So you’re thinking of getting a Garmin Edge 800, probably the best bike computer on the market in 2011/12?
There are many different bundles to choose from, and when I was deciding which to go for, I knew I wanted the performance monitoring kit, with the heart rate and cadence sensors. Since I’d read that it was possible to load custom open source maps to the unit anyway, it seemed an easy decision to make.
Adding the OS Discoverer Maps to a bundle typically adds around £50 to the price. Should you buy the same maps later as a standalone article, it will cost you around £160 to £180 (for the whole UK version).
So, is it wise to just go for free Open Streetmap maps to save money? If you’re thinking about getting an Edge 800 and are weighing up this particular dilemma, I hope this article will help you make the right decision.
Custom open source maps on the Garmin Edge 800
Firstly, there’s a bit of a technical barrier to get over. If you’re not good with computers, you may get very confused and frustrated, and even if you are good with computers, you could end up spending a lot of time on it – time which you could be using for other things, like riding your bike.
If you search around on the web, you’ll probably come across 3 methods to put custom maps on your GPS.
They all seem to involve downloading new bits of software and tinkering around a fair bit.
MOBAC is a great, free utility for making your own maps. You can choose from a selection of map sources to find one that you like the look of, then choose which areas to copy. Earlier versions of the tool included Google Maps too, but this was later withdrawn.
You can still get the earlier version (v1.8) here.
It’s fairly quick and easy to open a map in MOBAC, define the area you want, select the zoom level and tell it to export a KMZ file, which you then have to copy to the SD card in your garmin device. But the results aren’t great on the Edge 800, as I’ll go on to explain, so for me, this option seems to be the worst of the three.
Having said that, it works brilliantly for creating offline maps for Locus Pro on my phone.
2. Global Mapper
If you already own digital Ordnance Survey maps (for example in MapInfo or MemoryMap), there’s a fantastic bit of software called Global Mapper which can read virtually anything you can chuck at it, and selectively export it to any format you’re likely to need, like a Garmin .KMZ file. But of course Global Mapper costs money too. Plus, even though you bought the maps once, I wouldn’t be surprised if the human propensity for ignoring common sense means that technically, you’re not supposed to do this kind of thing. They’d rather you buy another copy. Well of course, they would, wouldn’t they?
I liked this option, for about 10 minutes. I could make nice looking OS maps appear on the device but they were very sluggish to use. More on that later.
The best option I came across was a a collection of open streetmap maps specifically packaged for Garmin GPS units. One such package is Velomap. However, if you think that all the work has been done for you, you’re still in for some tech tinkering as it was necessary to download and install Garmin mapsource in order to send the files to the device. No big deal really, but it adds a few extra steps to the process, and a lot of people will just give up if it takes more than 2 clicks. In terms of functionality on the Garmin Edge 800, this option was the best of the three. I also love Open Source as a concept, and velomap.org states that the maps are constantly being developed and updated. This people-powered crowd-sourced evolution really appeals to me.
I’ve dabbled with all of the above, and here are some thoughts based on my experiences.
On screen visibility
The open source maps generated from MOBAC are easy to create, and the OSM cycle version even includes all the cycle paths. But in my opinion they look pale and washed out on the Edge 800 screen. With no punchiness to the image, it looks very bland and whilst out on the road I found them hard to see properly.
The Velomaps were more colourful, with better contrast, but suffered from being too simplistic, lacking the subtlety and additional info you get with classic Ordnance Survey maps, not to mention the charm.
On the OSM maps I created in MOBAC, the routing just didn’t work. I’ve heard that it’s something to do with nodes not being connected, but I’m not that much of a GIS geek and have no experience of redefining such things. All I know is, there are problems with using these maps for navigation. If you just want to be able to see where you are, superimposed on a map image, it’ll be fine, in the same way a static paper map is fine. Sort of.
The same went for the OS maps processed by Global Mapper. These looked much better visually, but still had no navigational functionality.
The Velopmap however worked very well navigationally, though it would appear that many smaller roads are missing, compared to the official Ordnance Survey Maps. Depending on where you live, this may or may not present much of a problem to you.
A major drawback with MOBAC and particularly the Global Mapper custom maps seems to be the processor speed of the Edge 800 itself, and its ability to handle files without becoming laggy. Using the OSM maps, it seemed to cope reasonably well with general scrolling around and zooming in and out. However, when I created some OS maps from some quickchart files (.qct) from Memory Map, using GlobalMapper, they ended up feeling very clunky indeed once imported into the Garmin unit. We’re talking very slow redraw times, in both scrolling and zooming.
I’ve read on various web tutorials that custom maps on the Edge 800 cannot contain different zoom levels. I’ve discovered this isn’t true, but I’ve no idea how to go about creating a map which functions with different zoom levels. It requires more geek power than I’m prepared to summon. I came across other apps that looked a bit scary, such as mkgmap which perhaps can do this kind of stuff, but I sensed I’d reached the limit of my technical intolerance by this stage. Sticking with the MOBAC model, the solution is to choose one zoom level (and the tutorials recommend level 14) which is the best compromise. Zooming in simply magnifies the same image. It does not reveal more detail as you zoom in. The Velomap once again was far superior technically, in that it does reveal more detail as you zoom in, and less as you zoom out. But again, the simplicity of the detail lets it down. It often reminded me of 1990′s sprite based console games. Mario-GPS!
Using the free OSM maps, and other custom maps with my Garmin Edge 800, I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t getting the best out of the device. It was designed to work well with maps produced by Garmin themselves, clearly. So when I decided to use the proper Garmin Discoverer 1:50K maps in the Edge 800, it felt like I was unleashing the beast that had hitherto been muzzled.
Why bother with the OS Discoverer maps?
- The Ordnance Survey map covers the entire UK. No more faffing about with little regional zones.
- OS maps are beautiful things! They contain so much detail and character. To use an audiophile analogy, they are like the purist’s vinyl, compared to compressed mp3. They’re vibrant, earthy, analogue, and they’ve got soul. Not bad for a map!
- The files are optimised for the unit so they behave well in terms of redraw speeds when scrolling and zooming.
- There are 3 different maps according to the zoom range. This makes it very simple if you get lost, to zoom out quickly and see a meaningful map to allow you to realise your position.
- The routing works on courses, and you can point to any location on the map and get turn by turn directions to it. As you approach a turning, the visual warning (white arrow) is very clear. When the turn is imminent, the screen changes again to highlight the turn to be made. It’s possible to view the sequence of turns, which also lists the distance to the next point in the sequence, and estimated time.
- The map looks good on screen, with clear bold colours. Don’t suffer the grey washed out ambiguity of the OSM maps.
You paid good money for the Edge 800, it’s not a cheap device. To use it to its full potential and get the most out of it, you need to get the proper maps.
The best way to get them is as part of a bundle when you buy the unit. However, even if you opt to buy them later, about £160 for the whole of the UK is a bargain compared to the prices Memory Map charge for small sections of the UK.
This final collection of images might help you to decide which option to go for. The images are all of the same section of road, near Bodfari on the A541.
(See this area on Google Maps)
Is there really any contest?
OK, ignoring the provocative title of this article, I look forward to seeing how the OSM map community develops. When the technical barriers to contributing to such projects are lowered, then it will really start to take off. Right now, for most people, it’s just way too geeky. I’d love to get into it, but frankly, I’d rather be out riding my bike.
You can get the Edge 800 plus the Discoverer maps