DeLorme PN-40 and Topo USA 7.0

This post can also be called “In Which I Ignore Kelly’s Advice To Buy A Garmin And Pay The Price”.

I just got my DeLorme PN-40 last night. I went for the PN-40 instead of the Garmin because I was lured by the promise of awesome topo maps and easy-to- obtain-and-load aerial photography (and because there was a fire sale on them and I got one at a very good price). There was some criticism on Amazon about the software being not that great. I am here to tell you that criticism is not at all exaggerated.

First off, some disclaimers: I haven’t used the unit in the field yet. And, I am using Topo 7 at this point, rather than the new Topo 8 because that’s what I have. The unit comes with a card to fill out that you can mail in for an upgrade to Topo 8 (DeLorme, apparently, has yet to discover The Internet.)

It seems to me likely that the unit itself is about as easy to use as other units, excepting maybe the iPhone 3G, which is a different sort of thing.

In terms of basic functionality/mapping, the unit came with disks of “pre-cut” topo maps for various regions at 1:100. Loading those was perfectly simple, and should be easy for anyone.

Then there’s Topo 7.

While Topo 7 is not, in fact, the worst designed piece of software I’ve ever used, it certainly comes close. The user interface of the thing is so terrible that you have to wonder if it was intentionally designed that way as some sort of sophisticated joke. Much of the UI is “implicit”, in the sense that you use various gestures to navigate around the map and change zoom level, and it’s easy - especially at first - to inadvertently change your location or zoom level without even understanding how you did it. The application is full of what I’ll call “post-modal” dialog boxes. So you click some box or make some choice, and then, a few seconds later, after you’re trying to do something else, a dialog box or some other interrupt will appear related to the thing you did about 5 seconds ago.

The best example of this is in the “integrated” feature that lets you buy maps online. “Integrated”, in this context, means “not really all that well integrated”. In order to buy color aerial, USGS, and satellite maps of a single region, here’s what I had to do:

(1) Find the area I’m looking for in ‘NavLink’ mode. (2) Click the grids I want to buy for. (3) Realize that clicking the grid doesn’t do I what I want. Find the “Select/Edit” button, which is mysteriously off to the left somewhere. (4) Click the grids I want. (5) Pull the dropdown to “Color aerial”. (6) Click “Add to selection” (7) Pull the dropdown to “USGS” (8) GET INTERRUPTED because 5 seconds later an IE window opens telling me “OK, sir, I added those maps. Could you name them?” No indication of what the name means. (9) Type “Townname.” Click submit. Window goes away. (10) Move mouse back to add things to my selection (11) Get interrupted AGAIN for some confirmation dialog. (12) Click “Add to selection” to add the USGS maps. (13) Repeat steps 8 through 12 once for each map type I wanted to add. (14) Except now I can’t call the next group of maps “Townname”, so I call them “Townname-1”, even though conceptually I wanted all these maps to be part of a single order. Maybe there’s a way to do that. It’s not obvious. (15) Eventually, I actually get to purchase my maps. That took about another 4 clicks. (16) Then another 5 clicks to download (find download tab, click checkbox next to each map, then download). (17) Get interrupted by the download window. (18) In case I didn’t make this clear above, any time you’re doing anything with NavLink, there’s a delay of a few seconds because presumably you’re talking to a remote server somewhere.

So to do the workflow “buy 4 types of maps for a set of regions,” I would estimate that I had to use about 48 separate mouse gestures, and I’m being generous and not counting the “purely local” ones, like selecting the quads that I wanted.

Adding the maps to the PN-40 is not quite as horrific as using NavLink, but it’s not a bright shining star, either. My favorite part of that moment is when you enter the transfer UI and after you try to begin a transfer a dialog box appears with an entire paragraph of text suggesting that you might want to change the GPS into one of two other modes which might be faster to use. If you change the GPS into those other modes at that moment, Topo 7 will lock up for 10 seconds while the USB bus is reconfigured. But if you try to put the GPS into that mode before beginning the transfer, the transfer UI won’t discover it (or at least, it didn’t when I tried it).

One could argue that this isn’t “hard.” It’s not as if it’s rocket science. But I think when people say that Topo 7 has a “steep learning curve” what they are really trying to say is this is a really incredibly annoying program to use. Put another way: if the web site was as annoying to use as Topo 7, they would never sell any products ever. The only reason people are putting up with Topo 7 is because it’s offering something hard to get otherwise.

Now, maybe it’s possible that all of these problems are magically fixed in Topo 8. I’d love to hear from someone who has used Topo 8 to on this topic. But the software developer in me is asking the question “If they couldn’t get this right in the first seven versions, why do you think they’ll get it right in the eighth?”

I wonder if I should take advantage of the 30-day return policy to give up on this now, or if I should stick with it on the theory that loading maps isn’t an everyday activity.

I wonder if I can convince someone at Garmin to send me a unit to try their software and see if it’s any better.