Earthcomber Spot Guides for Palm OS

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, December 2005
Published by: Earthcomber LLC
Requires: Any Palm OS 4.1 or higher, with 256K or higher memory heap size, minimum 16MB of device memory, the biggest storage card you can afford; GPS device is optional
MSRP: US$14.95 (individual Mobil Travel Guides), US$9.75 (individual Moon Metro Guides), the Earthcomber program and all maps are free

Earthcomber Spot Guides is a unique and interesting product designed to help anyone traveling for business or pleasure. Essentially, Earthcomber consists of two parts: a) the free reader program and free U.S. city and county maps, and b) inexpensive downloadable Spot Guides for cities and counties in the U.S. The idea is that you install the reader and a map which covers your planned destination, then purchase, download and install the Mobil Travel Guide or Moon Metro Guide for the destination and, well, that's it. The Earthcomber reader integrates the information in the Spot Guides with the map, allowing you to poke around and locate just about anything you can think of that's of interest to travelers. If you happen to own a compatible GPS receiver, Earthcomber will automatically track and adjust your location on the current map.

I installed and used Earthcomber on three devices: a Palm Zire 71, a Sony Clie TJ37, and a palmOne Treo 650. The software, maps and guides for San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Atlanta installed without any problems. The default installation of Earthcomber itself has all of the online help system turned on. It's a good system which pops up little explanatory dialogs each time you tap something (an icon, a map, etc.). After a 15 minutes with the software (I was wandering around in Tribeca—that's the Triangle Below Canal St. for you New York newbies) hunting for delis and hotels before it occurred to me to turn off the help dialogs. The software has that effect actually—even during my initial look at the software before hitting the road on a business trip to Manhattan, I found myself wandering around the virtual city on my PDA, planning some free time.

Getting started with Earthcomber for a particular city is a simple process. On your handheld, start Earthcomber, load a map and choose a Spot Guide. Choosing comb (search) categories from the so-called Look List (lodging, dining, attractions and shopping for example, the categories available in the Mobil guide) essentially sets up a list of Favorites: hotels, restaurants, landmarks, etc., etc. Check off the categories you want to include when combing a particular area. Set the proximity for each category because all of the information thrown at you while browsing the map is based on its relationship to the you-are-here "X" spot you can drag around. So it makes sense to set shorter distances if you plan on walking, longer distances for institutions and landmarks, medium distances if you plan on traveling by taxi or public transit, and so on.

We discovered that leaving all of the proximity settings at their two mile default really slowed Earthcomber down, so it's a smart idea to pay careful attention when setting proximities. Tap/drag an "X" spot onto the city map to position yourself. After a moment, all sorts of icons will appear indicating the location of all the places related to the categories you selected. Tap any icon to pull up the related details. Very cool. If you want to relocate the "X" spot, drag it to another location. If a new location is visible in the current screen, drag the map instead until you reach the are you want, then reposition the "X" spot. You can also begin the whole process by choosing items within any Spot Guide and tapping the map icon next to an item to automatically load the map area for the location. Again, very cool.

So why use Earthcomber instead of the perfectly good guides which already exist, the content from which is licensed into Earthcomber? The simple answer is portability and multitasking. If a Spot Guide is safely ensconced in your Treo 650 along with its PDA, telephone and multimedia functionality, you really don't need to carry around anything else. For business travelers and vacationers who want the freedom to move fast and light, Earthcomber is ideal and provides almost everything you need in a guide right in the palm of your hand. If you also enjoy the luxury of owning a compatible GPS receiver (see the compatibility list on the Earthcomber web site), you can walk around with Earthcomber and it will automatically update your map location and the related favorites information. Very cool again. Mind you, manually dragging the "X" to a new location every few blocks when you're walking around is not exactly a hardship. I tried an Emtac BTGPS SiRF Star III Bluetooth GPS Receiver unit in-store and it seemed to work properly with Earthcomber.

The Earthcomber web site has a Communities area which can be used by groups, families and individuals to trade information about places, maintain travel logs, and track trips. It's an interesting feature that is somewhat sparsely attended right now, but is sure to grow as use of Earthcomber increases.

Cons: No Windows/Pocket PC or Blackberry support yet. This is important. The content is good, but not truly great and I'd appreciate having access to many more choices. When Earthcomber takes off let's hope for access to Zagat and Michelin Spot Guides along with maps for the UK, Europe and Japan (for starters). Some good restaurants and shopping missing in the both the San Francisco and New York spot guides mainly because Mobil and Moon coverage is very good but not comprehensive. Crabby operation on large distance searches. Generally slow map redraws and slow responses to screen taps especially when relocating your "X" dot. The Sony Clie TJ37 and TH55 were faster than the Treo 650 which was faster than the Zire 71. The fastest way to use Earthcomber is to install it in system memory rather than running it from your storage card.

Pros: Worked perfectly on my Treo 650. For travelers who want to explore a place, Earthcomber Spot Guides are just the right ticket. I was repeatedly surprised at just how much detail was available for each location. The print versions of the Mobil and Moon guides contain reams upon reams of travel and location data and it appears that a very large portion of it is included in the Spot Guides. In addition to the conventional and popular Mobil Travel Guides and Moon Metro Guides, Earthcomber also offers some unique guides which are hard to find including the Damron Travel Guide for gay and lesbian travelers, and the delightful Find-A-Grave guide to burial places of the rich, famous and infamous. Earthcomber is continuing to develop more Spot Guides in partnership wth Exxon Mobil and Avalon Publishing. Vast selection of maps for cities and counties covering all U.S. states including Alaska and Hawaii. The address locator is very handy, and allows you to tap in an address and automatically pull up the correct map location. An excellent portable resource for all travelers in all 50 U.S. states. Recommended.

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