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Thu Mar 9, 2006 - 3:03 PM EST - By Harv Laser

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Would you recommend Earthcomber?
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With winter winding down and the warmer months fast approaching, many of us are beginning to think about planning vacations, or just getting out of work or school for a while and goofing off. Take a break from the daily grind, the stressful commute. Whether your intention is to get as far away as possible or to stick close to home and just take it easy, Earthcomber's free mobile navigation software can help turn your downtime into exploring just for the fun of it time.

There's a bunch of mobile mapping applications out there that help Treo users get from one place to another as quickly as possible, or find an address and lead you there by the virtual hand, and they all display points of interest (POIs) such as gas stations, hotels and restaurants � the usual suspects. But Earthcomber takes things a step further, providing layers and layers of nearby �distraction attractions� that appeal to individual tastes and preferences. And more than typical navigation software, Earthcomber sniffs out your personal list of handy things to have when you�re mobile � Free WiFi spots, ATMs, coffee shops, music and book stores, landmarks and historical sites, clubs, even local trivia. In essence, its main function is not to speed you along from point A to point B, but rather to help you enjoy the ride. To find things nearby that you didn�t even know were there. To go exploring just for the fun of it.

Using a GPS receiver or, if you don�t own one, faux GPS (manually tapping your current location on-screen), the application "combs" the area for just about anything � from Art galleries to Zoos � and all things in between. It displays your current position and locates nearby places of interest. There might be fascinating places in your own neck of the woods that you didn�t even know were there.

The number of explore-worthy attractions that Earthcomber displays all depends upon the preferences you select when setting up your personal lists, which are saved and stored in the program's various data layers. You control the information shown by checking only the categories you care about and un-checking those you don't. Then, with a single tap, the things that appeal to you appear in order of distance from your current location.

If you're passionate about history, you'll be glad to know that the National Registry of Historic Places is loaded into the standard data layer. If geography is your thing, well... Earthcomber has that covered too. Tags exist for mountains, waterfalls, caves, bays, beaches, and just about every other form of topography you can think of.

There's also a layer for community-based interests and a related Web site where you can create or join groups relevant to specific topics. By joining a group, you gain access (on your personal map layer) to spots marked by other members.

For instance, if you're a rock-climbing buff, you might want to become a member of that type of group. Then, when you're exploring new territory, you can check out the spot tags provided by other rock-climbers and take advantage of that information. Likewise, you can publish your favorite climbing spots for other members to explore, or mark them on your list for personal use only. That�s just one example.

Recently, Earthcomber introduced several commercial "spot guides" developed by such companies as Avalon Travel Publishing, Moon, and Mobil Travel Guide, along with extremely thorough guides for shoppers completely obsessed with knowing where every local store is, what�s in it, and even what the atmosphere and attitude is.

While the Earthcomber software is free, these commercial add-on (or add-in) guides cost between $10 and $15 and you download them from the Earthcomber Web site ( Once installed, the information populates itself on your Treo and displays data relevant to your personal choices. For instance, illustrated throughout this review is the "Where to Wear" spot guide, a shopping aide that uses Earthcomber�s built-in maps to display stores in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Florida. You can choose one or 100 more items from a shopping list, and Earthcomber will scan through thousands of store listings to show which merchants carry the item, contact information, pricing range, very telling reviews, and always, exactly how far it is from where you�re standing. I�m not a fashion hound, but I picked this example for the �shop till you drop� fans out there, just to illustrate what Earthcomber can do for you.

Okay... so I've covered the good stuff, but there are a few quirks.

For one thing, Earthcomber isn't available in retail stores. It's only available for download, and, while the maps are free, you're required to select them for each county you plan to visit. Not a huge deal, unless you are driving across the country. In that case, you have some clicking ahead of you. All the info can go onto an SD card. Currently, the company doesn�t plan to sell boxes and disks. But hey � Free.

Next, although the free maps are all-inclusive and extremely helpful, map data in general is pretty chunky, and such is the case here. These are full, rich, 12-zoom layer maps, but they aren't models of compression. The map for Los Angeles, the largest in the catalog, is 12mb all by itself. L.A. is a vast sprawling area with a bajillion points of interest. 12mb is not such a big deal anymore, but still hefty on a Palm or Windows Treo with their limited internal RAM and no SD card. But SD cards are getting bigger and cheaper, so most Treo owners already have one or more.

Earthcomber is working on reducing map size for larger cities by cutting them into smaller sections, and in testing one for New York City, I found the difference in performance speed to be significant.

The GPS feature is a little quirky. Instead of just turning on your accessory GPS (smoke �em if you got �em), you also have to remember to tap the GPS icon in Earthcomber to tell it to start listening for the GPS signal. Not a huge deal, but still worth mentioning. Also, the application will only recognize GPS through serial or Bluetooth; if you have an SDIO GPS card, it won�t see it. What might make up for the lack of variety of GPS ports is the fact that built-in algorithms let you tap Earthcomber�s map to locate where you are � and Earthcomber will then measure everything else on the map by their coordinates from that point. So if you don't have a GPS � or GPS signal � you can still see if that Greek restaurant is closer than the cigar bar that you also had on your list of favorites.

The incredible upside to Earthcomber�s �GPS-less GPS� is that you can always manually tap the map on your screen to tell it your location and Earthcomber will read your coordinates and comb around your position as if you had a GPS signal. Similarly, if you want to use it on a non-wireless device, and it�s not a smart phone either, you can still get turn-by-turn directions through your sync cable (Windows Mobile only � Palm on the way) and store the directions on your handheld for use out in the field.

Those few nitpicks aside, Earthcomber really does fall into the cool zone. You can go to the Earthcomber web site and create personal lists of any theme or no theme at all, and select the interests that tickle your fancy on any particular day. Then, set the distance properties (for instance, every 1/10th of a mile for the next 100 miles), and start rolling. Before long, your device will begin to beep and at a glance you'll begin to see what's around you. A tap or two on a place of interest will provide more detail � like a description, review, contact info, or map panel.

With the Palm OS 5 and Windows Mobile already out, and J2ME phone versions on the way, everyone will soon be able to �comb� the world the way they want it.

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