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Review of Microsoft AutoRoute 2011 (with GPS receiver)

Bought: 10th July 2012
Supplier: Amazon (UK)
Price: £56.97 (GBP) post & packing included

My old SatNav is a NavMan iCN 520 – bought back in 2003. It gave mixed results then and subsequently, but of course, the map – note singular – is now well out-of-date.
To purchase updated maps of both the UK and Europe, I’ve been quoted ridiculous amounts, so have spent the last week investigating the purchase of a new unit.
I have to say I am not impressed with anything on offer. Let’s put that another way. If all I wanted to do was punch in a post-code and sit in my car taking instructions like an automaton, accepting everything I was instructed to do as the truth, then a SatNav would fill the bill. I want a little bit more than that.

I want to sit down at my desktop computer and study the journey I am about to take, modifying and revising my route before finalising it. At the same time, I am familiarising myself with both the route and the towns and physical features I will be passing through or by.

Quite clearly, no Satellite Navigation system designed to fit in a car will let me do that. But what if I have a small netbook with a 10 inch display that can be fitted easily to the car console, and I have AutoRoute installed on it?

This post documents my experience with such a setup. First I will cover the test-drive I did yesterday, then make some comments about the installation and use of AutoRoute.
So, take a look at the map below. This is the route I planned on the desktop-installed AutoRoute. Basically, it’s a small tour of some of the old pit-villages in Northumberland. I chose to do this specifically because I know the area intimately, having cycled over the area as a child, and latterly in the car. My intention was to assess the responses of AutoRoute throughout the journey.

The route starts in Cullercoats, heads North to Seaton Sluice, west to Seaton Delaval, then west to Cramlington Town Centre. From there, the route turns South through Burradon, then East to Forest Hall, Backworth, Shiremoor, Earsdon, to a target destination in the middle of Whitley Bay.

[Click on map for a bigger image]

Joe visits some former pit villages in Northumberland

Joe visits some former pit villages in Northumberland

The yellow rectangle on the left is an exclusion rectangle I set up, to force Auto-route off the main road.
I started the journey by taking a fairly radical wrong-turn at the top of Mast Lane in Cullercoats, taking the car a long-way from the intended route, so as to watch it’s responses. I’ve detailed these in the 2nd picture below:

[Click on map for a bigger image]

My attempts to completely confuse AutoRoute

My attempts to completely confuse AutoRoute

AutoRoute’s response to a wrong turning was unexpectedly fast, within 30 metres of turning left at the top of Mast Lane, instead of right, (Microsoft) Anna told me I was ‘off route’. A little further on she informed me she was recalculating a new route, and duly reported this in time for the roundabout, but I ignored her helpful instructions to return North, and headed West. Again a few tens of metres after my turn, she reported my stupidity, and again recalculated. I was impressed with the speed at which the program recovers and recalculates.

I proceeded to progressively ignore her instructions, but taking note that the directions she was giving me, were sensible, and would indeed have put me back on the correct route. I was particularly interested to see what the software would do when I placed the car roughly between two of the waypoints I had set – noting that Whitley Bay should have been my first point-of-call. (waypoint 2) In the end, at Earsdon, the display showed a light blue track on both the road (East) to Whitley Bay, and on the road (North) to Seaton Delaval, which I concluded was an entirely sensible thing to do – so I chose neither! Instead, I set off North-East, taking a very minor road to join the original route at Old Hartley. This was the first point in the journey when I was travelling along the correct route, and I followed the verbal instructions given and made my way into Cramlington.

Only one thing threw Anna in a spin – but me also – a newly built Supermarket, together with radical altering of the road in last year, left us both a little puzzled. However, once back on the ‘old’ road, AutoRoute recalculated, and I found myself heading south to Burradon.

At Forest Hall, I again deviated from the route and carried on through Benton and Holystone, leaving out Backworth. Anna attempted to correct me, until it was clear to her that I was intent on leaving Backworth unvisited. I followed the set route through Shiremoor and Earsdon (for the 2nd time), but left the route a little North of Monkseaton, and headed east onto the coast. The software responded well to my deviation and recalculated correctly for the final waypoint in Whitley Bay, despite me insisting on staying right on the coast. Anna was still telling me I was ‘off route’ when I pulled into my drive at home.

I’m impressed with the performance of the software and included GPS receiver. Not once in the whole journey did I lose contact with the satellites, and throughout the journey, I noted that the system was in contact with at least 3, sometimes 4.

Niggles include Anna interrupting herself mid-sentence to give new information, and I would have preferred to hear road numbers read out as digits e.g. ‘five’, ‘oh’, ‘oh’, ‘five’; rather than ‘five thousand and five’, but they say you can get used to anything, and I had by the time the journey was over.

The display is very configurable, selecting ‘panes’ to display or hide making the display-map area larger or smaller. One niggle here is that the lower pane giving directions is not configurable in size (or at least I haven’t found how to do it) and eats into the vertical size of the displayed map.

Since this program is running on Windows, some method of ‘locking’ the program should be made, so that you don’t inadvertently lose it whilst driving. (ala Jeremy Clarkson with ‘Amy’ in Japan) So a good idea is to set the ‘always on top’ attribute of the program.

My netbook has no optical drive. I tried mounting the DVD drive on my desktop via my network, but Windows 7 just couldn’t hack it, so I downloaded AutoRoute as 3 files from the Microsoft site. It takes a while, as there is just over 2Gb to download, but once done, the installation proceeded without hitch, and I fed in the activation ID given on the CD container.

I’m not going to detail AutoRoute’s features here – Microsoft have done that for you. But everything is well laid out, logical and easy to use.

BTW the appended ‘deviations’ (red and green routes) to the route on the second map above were not done in AutoRoute, rather I saved the map from AutoRoute, and added these annotations to the exported PNG file using a photo editor. (Ulead PhotoImpact 12 – a ‘freebie’)

Technical glitches.
These are probably due to Windows 7, as much as AutoRoute, but I report them here anyway.

If you don’t like Microsoft ‘Anna’ giving you instructions – tough! No provision is made, nor help given, to change the voice to something else. All of the ‘help’ on forums and also on Microsoft’s site is apparently inappropriate for Windows 7 ’starter’ edition – so I’m stuck with Anna.

Disappearing Receiver
The GPS receiver was recognized and self-installed correctly on inserting the 1st time.
Subsequent use of AutoRoute would not recognize/use the GPS reciever, saying either it wasn’t there (it was), or that another application was using it. (there wasn’t)
No help is available anywhere for this, and I found it annoying and frustrating. I will be taking the matter up with Microsoft.
I de-installed the GPS reciever and (driver) software, reset my machine, then re-installed it again. This time AutoRoute found and used the receiver correctly.

The mistake I think I made, was to remove the GPS reciever whilst AutoRoute was running, put the netbook in sleep mode, before putting it in the car, and on re-awake, AutoRoute hung and had to be closed down with Task Manager. This is FAF (Flaky As F**k) and shouldn’t happen.
Subsequently I have tested that after shutting down AutoRoute, and then removing the reciever dongle, it works when re-inserted and AutoRoute restarted.

Footnote & entirely gratuitous digression
There used to be over 25 working pits in Northumberland, when I was a lad, cycling from Gateshead, up to Plessey, Morpeth, Cresswell etc. All that remains now are the villages and a few carefully disguised pit-heaps.
This, I feel is a mixed blessing – especially with the high cost of energy and the billions of tons of coal still left underground. As for the miners? There are still strong cohesive communities in most of these villages, despite the many years since winning coal have passed. I still have an admiration for brave souls who win resources whilst risking their own lives – some may not agree with this. My dad used to dismiss them as ‘underground savages’!

The following Blackleg Miner tells a tale of what might have happened if you were caught ’strike-breaking’. You’ll find both places mentioned in the poem on the maps above.

I’ve given the poem in it’s local dialect form – the following may help:
wark – work
dorty – dirty
short – shirt
gan – go
doon – down
‘roond – around
divvn’t – don’t
duds – clothes
hoy – throw
brek – break

It’s in the evening after dark,
When the blackleg miner creeps to wark,
With his moleskin pants and dorty short,
There goes the blackleg miner.

Well he takes his tools and doon he goes
To hew the coal that lies below,
There’s not a woman in this town-row
Will look at the blackleg miner.

Oh, Delaval is a terrible place.
They rub wet clay in the blackleg’s face,
And ‘roond the heaps they run a foot race,
To catch the blackleg miner.

So, divvn’t gan near the Seghill mine.
Across the way they stretch a line,
To catch the throat and brek the spine
O’ the dorty blackleg miner.

They grab his duds and his pick as well,
And they hoy them down the pit of hell.
Doon ye go, and fare ye well,
You dorty blackleg miner

So join the union while you may.
Don’t wait till your dying day,
For that may not be far away,
You dorty blackleg miner.

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