5 On Your Side

Mapping services, devices get people to their destinations

Posted May 25, 2010
Updated May 27, 2010

— Portable GPS devices, online mapping services and smart phones make folding paper maps fairly obsolete for travel directions.

Most new mapping devices use one of two main databases, so the results they provide are similar. To find out how reliable the systems are, however, 5 on Your Side put them to an unscientific test by plotting a course from Raleigh to Durham and back.

Portable GPS GPS, mapping services give roundabout directions

Garmin GPS, Google and Mapquest all took drivers through downtown Raleigh and up Capital Boulevard as the recommended route from WRAL's studio on Western Boulevard to the Triangle Town Center mall. Garmin and Google took drivers to the first entrance, while Maquest sent them one block north to an entrance off Old Wake Forest Road.

In the trip to Durham, the mapping systems referred to Interstate 540 as "Town Boulevard," and Google recommended a route that added four miles to the trip by going all the way to Interstate 40. Garmin and Mapquest, meanwhile, routed drivers through Research Triangle Park on T.W. Alexander Drive to N.C. Highway 147.

When the drivers arrived at the Durham Performing Arts Center, all three services sent them to Vivian Street, which no longer exists.

In another test, about a dozen WRAL employees who have smart phones, portable GPS devices and in-dash systems also were recruited to compare the routes they normally take to work with directions provided by the mapping services.

All of them made it to work following their devices, but some were directed in some roundabout ways compared to the routes they typically take.

"It was crazy," promotions director Shelly Leslie said, noting that following directions on her iPhone or Mapquest increased her commute time from eight minutes to 20 minutes.

The mapping services sent her around the Interstate 440 Beltline to work instead of her usual route through downtown Raleigh.

"I was thinking, 'Where am I going?' I'm thinking, 'I'm on the Beltline, and I'm getting off.' One route had me get off on Person Street and come through downtown and get back on it," Leslie said. "If you don't know where you're going, how do you know that it's wrong?"

Although the routes weren't always the most direct path, all of the mapping services got drivers where they wanted to go. None stood out as far superior to the others, but portable GPS devices with wide screens, large buttons and text-to-speech directions were easier to use than most phones. Devices that take voice commands added another plus.

To improve the directions provided, drivers should keep their GPS units updated. Services provide four updates a year, and many devices alert owners when it's time for an update. Updated maps can also be purchased and downloaded from Navigation.com.

A one-time update for a portable device costs about $70, while lifetime updates are about $120. With an in-dash GPS, the update DVD costs about $200.

Mapquest and the majority of GPS devices get information for directions from NAVTEQ, which has geographic field analysts drive the streets documenting changes.

Users can report discrepancies to NAVTEQ online.


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  • crsh May 26, 2010

    All such services/devices will have some odd issues; it's the nature of applying a set of rules to situations that need subjective analysis, and those rules can include preference for shorter route, major highways, etc.

    There will also be some odd map issues around which are due to the maps provided to the respective companies. For example, there's a particular combination of roads in Durham (I can't recall the names now) onto which I've had GPS units from Garmin, Magellan, and TomTom, plus Google Maps, attempt to route me through but it's not actually possible to go through (probably was at one time - there's a barrier across the one street now.) A point in Google Maps' favor is that users can submit corrections. I did and Google Maps no longer shows the roads as connected. Similarly, they also show the closures of I-40 in western NC.

  • Lone Voice in the Wilderness May 26, 2010

    Consider what GPS is for. I was recently at Mission Valley, and I wanted to get to Wake Forest Road. Google Maps wanted me to drive down Western Blvd to the beltline, and take the Beltline to the Wake Forest Road exit. To me, this seemed well out of the way.

    GPS devices are for traveling in unfamiliar territory. When I travel in a new city, I need a GPS device, either on my phone or in my car.

    But as for conflicting directions, just try asking a local how to get from point A to B. Pretty much each person will have their own way. So, the same with GPS. As long as it gets me there, doesn't get me lost, or doesn't go dramatically out of the way, I will probably follow along.

  • kmichael May 26, 2010

    My Magellan is ok, but it sends me down a lot of dirt roads and dead ends. Other than that I love it.

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT May 26, 2010

    Everyone always says they love their GPS. Then they follow it up with 'however', 'but', or 'take backup paper maps'.

    As I said, buy a good Magellan GPS and you won't have to worry about the 'buts'. This is exactly what I saw when I took trips with others using their brand GPS Units. It always justified that I made the correct choice with my pre-sales research. You can get a cheaper GPS Unit. But you won't get one more reliable or user friendly.

  • kmichael May 26, 2010

    My Garmin is great, however sometimes it freezes up and I have to pull the battery out.

  • thefensk May 26, 2010

    A GPS is fine for fine tuning destination/directions but a person should still do pre-trip planning with on-line mapping services or good old-fashioned maps prior to trying to find some place unfamiliar. If at all possible, of course. I use my GPS primarily for geocaching.

  • Tax Man May 26, 2010

    I love my Garmin GPS units - got one for myself, my wife, my son and daughter. The only issue I have is the update services. I thought that by having 4 identical units I could buy the annual update and install it on all units - no way! They cannot share an update. So the cost to update the maps every year on each is only $20 less than buying a new unit! Someone needs to provide third party maps for these units at a reasonable price! I always keep my AAA membership current so I have "free" maps wherever I go and roadside assistance/towing. The GPS units work well most of the time. Google Maps still does not show my home in Morrisville after nearly three years! That is funny because when we were building it you could see the "street view" of the lot, but once the house was build and we got into the Post Office database our entire street disappeared from Google Maps! Also, if I put in the IRS office address in Durham Google Maps takes me to someone's home on a similarly named street!

  • DeathRow-IFeelYourPain-NOT May 26, 2010

    Personal opinion.... I've experienced a couple of different brands, other than the one I own, on trips with various people. And I have to say, it is very frustrating watching them deal with the small issues with these GPS Units. Each time I wish I had my own GPS Unit. I would NEVER buy anything but a Magellan GPS.

  • kmichael May 26, 2010

    Wow, what a captivating and creative experiment.