Hey, Mapquest, could you help us find the school? You know, the old school. An online early bird, Mapquest launched a decade ago and was acquired by AOL four years later. It's still the best-used Internet mapping service, but that could change because Mapquest has not. Mapquest fell behind last year when Google Maps brought in bird's-eye satellite images and an open code that invited users' tweaks--and ushered in mapping for the next millennium.
While Mapquest was once considered stunningly easy and efficient, it hasn't kept up with quickly moving times. It offers maps and directions as well as paid services for access from your car, cell phone, or PDA. However, the Mapquest interface looks dated: it lacks satellite views, and the site isn't as easy or fun as rivals Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, or Windows Live Local. Mapquest now offers advanced route options that allow you to input preferences, and its open code beta service allows clever users to mash up data sets (as users of Google Maps have done to plot anything from apartment rental locations to traffic patterns). Unfortunately, these changes still pale next to the competition. However, Mapquest is integrated with the A9 Maps beta, which lacks satellite views but does offer nifty street-side photographs of given locations in major cities.
Mapquest's simple front page offers forms where you can input an address to look up, or put in two addresses for directions. This is a tidy way of working, but we prefer Google Map's new-school approach, which lets you input all your information into one text field using a natural language query. Frequent users will appreciate that at least Mapquest can store your home and work address and will remember past addresses.
The results pages are cluttered, as Mapquest delivers ads just as effectively as it delivers maps. Ads above, below, and to the side of results make it difficult to find the useful options. Mapquest offers helpful turn-by-turn directions first, then an image of the route below. It does the job, but we prefer Google's side-by-side layout. You can click each step in a Mapquest route for a smaller map of one segment of your trip, but there's no way to call up all the smaller maps at once, nor is there a satellite image option that would give you a sense of the real-world terrain.
We like that Mapquest now offers advanced settings that let you opt for the shortest time or distance, reverse a route, or create routes that avoid highways or tolls. And a new feature lets you quickly search airports, with a list of three-letter codes for quick reference.
However, we're less than thrilled about Mapquest's mobile options. It can deliver content to your phone or PDA in a few different ways, either with text messages or with a paid service that provides color maps. Unfortunately, the free option is limited to sending location information (such a business's name, address, and number) to your cell phone in a text message. To add directions, you'll need to pay $3.99 per month for Mapquest Mobile, which requires a download to your phone. E-mailing instructions from a route page, on the other hand, is simple and free, although the e-mail message includes only the turn directions, not the maps.
Mapquest offers a prominent help link on its home page that leads users to useful FAQs and articles. You can also access an e-mail support form for help from a person via an article page or a comment form.
Mapquest can get you from point A to B quickly, but if you want fewer ads and real-world satellite images, check out the dynamic services offered by Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft.