Friday I installed one of my Christmas presents, a complete set of 1:100000 scale topo maps of the U.S. for my Garmin eTrex Vista GPS receiver. I’d rather use the more detailed 1:25000 maps I bought from James Associates; and I’d rather use my Mac to load them onto the GPS unit; but Garmin won’t document the protocol for uploading maps; and that protocol doesn’t seem to have been effectively reverse engineered yet; so I had to boot Windows and load them from the PC using Garmin’s own MapSource.
MapSource is amateur hour stuff, even for Windows. First Garmin ships me a CD containing a version that’s years out of date. The installer asks me twice if I want to update the software on my GPS unit; and when I finally give in and say yes, it can’t find the device because I have a USB unit instead of a serial port unit.
The manual tells me to use the Full install to copy all the maps to my hard drive, but the installer doesn’t offer me that option. Since I couldn’t install the maps locally, when I zoom into Silicon Valley, Map Source asks for the West Coast CD. However I have the East Coast CD loaded; and I’m not really interested in the West Coast right now, so I press the Cancel button. MapSource promptly asks me for the same West Coast CD again. And again. And again. Even when I tab into another program. I have to go to the Task Manager to force this stupid thing to quit.
I’m not going to even start on how stupid a computer has to be to not know when I’ve inserted the disk. That’s really a Windows design flaw, and I probably shouldn’t blame Garmin for it (though Microsoft gets a big raspberry for this one).
I finally figure out how to transfer maps to the GPS receiver. Then I try to transfer a second map. It doesn’t work. Why? After some futzing around, I realize the GPS is turned off. Hmm, that’s funny. I just put in new batteries. Did they go bad? And when plugged in the eTrex runs off USB power anyway. (It draws almost twice as much power off the USB bus as it should, but that’s a story for another day.) Oh, guess what? After transferring the maps, MapSource turns off the GPS. <sarcasm>It’s not like you might want to upload and then download, or upload two maps, or anything like that.</sarcasm>
Simple fact is no one would use MapSource if there were any reasonable alternative for talking to the hardware. I knew when I bought the eTrex that it was a closed, proprietary system that only talked to Windows. I put off buying it for over a year precisely because of that, but the sad fact is there’s no open device that meets my needs in this space; nor is there any closed device that supports the Mac or Linux. The units from other manufacturers are just as bad. I only broke down and bought the eTrex because I needed it for a book I was writing. Why is it that companies that sell closed, proprietary devices that require you to use their software write some of the worst software out there? Hmm, now that I put it that way, I think I’ve answered my own question.
What really surprises me is that these are all problems I found within 15 minutes of tearing the shrink wrap off the package. That’s how bad this software is. I’ve barely touched the product, and I’ve already found bugs I’d be embarrassed to ship in a free-as-in-beer-beta, much less software people actually pay for. Garmin desperately needs to hire a dedicated software tester and UI designer; and listen to what they say. Better yet, Garmin should give up on selling software, which is clearly not their core competency; and focus instead on the hardware which isn’t bad. Open up the specifications, and let the very energetic open source mapping community figure out how to write a decent interface for downloading and uploading data to their devices.