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The map-reader with a head for figures

Software review: Electronic routeplanners can now map out your route and tot up your expenses.
To some people, maps are an indecipherable mass of lines and symbols, and planning a car journey is a difficult and frustrating task. Business travellers suffer the added irritation of having to calculate mileage and produce expenses sheets. Five years ago there was little software to ease these tasks. What did exist was expensive and tended to be aimed at large fleet managers rather than individuals. The dramatic growth in home computers and the rise of CD-Rom as a distribution medium for large databases has changed this, and three PC-based routefinders have been launched this year.

Microsoft's latest version of Autoroute and Route 66's new Routeplanner include Europe-wide maps and are distributed on CD-Rom. The AA has also recently entered the fray with A to B. It has no map, covers just Britain and is distributed on a single floppy disc, but it is the cheapest of the bunch by far.

All three planners work in the same way. You indicate where you want to start and end your journey, and the software works out a route and delivers it as a set of instructions. Autoroute and Route 66 Routeplanner will highlight your route on a map. Instructions and maps can be printed in A4-sized chunks.

Expenses are easily calculated: Autoroute works on a simple price per litre or gallon basis, while Route 66 Routeplanner and A to B take account of other variables such as fixed-base costs, extra expenses allowances and costs per distance unit. All three calculate how long the journey is likely to take, and Route 66 Routeplanner and Autoroute take account of driving speeds on a range of roads.

The AA is convinced that A to B will do well despite its lack of bells and whistles. It is part of a suite produced from a constantly updated database used as the backbone of a range of software for different markets including an in-car system called Routefinder. A to B should be as up- to-date as your road atlas, and quite possibly more so.

Autoroute can customise the maps, adding mountains and national parks. It even includes a small gazetteer of places of interest which it will search for you as part of the planning service. Route 66 Routefinder sits somewhere between the two, looking more like Autoroute but lacking its range of features and costing significantly more.

The drawback of PC-based route-planning is its inability to handle unforeseen circumstances. Traffic jams can only be dealt with by constantly updated in-car systems. The AA is planning such a system, but it will be some time before anything comes on the market. Meanwhile, while your PC may help plan a journey and calculate expenses, it might be as well to have a printed map with you.

Autoroute Express Europe, pounds 59.99. Contact Microsoft on 0345 002000.

Route 66 Routeplanner, pounds 99 (excluding VAT).

A to B pounds 16.49 (inc P&P and VAT) contact the AA on 01634 297123.

Routefinder, pounds 199, dial 100 and ask for freefone routefinder.