Schmap Guides are fully interactive travel guides that cover a myriad of cities across Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
These freely-downloadable travel guides are available for dozens of cities and contain detailed, beautifully presented maps and photos.
They also contain searchable information for the relevant city including its history, neighborhoods, entertainment, cultural offering and sites. Schmap guides provide their own offline content as well as numerous relevant online links (for example to Google maps, weather resources, Wikipedia, etc.)
Right off the bat I want to say that, even if you’re not travelling, make sure that you absolutely check out the Schmap city guide for the city that you live in (or close to) if it is available. Click here for a current list. These guides are jam-packed with interactive information that is very well presented and fun to interact with, and are a great way to explore a city. Note that there are themed packs that cover subjects like ’Romantic Getaways’, ’’The Great Outdoors’, etc. that you can download as well.
The info: the one thing which struck me immediately is the range and breadth of the information available within each Schmap guide. This ranges from the prerequisite historical and neighborhood information to detailed information about each location and event that includes picture(s), contact info (telephone, address, email, and URL), as well as an informative essay review – for each and every listed place or event! The sheer breadth of the information is one of the main underlying strengths of these guides.
The user interface: Generally speaking, the Schmap player (which plays all of the Schmap city guides) consists of a main information area in the middle with two columns of controls and/or related information on the right and left margins. The main display will either show a tabbed text area that contains all the essay and/or directory listings, or otherwise will display a map. Schmap maps are extremely easy to navigate, either by ’grabbing’ hold of the map and moving in the desired direction or using navigational arrows. Zooming in and out is done using the on-screen sliders or other controls (for example, a ’selection tool’ can be used to select a sub-set of the visible map, causing it to zoom into a higher level of detail)..
Map layers: ’layers’ are categories of events or places that can appear on a map, so for example nightclubs, hotels, or “sights and attractions” are layers that can be switched on or off so that they will appear or not appear on the map. It is a way to remove clutter from the map and just see what you want; so, therefore, you might view a certain neighborhood or part of the city and enable the layer for “restaurants and cafes”, upon which all of the restaurants and cafes within your visible map will appear as colored dots with distinctive icons. What is cool is that there are 3 levels of layers, so, for example, you do not need to activate the entire “restaurants and cafes” layer but instead just activate “Mexican restaurants” if that is the kind of restaurant you are looking for, or you can drill down further and just light up the individual Mexican restaurant(s) you want. At any one point your layers will be active only for that part of the map you are interested in.
Mousing over the icons on the map will instantly show a wealth of information on the these, including pictures and an essay review. When you find events and places that you like or are interested in, you can bookmark these for easy access or for playback within a virtual tour (see below).
The Player: the player is the main innovation that Schmap guides brings to the table. It looks like a normal media player with play, pause, back, and forward buttons. What it does is zoom in and out of the map, presenting a slideshow of places or events sequentially and with brief pauses in between. This may not seem like much but somehow it works and ends up being a very effective and entertaining way to explore the city or sub-section of the map you’re interested in. Each Schmap guide comes pre-loaded with suggested custom “tours” which you should really check out.
Tours: these are simply a list of places or events that the player will scroll through in sequence. Each guide comes pre-loaded with tours, which could either be general tours of the city’s most well known landmarks, best nightlife, best restaurants, etc. These are really fun and informative and surprisingly satisfying.
How to use the player: you can (a) select the part of the map that you are interested in, (b) selected the types of layer (places and events) you are interested in, and then (c) press the play button. The player will scroll through all the relevant places/events. Somehow, it really works effectively in giving you a very good idea about what your options are within the geographic placement you are interested in. A great way to (virtually) explore a neighborhood.
Search: everything is searchable, but what is interesting is that (a) you can limit your search to the selected geographic area, and (b) you can search online resources, strictly for that geographic area. For example, you can select a section of Seattle and search for ’Asian Art’, then decide to search Google maps as well. Your search on Google maps will be limited to exactly that part of Seattle you have selected in your map. Very cool indeed
Limitations (and how this product can be improved): these guides predictably have a central focus and the further into the outlying areas you go the less information is available, which is understandable. One curious omission is interactive bus routes/metro maps, or even the ability to set 2 points on a map and search (externally on the internet) for the best directions to and from these. Currently you can pinpoint a location and search for directions to it on Google maps, but only the destination info is populated and you have to enter the origin manually in the Google maps UI. And while I know this is still in beta, there seemed to be right-click context menus when navigating maps that simply did not work on my computer, but did work a few times such that I was aware they were there. Oh, and I really wish there were more cities covered in more regions of the world.
The Verdict: an amazing product that manages to be much more than an interactive ebook with links – and free. I highly recommend it whether you are researching a travel destination or want to explore the city that you live in. Either way, you will find it informative and entertaining.
Version tested: 2.0.003 Beta
Compatibility: Windows 2000, XP (doesn’t say if compatible with Vista). PIII 800Mhx processor or faster, 50MB hard drive space.