Years ago, when on summer vacations with the family, it was common for my Dad to be driving, and my Mom next to him in the front seat of the van, eyes glued to a road map. She would give directions and my Dad would go wherever she said. And then the Internet happened, and things started to change. Instead of planning out the trip using an old road atlas, suddenly the thing to do was jump on Google Maps and see what the best or fastest route was. There are other options besides Google Maps, of course, such as Yahoo Maps. OpenStreetMap, CloudMade, InformationFreeway, and more. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all online. So if you’re traveling and suddenly need to get to somewhere else – somewhere you hadn’t planned on going – you’re in trouble. You didn’t print out a set of directions, so how do you get there? You need a way to access those online maps even when you’re not connected to the Internet.
GMapCatcher is the program. Available for Linux, Mac and Windows, GMapCatcher is an offline map viewer that supports not only the map services mentioned above, but OpenCycleMap, Google Map Maker and Virtual Earth as well.
Using GMapCatcher couldn’t be simpler. Start it up and you’ll see a map of the world, zoomed out as far as possible. If you want, you can drag the map and use the zoom controls to find what you’re looking for, or you can type in the address and the map will go to your location. One thing GMapCatcher is NOT is a program to provide driving directions. It allows you to view maps, but not to plan trips. But that’s just like an old road atlas, which didn’t automatically plan the best route from Point A to Point B either!
When you first start GMapCatcher, you’ll be in offline mode. This means the only maps you’ll be able to view are the ones you’ve already viewed when online. It also means you can’t search your maps (which is an online-only feature). But you can view the maps. I did a test and searched for Washington, DC using GMapCatcher. Once loaded, I clicked the Download button (with Map as the option, as opposed to satellite or hybrid). I was shown a download interface for me to select my options. I decided to see what was possible, so chose to grab everything from zoom level 0 to zoom level 17, in chunks that would ultimately add up to a 49 by 27 mile grid.
Downloading was a long process, as GMapCacher grabs the map, grid square by grid square, in little PNG images only 256×256 pixels. Since I chose all zoom levels, it took a long time. And when it was completed downloading, I had a folder full of map images that added up to almost 130 MB. What was the point of that? Well, if I was taking a trip to Washington, DC, and was worried that I’d need to find something, I could easily download the maps that I did, but also add a lot of different Markers to the saved maps.
Markers are like sign posts on a map. You can add one to whatever address you want, and from then on you’ll see a little thumb tack on that map position. Using the Washington, DC metaphor again, if I was going there, I could enter in every monument, Federal building, sight seeing attraction, museum and park I could think of. Then, once the maps were saved and I was offline, I could still access the information and find out where different places are located in relation to each other. I wouldn’t be able to get turn-by-turn directions, but I could read the map and find my own way there.
GMapCatcher also supports exporting maps, a useful feature for placing them on a website, so visitors know what landmarks to look for around your location, or for printing out as a reminder to yourself. You can also use GPS with GMapCatcher. You have the option to set the GPS refresh rate, the zoom level and whether it is on or off by default. Using GPS can be an alternate source of pinpointing your location.
All in all, I’m really impressed with GMapCatcher. It has a lot of different sources (8 different online map websites in all), and a nice feature set. Asking something like GMapCatcher to provide turn-by-turn directions, while a nice dream, might be a bit beyond its scope. Better to think of GMapCatcher as a digital road atlas, and its value – I think – becomes clear. It’s a nice-looking, fast and easy-to-use map, and well worth a download, whether you’re using Linux, Mac or Windows.