553 – Android Autobahn
If you’re a car-owning Android phone user, it’s worth looking into the Android Auto ecosystem. At a high level, Android Auto is like Apple CarPlay – a way of projecting apps from your phone to a screen in your car, and interacting with them through the car’s own UI – be that touch, buttons or speech. Some cars will allow your phone to connect wirelessly, while others may require it to be plugged in.
If you have an older car – or you didn’t fork out on the options list to add CarPlay/Android Auto to your more recent one (like the £3K option price on a £170K Ferrari) – it’s still possible to run Android Auto on your phone while in the car.
The main Android Auto app can either be run manually or set to start automatically when the phone connects to your car’s Bluetooth system.
The app displays a simplified arms-reach or voice-driven UI, showing navigation, telephone and music apps, and the settings allow for a good amount of choice – Waze or Google Maps, Spotify or Amazon Music etc.
Assuming you’re going to cradle it, you’d treat it like you might use a fitted satnav system – albeit one which uses the phone’s network to show real-time traffic news, updates maps dynamically and freely rather than the eye-watering prices to update software and maps on installed systems.
There are 120-odd Android Auto compatible apps, so even if you don’t see their UI on the main menu, you could respond (with voice) to incoming messages on WhatsApp, or choose to listen to podcasts with Stitcher as one of several interchangeable “music” apps.
If your car does support Android Auto (check compatibility here) then it might take a bit of experimenting to understand how to connect it and how to get the car’s display to show the app outputs, though the results are largely the same as what you’d see if you just ran the host Android Auto app on your phone screen directly.
You might be able to replace the satnav system in an older car with one which does support Android Auto – see here for some ideas – as aftermarket satnavs are increasingly simple, ditching a CD/DVD player and maybe not even having a radio tuner – perhaps all you need in your car stereo is a 7” screen to which your phone connects, and an amplifier. Some retro-fit satnav systems use Android as their own OS, and offer a whole host of Carlos Fandango features for little more than the cost of a maps update for an older in-car system.
521 – Earth mapping
The last couple of decades have seen a revolution in user apps which offer location awareness and guidance. Automotive sat-navs were available some years ago, dating back to Honda’s electro Gyro-cator (now that’s a name) in 1986. CD and HDD based satnavs in cars became available over the years since, but typically were many thousands of dollars/pounds/etc as an option.
Google Earth was first launched in 2001 as a desktop app, and Google Maps followed in the browser, a few years later. Microsoft launched “Virtual Earth” shortly after that, though it was initially more like “Virtual North America” as its global coverage was very lacking. Over time, Bing Maps launched a bunch of innovative services, like Birds Eye, which used licensed 3rd party images from spotter planes to stitch together a “45 degree” view rather than the typical straight-overhead aerial view.
The source data for Birds Eye is a little out of date in some areas – though is still being updated in, er, North America (eg. see here and here), and maybe in other areas over time too. Point Birds Eye at Microsoft’s UK campus, and it shows Building 5 under construction, so the images are at least 8 years old, though since they no dates other than “© 2020”, there’s no obvious way to tell.
Google’s Street View shows the dates of images if there are multiple – click the down arrow next to “Street View” in the top left to view the history.
as well as rowing back some of the nagging to get Edge browser users to move to Chrome, Google released Google Earth in the browser – it’s maybe not quite so smooth as the desktop app, but it’s quick to use – … see Microsoft UK’s TVP campus, here.
The Washington Post reports that Google changes the view of maps depending on the country the user is in, removing disputed borders and the likes – so it’s a complicated world. According to that same article, Bing Maps is a very minor player in map usage, with Apple Maps (after an inauspicious start) has grown to be the second-most-used mapping platform, due to mobile usage, either on the Maps app directly or via other 3rd party apps which use location-awareness from the mobile device.
Bing Maps is used in many online services and other apps, however – like Microsoft’s forthcoming reboot of Flight Simulator, which supposedly features every airport in the world and uses data from Bing Maps, real-time weather reports and rendering in Azure, to provide a realistic flying view. There are some amazing videos on the Flight Simulator channel.
Tip o’ the Week 390 – Paint it black
“SHOCK, HORROR!”, the internet & news media said, “Microsoft is killing Paint!”. Cue the opportunity to make Clippy comparisons, and reflect on a bit of software that appeared in its first version in Windows 1.0, bring out the odd eccentric who manages to produce quite amazing art using Paint (like Pat Hines, who’s tried other paint software but “never managed to ‘connect’ with it”, or Jim’ll Paint It, who paints odd scenes on request, and whose fondness for MSPaint means he prefers the WinXP version).
Most of us probably don’t use MSPaint for much these days; maybe the odd bit of clumsy touching-up of images, or using it to snip bits out of screen grabs for documentation purposes.
Here’s one use case, if you’re in the UK and want to print out a map for a walk you’re going to do – fire up MSPAINT, set the canvas dimensions to something huge like 4096×4096 (in File / Properties), then go to Bing Maps and screen grab (WindowsKey+S, or use the Snipping Tool) the relevant sections of your planned walking route, looking at the Ordnance Survey view in the top right, and zooming in so you see the footpath details.
For longish walks, you’ll struggle to fit the whole route on one screen at the max detail level, so you’ll need to grab a bit, paste it onto the Paint canvas, move the map view, grab the next section, then using Paint, assemble the bits together like overlaying jigsaw pieces by moving your newest-pasted chunk around so it fits the rest. Copy the whole finished lot into a Word doc, and print.
Anyway, Paint is most definitely not dead – it’s just going to be an app that’s packaged and maybe delivered via the Windows Store, just like lots of other apps that are traditionally part of Windows and may or may not be installed by default (like Calc, Mail, Groove etc). There’s always Paint3D, too (ToW 358).
If you do need to do some more intensive image manipulation, especially of photos, there are many free options, from Adobe’s PhotoShop Express or the built-in Microsoft Photos app, which lets you carry out simple tweaks to photos you’ve acquired. For more creating and pixel-by-pixel tweaking of images, though, you’d be hard pressed to find a better value yet powerful tool than Paint.NET. It looks a bit 1990s in some respects, but it’s a simple and effective image editing tool, that has been likened to the bits of Photoshop that people like, simplified and delivered for free.
Find out more about Paint.NET here – download directly from here, and keep an eye out for a packaged version of Paint.NET hitting the Windows Store at some point, too. Who knows – maybe it will be there before MSPaint is loaded on the cart and taken away?
Tip o’ the Week 383 – Windows Maps refresh
Can you remember the time when, if you wanted to know how to get somewhere, you needed to look on a paper map? Before mapping was at all available online, people would either buy paper maps or license software packages – sometimes at great expense – that had road information in a database, so they could plan journeys.
A company called NextBase released an early PC application called “Autoroute” that was bought by fleet transport managers and the likes, who might have saved time and fuel by more efficiently planning the routes that their vehicles would take. This made it worth the £500 or so that the software package cost†.
Microsoft went on to acquire NextBase and released AutoRoute in some markets, and Streets & Trips in others, and went on to sell it for the more modest £99‡.
† this figure is made up, because I can’t for the life of me find any reference to the actual cost, but I do remember it was A LOT. Like, enough to drive a lot of pirate copies…
Now AutoRoute, Streets & Trips and their more professional data analysis counterpart, MapPoint, have all shuffled off to make way for the more popular – and mostly free – online mapping tools that people use today. Microsoft acquired MultiMap along the way, to bring additional expertise and technology to the Bing Maps platform.
So, most people will now use Bing Maps or Google Maps (Street View not available in all places) for finding directions. The latter is particularly good for finding places where you don’t need to know their address; put the name of a restaurant into Google Maps in a browser, or onto the Google Maps app on your phone, and you can get directions straight there without even bothering to look it up first.
Tip: if you search for the name of a place in Bing Maps, it shows you the result in a pop-out pane on the left, but sometimes leaves you trying to zoom & scroll, zoom & scroll to get the detail around your destination… to quickly go there, click once on the title banner (“Microsoft UK” in the example below) to collapse it, and once again to bring it back – at which point, the map view should zoom to the point.
Anyway, Bing Maps is improving its ability to find stuff around any given point – nearby restaurants, attractions, parking, that kind of thing – and this has now percolated through into a nicely updated Maps application for Windows 10 and Windows 10 Mobile.
To see what version of Windows Maps you’re running, click the elipsis in the top right, choose Settings and scroll to the bottom to see the version number – at time of writing, the updated version is Maps 5.1705.1391.0 but insiders will be on a later release.
If you search for a place, or even just right-click somewhere on a map to Drop a Pin, you’ll get the option to see what’s nearby and quickly find more details, plan a route to the destination etc.
As well as integrating place info better, the Maps app also has some nice traffic reporting capabilities – if Cortana knows your home and work locations, Maps will immediately think about your commute when you click on the traffic lights icon near the top right. As well as showing a colour coded traffic map, it shows public traffic cameras and lets you easily access them.
And if you plan a route using the driving directions, you can pin that route to your Start menu if it’s one you use a lot…
Read more about other updates to Windows Maps in the recent weeks.
Tip o’ the Week 302 – Bing Maps Preview
Bing Maps has had a bit of a refresh recently, with a new look and some tweaks to functionality & feel. The quickest way to get to the site is to type bingmaps into your browser’s address bar then press CTRL+ENTER, to add the www and the .com bit to either end, and be redirected to the maps URL.
If you end up looking at the old Bing Maps, then try replacing the /maps/… bit of the URL with /mapspreview, or just click the Try the new Bing Maps banner.
Sometimes, however, old things are cooler than new things. There are some missing features: maybe that’s part of being in “Preview”. There’s an intro video that’s shown to introduce what’s new in the Preview. Check it out here.
The old Bing Maps featured lots of layouts of facilities such as shopping malls and museums when you click on the outline of the building (along with a directory on the side – compare the view on the right with the Preview below – not quite so nice, unfortunately).
Still, there are plenty of other things that are better in the Preview, and there’s always an opportunity to provide feedback (link at the bottom right), and ask for any missing features to be restored.
You can switch back to the old format by clicking the Leave Preview button on the lower right if need be, and provide an explanation of why you’re bailing out.
The most visible difference is the change to the way search results are displayed – you get a history of different searches you’ve carried out, colour coded and stacked up on the left, while the information panel below the current result set is used for displaying all sorts of search info – on searching for a location or clicking a point on the map, context-sensitive info is displayed on the side, with details from Wikipedia, reviews from the likes of TripAdvisor and Yelp, and in the case of a tube or train station, times are displayed.
Navigation between different types of maps has changed, with a drop-down on the top right, now including Ordnance Survey maps view if you’re in the UK (or you go to the UK version). For Hallowe’en, you can Spookify your maps should you wish, and there may be other map variants to come.
The A-Z style London Street view has vanished from the UK variant too (maybe in the realisation that the old format just isn’t as easy to read as most smartphones maps), as has the ability to see the layout of the tube network by clicking on a station to see the familiar colour-coded lines superimposed on the real map. If you still want to see that kind of view, check out Here.com mapping and click on Transit to show the layout of train lines etc.
The Streetside service isn’t universally available – in the UK, major cities are covered pretty well but don’t go looking out in the sticks. Try right-clicking a point on the map and if Streetside is present, you’ll be able to select it from the context menu and see a quick preview without moving away from the current map view. Useful if you fancy a refreshment and yet your watering hole of choice is tucked away somewhat.
Tip o’ the Week #187 – A Route for old times
Once upon a time, a company called NextBase wrote some software to help people plan routes across the road network, using a computer. It was expensive in the day (£130 in 1988 works out about £300 in today’s money), but if your job was to schedule travelling reps or delivery drivers, then time was money. Or money was time saved.
Anyway, Microsoft bought the company and brought out Microsoft AutoRoute in the UK (eventually renamed Streets and Trips in the US) and did a modestly brisk trade selling annual versions of the software for a more reasonable (£40 or so) amount, with updates to keep the maps fresh and to add improving functionality.
All of this pre-dates the arrival of Multimap, Bing Maps, Google Maps etc. Nowadays the man in the street can make routing decisions on browsers or phones, free of charge and even taking account of prevailing traffic conditions, generally free of charge.
Nevertheless, the AutoRoute and S&T products soldier on, surprisingly. AutoRoute 2013 can be bought for £39 naked or £85 if you want a plug-in USB GPS module. MapPoint and Streets and Trips are still available for American users. Just don’t try and stick the PC to your windscreen.
The zooming in & out is a big agricultural compared to the Deep Zoom style navigation in and out of Bing or Google Maps these days, but there’s a lot of data behind the app and it’s very usable when it comes to searching and setting particular options – showing how much your journey will cost in fuel as well as how long it will take, for example…
There are a few key reasons why it makes sense to have AutoRoute instead of relying on online mapping – it’s all available offline for one, it responds comparatively quickly (especially when rerouting via specific places) and it also can show you easily what’s in the neighbourhood of a given point – though some of the data may not be as up to date as online sites.
You can export *.axe routing files to *.gpx using AutoRoute 2013 (or use free 3rd party software ITN Converter to turn out a version for most popular satnavs – so you could spend a while poring over a pan-European route in AutoRoute then squirt it down to your TomTom so you end up following the exact route you want, rather than sticking to the motorways, as the device might insist)… though as yet no route mapping is exportable to Nokia’s Here Drive software so you can let your phone guide you.
Interestingly, you can also overlay further data onto AutoRoute maps – maybe Excel spreadsheets full of postcode-oriented data, or even the simple mechanism of plotting all your Outlook Contacts on a map – maybe useful for seeing which of your customers or partners are based nearby a place you’re going. Or where to wind up the windows and keep driving…
Tip o’ the Week #168 – Loving some Windows Phone 8 tips
At a recent “Love It” internal event hosted in Microsoft UK’s Reading campus, a whole series of tips and tricks were shared amongst other Microsofties. Did you know, for example, that with an application called ZipApp (www.zipapp.co.uk – check it out), you can build a Windows 8 app in a few minutes without writing any code?
DPE’er Andy Robb said, “Yesterday I helped a couple of people create a dummy app for their customer complete with logo, draft content, a couple of social feeds, in about 30 mins… Customer walks in, sees their app on the Start menu, has a play on a touch device and they ‘get it’ better than any pitch deck could do.“ … BOOM!
Phone gurus Jon Lickiss and Natasha Joseph presented a great session on Windows Phone, with a slew of great tips and apps that they recommend – they’ve promised to write up the session so we may feature it here in future. In the meantime, here are 3 of the tips to get cracking:
Nokia has released mapping software available to any Windows Phone 8 user, which they called Here Maps. The great thing about Here Maps is that you can download the content offline, so they can be used on the tube (say) or when abroad, without racking up career-ending roaming charges.
The downloaded maps data is shared between Here Maps and Here Drive, the new name for the sat nav software that’s free (in beta) for any Windows Phone 8, as well as Nokia Lumias. If you’re on a non-Nokia device, Here Drive only allows access to the maps where the phone’s SIM is registered, but if you’ve a Lumia then you can use maps all over the world,, still get turn/turn navigation.
Here Maps also has a feature analogous to Bing Maps’ own capability to show details of what’s inside buildings – like shopping centres. Here’s a pic of the Oracle centre in Reading, as seen by Here Maps…
Where are you…?
If you’re arranging to meet up and want to tell your friends your current 10-20, you could text them a description – or try this neat function that was new in WP8. Go into the Messaging (ie text) app, start a new text message, then tap on the paperclip icon normally used to attach something – select “my location” to insert a Bing Maps link to your current whereabouts. See here.
A quick and simple way to capture the screen of a Windows Phone. To snap the contents of the phone screen, press the Windows logo on the bottom of the phone then quickly press the power/standby button. It may take a little practice to get the timing right, but once you’ve figured it out, you’ll see the results in the Screenshots folder within the Photos app.
To get them to your PC for further use, it’s probably easiest to just go into the folder, view the picture then Share it via email or NFC, if your new PC supports it…
Tip o’ the Week #73 – Using Bing Maps in London
Here’s a quick but useful tip for Bing Maps (did you know, by the way, that you can jump straight to the maps by entering www.bingmaps.com as the URL? Or if you’ve super-efficient, just type bingmaps into the address bar on IE, and press CTRL+ENTER and it will do the rest for you).
If you’re visiting London and your default language for Bing maps is UK English (you’ll see in the top right if it says “United Kingdom”), then when you view any Greater London location, your default view is the A-Z Maps – one familiar to every Londoner.
The A-Z view shows entrances to Tube stations, and if you click on the regular Tube icon, it will also tell you what line services that station, and displays an overlay of the tube network in the classic colours, but in a way you’ve probably never seen before (ie real geographical distances between stations rather than the well-known Tube map). Zoom out a little and the overlay stays in place, but the relatively cluttered A-Z view is replaced with Bing’s standard maps view.
So what? Well, it lets you see just how close some stations are to each other, that it might be quicker to walk than to go about changing trains… and it also showcases how much better Bing Maps is than Google Maps…
If you have a customer or partner who’s London based, and who uses Google Maps on their website, show this to them and see if you can’t persuade them to switch… Then show them the Birds Eye view and see if that seals it!