Garmin Mapsource: When You Just Don’t Care If the Software Works

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 First Garmin ships me a CD containing a version that’s years out of date.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.

Please Insert The Disk

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.

18 Responses to “Garmin Mapsource: When You Just Don’t Care If the Software Works”

  1. Andy B Says:

    Hmmm….DVD Shrink (free software) for Windows will ask for a blank dvd to be inserted after the extraction process and knows immediately when I do so, w/o needing me to click on an OK button.

  2. Curt Cox Says:

    What are your requirements? Perhaps there really is something better.

  3. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    The main requirement is that it be able to upload maps to my eTrex Vista C.

    I do use MacGPS Pro to download track logs and upload waypoints and similar information to the receiver from my Mac. However, this software can’t upload maps. There’s a lot of other software out there that will talk to these units using older, documented protocols; but none of it supports map upload that I’ve found.

    If the map protocols and formats were documented, there’s so much more that could be done. For instance, you could load customized Google Maps straight onto the device. That would be extremely cool.

  4. Doug Simpkinson Says:

    OK, so “cannot” is one word, but you “had to boot Windows and load them from their using Garmin’s own MapSource.”

    Of course, now there will be some hideous spelling or grammar error in this comment, to preserve the circle of karma.

  5. Jeff Knee Says:

    Soon — supporting links:

    Unfortunately, it is not yet “Spring 2006” so it isn’t immediately helpful.

  6. John Says:

    You might already know this, but Garmin announced that they will have OS X utilities to upload MapSource maps in 2006.

  7. hatemapsource Says:

    For track editing, unfortunately u still have to stick with mapshit ooops mapsource
    But, i find the $20/year-google-earth-plus to be much more enjoyable in viewing tracks, with so many features (i dont imagine garmin will ever provide)
    – you see your track on a satellite image rather than poor map (especially if you are tracking outside us or europe)
    – you can switch on/off your track, change the color, thickness, etc
    – you can also group tracks

  8. Stephen Says:

    What we need is a new system that does away with as much proprietary mumbo-jumbo as possible, and supports the NMEA protocols fluidly.

    Having the ability to upload standardized USGS maps (that can be scanned), or are in an acceptable data format that a gpsr can use to display them properly is, as I see it, a necessity if the handheld gpsr market is to mature and grow into the years ahead.

    I know what is needed. I am working on a solution.


  9. Bill Welch Says:

    Has anyone figured out a way to upload all the TOPO US maps to the hard drive . . . seeing how this option is not available?

  10. Jonathan Says:


    First uninstall mapsource topo. Then copy all three cd’s to a folder on your hard drive. Click on the setup file from that folder on the hard drive. CD are no longer needed. It works. I have done it. FYI, the email i put is a spoof because i don’t like spam and I will not be back here as i only found this site while looking for information on something else. Good luck and i hope it helps.

  11. John Sandberg Says:

    Hey, I’ve transfered a mapset from Mapsource to my eTrex Legend Cx but now want to delete it from the unit. How is that done?

  12. Cam Says:

    Thanks Jonathan! I was having the exact same problem and your solution worked like a charm.

  13. Sue Nail Says:

    Jeff Knee…did you work at CE Software?


  14. Brandon Pierce Says:

    Mr. Sandberg: you don’t have to delete maps from the unit. Every time you load maps to the unit, the new maps replace the old ones. Since it’s a Cx, if you’re loading to a card, technically, you could format the card to delete the maps.

  15. Michael Says:

    Good resources…. but i still want to delete maps…. the display w the map is awfull you can’t see your previous tracks…. any solution to improve the display…. when you have the map…. it is all shaded… what a bad idea… So i resorted to downloaded a map from out of my interest

    I am a mac guy and had to buy a PC…. window XP… what a joke…. and they are in business…. I have set the OS not to sleep and it still persists in dozing off…. time to start…. 5 mins….. from start … and too much when compared to the mac

    etrex vista here
    in the bay area

  16. Dan Otten Says:

    Please help if you can. I wish to install City Navagator DVD version to a different drive other than C:. The installation aborts because it trys to install on the C: drive offering me no options to point the installation to another drive. Any takers here? Thanks.

  17. D Xook Says:

    To delete maps from your eTrex CX, Deselect them in Mapsource and then Transfer. Maps that are selected will be downloaded to the gps, maps that are not selected will be deleted in the gps if they exist.

  18. Michael Jones Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. My computer is currently at 79% of building a mapset including topo, city navigator and national parks. The only problem is that it has been working on this for over an hour now. This wouldn’t be so bad if it were a 1 time process, but from what i can tell, each time i decide to add or remove any part of the existing mapset, it is required to go through the same process. This equates to over an hour, possibly 2 of reconfiguring the map set each time i want to make a change to my gps!? Please correct me if i am wrong. Initially i thought that i could just simply add a section of a map in mapsource load it to the gps and be on my way. While this does load the new section of map, it erases the previous mapset on the gps. Thus I come to the conclusion that everything must be added to the mapset at one time and then loaded to the gps, which with all of my maps will take well over an hour , possibly two to finish!?

    Apart from the pain of customizing the mapsets loaded onto the gps, mapsource is a joke. When i have a relative amount of custom maps loaded in mapsource, mapsource bogs down like slug, not that it moves well with even the base maps loaded. It seems that such elementary software would run quite efficiently, not the case. This is horrible software relative to what it does.

    Well, i would say that give Garmin and mapsource some time, but i see that in over a year and half not much has improved. I can mention that i did get my first garmin about 8 years ago and from what i remember not much has improved since then.

    Garmin get something done here – your software sucks!