bit color monitor and mouse; ISO 9660-compatible CD-ROM drive; for printing: 1.5 MB for 300 dpi printouts, 6 MB for 600 dpi printouts; 3-D accelerator card recommended for 3-D views.

Company Information: DeLorme; Two DeLorme Drive; P.O. Box 298; Yarmouth, ME 04096, USA; Phone: 207-846-7000; E-mail: support@delorme.com; URL: http:www.delorme.com




© Dr. Thomas Wassmer, e-mail: tom at softreviews.org