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PC Software for Road-Trippers

For a quick dash from point A to point B, a printout from an online mapping site is all you need. But when wanderlust strikes and you're eager to take a lengthy road trip, desktop mapping software packages can ably assist you with a whole vacation's worth of planning, including drive times for specific routes and interesting sites along the way.

The two Windows mapping apps I looked at--Microsoft's Streets & Trips 2006 and Delorme's Earthmate GPS LT 20 with Street Atlas 2006 USA--offer distinct advantages you can't get from Web-based mapping services, most notably access to maps, directions, and points-of-interest information whether you are connected to the Internet or not.

For a fraction of what you'd pay for a portable GPS navigation system, you can buy either PC application bundled with a small GPS receiver that connects to your laptop via USB and turns it into a real-time navigation device. And you'll have a nicer display, too: A map is certain to look better on a full-size notebook screen than on the comparatively puny 3.5- or 4-inch displays of most portable GPS units. (Both applications are also available without a bundled GPS receiver, which significantly lowers the cost.)

That said, fussing with your notebook while driving solo can be downright dangerous--especially if the notebook keeps dropping into sleep mode. As in-car navigation systems, these products are okay for backup, but I would not recommend relying on them.

Along with assessing their performance as real-time navigation systems, I evaluated these packages on the accuracy and ease of use of their routing features, as well as the range of their trip-planning and annotation tools.

At a Glance
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