Zoom all the way - Life and Style - The Independent

Zoom all the way

A-Z Digital, London Geographers' A-Z Map Co Ltd, pounds 149 Ordnance Survey Interactive Atlas of Great Britain Attica, pounds 39.99

Reference works, including atlases and maps, lend themselves to computers: they take up little space, they can be searched quickly from a single place name, and publishers can add new levels of detail or extra information which would make paper versions all the more cumbersome.

A successful map-based CD-Rom stands or falls on those extras. On their own, maps are rather dull: useful for navigation but not really cut out for entertainment. For all but the wealthiest laptop owners, CD-Rom maps are likely to be desk-based, limiting their use as a navigational tool. So they either need to entertain, or meet the needs of a specialist niche.

The Digital A-Z of London doesn't set out to entertain. Instead, this CD-Rom and authorisation disk is aimed at business users, and has a price tag to match.

The disk whizzes around London at the click of a mouse; there are several zoom levels to home in on an area, down to street level, and the MapEngine 2 software can remove or add detail to make the maps clearer. The street finder is quick, and certainly easier to read than a standard printed A-Z. Unfortunately, it fails to harness the full power of a PC: the search engine only recognises correct spellings, and makes no attempt to suggest similar-sounding names in the way that, say, a spell-checker does.

The engine can only search for streets, not monuments, areas (for example Soho, Fitzrovia) or even railway stations. This is another missed opportunity.

The CD comes with a limited licence to print maps, but the on-screen quality of the black-and-white maps is not as good as the printed A-Z. Colour, more information and a lower price would make this a worthwhile product, as would adding other principal cities to the same CD-Rom. As it stands, the most likely customers are firms such as delivery companies, which need to search London's streets quickly, and might appreciate its space-saving qualities.

Attica's Ordnance Survey Interactive Atlas of Great Britain doesn't skimp on features. The disk starts with a virtual-reality "fly-through" view of a typically British landscape, before landing the user at a "home" screen. From there, three options are available: the Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain (there is no Ireland, north or south); European and British facts-and-figures screens.

The maps can be viewed in two main scales: one inch to 10 miles and one inch to four miles. It's easy to move around the map or zoom in or out, using the compass-based pointer. One initial criticism is that the controls are rather crude: it's possible to have Birmingham and Manchester on display at once, but not Manchester and Newcastle.

Zooming in shows waterways, smaller roads and strange red mushrooms growing in selected corners of these isles. These are "media pins" and add colour photographs, text and even some video.

The pins do make exploring the atlas more fun. The text is generally clear and informative, and the selection of sights is solid enough (including the Palace of Westminster, Edinburgh Castle, Stratford, Oxford and Cambridge), with some oddities such as Bedford, Didcot power station and East Midlands Airport making up numbers.

The photography isn't as good: some pictures are weak artistically, and many suffer from poor scanning which the full-screen zoom shows up all too well.

Sometimes pictures and text don't quite match: the entry for Bristol's Avon Gorge includes plenty about Brunel's famous bridge, but the picture appears to be the view from it, not of it.

The video selection is a little strange, with movies for Gateshead, but not for Liverpool or Edinburgh. Some of the media pins include detailed local maps, and a few have three-dimensional models.

The package is supported with a gazetteer for place-finding, which makes moving across the country almost instant, and the data options are comprehensive: Britain can be viewed by Westminster or European constituencies, population, climate and physical features. The European data, displayed on comparative graphs, range from the total length of national rail networks, through population and adult literacy to fertility rates.

The Interactive Atlas is slick and well-designed, with a solid core of information. For casual browsers, it really is more interesting and useful than a bookn

Stephen Pritchard

Geographers' A-Z Map Co (01732 781000). Attica (01908 570113).

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