Sam Booth

OS Maps Review (plus eDofE Mapping)

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OS Maps

Overview

OS Maps is the slightly-too-generic name for the web-based mapping software published by Ordnance Survey. It started life in 2010 as “OS Explore”, before being re-branded in 2012 to “OS Getamap”, and somewhere around 2015 it was re-branded again simply to “OS Maps”. As it’s web-based, you don’t need to install it on your PC, but apps are now available for Android and iOS to give a better user experience on these small devices. It’s the app that allows you to redeem the scratch-off codes on paper maps, which is one of the reasons why it’s so popular. It’s in active development and is regularly updated, and although I can’t find any data to prove it, from anecdotal experience I think that OS Maps is one of the most widely-used digital mapping solutions out there.

OS Maps scratch-off code

The subscription options are easy to understand (you just choose whether to pay monthly or annually) and there are no additional costs once you subscribe. A subscription gives you access to OS maps across Great Britain, and all the features in the app. There is a free version but it lacks access to the Explorer and Landranger map series, so is not covered in this article. You don’t need to buy a subscription to redeem the scratch-off codes on paper maps.

Viewing

Map series available

The subscription gives you access to a variety of Ordnance Survey maps.

Standard Map. Note how ‘Don View House’ (a single house) gets a label, but Oughtibridge (large village north of Worrall) does not.
Standard Map zoomed in

The “Standard Map” is interesting but not particularly useful. It shows buildings and streets in great detail, but only main streets and buildings are labelled. The place labels that it chooses to show are fairly random. The labels for tiny villages often take precedence over main towns, which remain unlabelled. There is also a “Night Map” which is similar to the standard map, but using dark colours, so it doesn’t blind you or light up your face when you use it at night. It’s a nice thought but unfortunately I find the level of detail so lacking that it’s basically useless.

Night Map (app only)

I suspect that the Explorer and Landranger maps are the reason that most people pay for the subscription, but they are not the high-definition versions seen on other software, which is odd, as OS produce the maps. I would be interested to know why OS don’t use their highest-quality maps on their own software?

An image of a map zoomed in too far, with pixilation.
Pixelated and blurry in OS Maps
Bright and clear in Anquet OMN

The aerial photography is displayed without any overlays or labels. This clean look feels quite “pure”, but as the screen blanks and refreshes when you switch the map, it can be difficult to keep track of what you are looking at.

Aerial imagery
The location jumps when you switch maps

I particularly like the Greenspace map which is useful for finding bits of green space to run navigation exercises or training activities on (or walk the dog). None of the other software has anything like this.

Greenspace Map
Greenspace Map Key

There is also the best National Cycle Network map that I’ve come across.

National Cycle Network Map
National Cycle Network Map Key
User experience

OS Maps is easy to get up-and-running, especially as you don’t need to download or install anything to use the web-based version. I have always found both the web version and app version to be fast and responsible, with maps loading quickly and no freezes or hold-ups. The user interface is generally very clear, and hyperlinks and icons are large enough to see clearly, without adding too much clutter.

The next section of the review focuses on the user interface, and to emphasise the differences between the products I review, I use a relatively small screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels as this makes the screenshots clearer in this article and exaggerates any clutter on the user interface. What you’re seeing here is therefore a worst case scenario.

When viewing routes, there is a substantial amount of clutter by default (50% map, 50% clutter), mostly due to the sidebar. However, there is a very prominent “Expand” button, which gives you a very respectable 85% map and 15% clutter.

Default view
Expanded view

The interface is similar when editing routes. Again the Expand button is available, which hides the sidebar and replaces it with a really useful information bar at the top of the screen, which can be expanded to show an elevation profile as well.

Information bar and elevation profile. (The ‘duration’ in minutes doesn’t seem to be working…)

One complaint I have is that OS Maps prevents you from using the right-click button on your mouse, and there is no “copy” button provided next to the grid reference, so you have to use the CTRL+C keyboard shortcut to copy the grid reference to your keyboard. If you’re not familiar and comfortable with keyboard shortcuts then this might not be obvious to you. It would be good if they could re-enable right click, or add a “Copy to clipboard” link underneath the grid reference.

Right click is disabled. How annoying!
Search

The search feature is a single text box which generally works well and finds places by name, postcode and national grid reference. Its main limitation is that the list of results is only shown as a drop-down box, which doesn’t scroll. The search results are not affected by the area currently visible on the map so I sometimes find that the top result does not take me to the area I expected, near where I’m currently looking, but instead takes me to a place with the same name at the other end of the country.

A single search bar keeps things simple.
Saved routes

When accessing your saved routes, the sorting and filtering is extremely fast, and the key word search filters the list of results as you type. I also really like that the start point of all your routes are shown on the map, so you can search by area, not necessarily by route name. The starting point for each of your routes is shown as a pin on the map, colour coded by difficulty (defined subjectively by you, from Leisurely, Moderate or Challenging). Where lots of your routes start close together they are grouped as pink blobs until you zoom in further.

The main limitation for me is that you can’t create folders to organise your routes, so I end up having to use the route name to hold more information. eg. “17/Bz3/P/Sat Baslow Hassop” means to me “2017, Bronze Group 3, Practice, Saturday, Baslow to Hassop”. I’ve started to export my old routes as GPX files to reduce the number of routes stored on my OS Maps account, which unfortunately means that they aren’t available at a moment’s notice for that conversation in the pub when you’re trying to remember exactly where that route went 3 years ago…

Routes are available on the web, and on the app, as soon as you save them. No manual synchronisation process is required.

Viewing routes

It’s not possible to view more than one route at the same time, which is something I often need to do. This is the main drawback to OS Maps, in my opinion, but I understand that it’s a “power user” feature that wouldn’t be useful to many recreational walkers. When you open a route, it displays in view-only mode unless you explicitly decide to edit it, which I like as it reduces the risk of editing a route accidentally.

Some more limitations that may only be relevant to “power users”: There are no extra line features like start/end terminators or direction-of-travel arrows. There is no differentiation between routes and tracks when importing a GPX file. Areas and sets of waypoints are not supported. You can only import GPX files and no other formats.

A route in view only mode, showing the elevation profile being used.

Editing

Editing routes is simple and they have definitely got the basics right here. Click to add a new point. Drag existing points to move them. Click the big “Remove” button then click a point to remove it. Naming waypoints is easy, and once a waypoint has been named, the point will appear with a number on the map, and will be included on the route card as well.

Naming a waypoint.

There are two extra features which I really like. First is the ability to snap your route to public rights of way inside National Parks. This means that your route will follow the footpath almost exactly. You’ll need to use a transparent line style so you can see the detail underneath, as the line will be drawn directly along the path. The second extra feature I like is that some hazards are automatically highlighted on your route as icons. This only works when used in combination with the “route snapping” just described. Hazards shown include water crossings, road crossings and cliffs. It’s not foolproof but it creates a talking point when reviewing a route with a group. In fact, once one water crossing gets the hazard icon, the group usually finds it quite fun to look for any other water crossings that the automatic system has missed!

Route snapping and hazard markers.

You can choose the line style for each route from a choice of 6 colours, 4 thicknesses and 6 transparency levels. This provides an excellent range of useful line styles, without adding unnecessary complexity. My go-to option is a thick, medium-transparency purple line. I do however find that none of the pre-set colours are very useful for urban areas, where the pink and yellow are too similar to main roads, the blue is similar to the blue used for water and the grid lines, and the green and purple are too dark to stand out in areas of the map with lots of black (eg. built-up areas). I like to use a bright orange here as contour lines usually aren’t the main focus in built-up areas.

Not too much choice, but just enough in my opinion.

When you save a route you can specify a name and description. It also asks you for a “surface type” which I find a bit useless, and a “route difficulty” from Leisurely, Moderate or Challenging. The “route difficulty” affects what colour the route marker is shown on the map when you are searching for routes (not the colour of the line) which I use for colour-coding routes based on which level of DofE group (Bronze/Silver/Gold) used the route. You can choose for the route to be visible to other users or whether it’s private to you. Once you’ve saved the route, you can export it as a GPX file if you need.

Options available when saving a route.

You can also create a route by recording it using the app. I’ve used this a couple of times and found it easy to use, but like any GPS-based app, it will drain your device battery fairly quickly.

Printing

Printing options are basic but cover all the essentials. You can print to A4 or A3, portrait or landscape. You can print the map to a custom scale, meaning you can print OS Landranger (1:50K) maps at a 1:25K scale, which I find useful when teaching students to navigate by focusing on contour lines and not, for example, just using the field boundaries visible on the OS Explorer maps.

There is a small “print overview” which shows which area of the map or route will be printed. You can’t print long multi-page routes in one go. Instead you have to pan the map along the route, and print multiple pages manually, which I don’t find to be a problem. Some other software will automatically print multiple pages when required, but I like having control over exactly what gets printed.

The print preview is easy to use.

Grid numbers are printed around the edge of the map, which is useful, but it also prints a huge washed-out border around the edge of the map, which is pretty much unreadable, and is totally pointless. I don’t understand the need for this huge border, and it’s probably my biggest issue with OS Maps. Maybe they want people to keep buying paper maps!

So much wasted space with this massive border…

Sharing

As previously mentioned, you can export a GPX file easily, but no other file formats are supported. This isn’t a big issue for me, as GPX is pretty much universal, and there are free online converters that you can use to convert GPX to other formats if required.

There is a built-in “Sharing” feature which lets you send routes to a friend, but this does not work for “Private” routes (ie. the ones you don’t want to appear on the public route listings). If your friend does not have a subscription, they will be able to view the route on the “Standard Map”, and download a GPX file if they want to. If your friend has a subscription, they can use all the features of OS Maps including viewing your route on all the different types of maps.

Extra features

One of the features I absolutely love about OS Maps is the 3D view. It will do a fly-through, but it also lets you manually pan and zoom in 3D view, to really explore a route in 3D. The 3D view is always generated using aerial photography and it’s not possible to use the OS Explorer or Landranger maps like it is in Memory-Map.

Another extra feature I like is the “Discover Routes” feature, where you can browse through other people’s routes to find something you like. Unfortunately, like any user-contributed content, there is a lot of rubbish on there. You can’t see the route until you click “View”, so you have to rely on the title being somewhat useful, which it often isn’t.

The last extra feature I want to mention is the “Places” panel. This lets you pick a variety of point features (eg. car parks, campsites, Wainwright summits, etc.) and make them stand out on the map at all zoom levels. I use this a lot for finding car parks.

Car parks wouldn’t usually be visible at this zoom level.

Overall

Overall, I think OS Maps is an excellent solution for the casual user. It’s one of the easiest ways into digital mapping and it’s the solution that I find myself recommending the most, for casual users. My favourite points are the instant synchronisation of routes to the app, the routes snapping to rights-of-way, and the 3D view. The biggest drawbacks for me are only viewing one route at a time, not being able to use folders to organise routes, and the lack of high-definition mapping. But despite this, if I had to pick a single digital mapping solution, OS Maps would be high up the list.

eDofE Mapping

Overview

eDofE Mapping is a specialised version of OS Maps, that is available free of charge for DofE participants and leaders through eDofE. It lacks a lot of functionality available in OS Maps, but there are a couple of additional features as well. I’ve never seen anyone else write a direct comparison and I thought that this may be useful for other people in my situation, where you are familiar with OS Maps, but your DofE participants are using eDofE Mapping, and you’re not 100% sure of the differences between the two.

Viewing

Map series available
Map Type OS Maps eDofE Mapping
Standard Yes Yes
Aerial Yes Yes
OS Explorer Yes Yes
OS Landranger Yes Yes
OSNI Discoverer No Yes
Greenspace Yes No
National Cycle Network Yes No
Aerial 3D Yes No

Because the DofE Award is delivered in Northern Ireland, they’ve added Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland (OSNI) Discoverer (1:50K) map, labelled as “Northern Ireland Leisure”. The more detailed 1:25K Activity series maps are unfortunately not available. (As an aside, you can view them for free on Spatial NI . Use the “Basemap Gallery” button on the toolbar at the top to view the different types of maps.)

OSNI Discoverer (1:50K) maps on eDofE Mapping
User experience

The general user experience matches OS Maps. That is to say, it’s very good and it keeps getting better. Participants seem to find it very easy to use, with a small amount of training and explanation.

Search

The search feature is exactly the same as OS Maps.

Saved routes

When you save your route in eDofE Mapping, it is stored in eDofE under “Your Maps”. Therefore there is no way of searching through your routes except by using the built-in browser CTRL+F “Find” feature.

If you want to import a GPX file, you have to create a new blank route, then import the GPX file into that. It’s basic but it works.

Viewing routes

Once you’ve found the route you want to view, in eDofE, you click it to launch eDofE Mapping. This loads a new window every time so it’s a slow process to quickly flick through lots of routes if you’re trying to find a particular one. In OS Maps there is a clear separation between “view mode” and “edit mode”, but this is not the case in eDofE Mapping. You are in “edit mode” all the time, so be careful not to make any accidental changes to the route, or at least remember not to save them.

Editing

Editing routes in eDofE Mapping is very similar to editing routes in OS Maps. You still have access to the same set of line styles, the elevation profile, and the waypoint naming, but you do not have access to the right-of-way route snapping, hazard warnings, or strangely, the “remove” button. This means that if you want to remove a point near the beginning of the route, you would have to “undo” the entire route, point-by-point. This isn’t as inconvenient as it sounds, as it’s rare that you actually want to delete a point. More commonly you would just want to move it, which you can still do. I suspect that the “remove” button is hidden on eDofE Mapping because they are trying to keep the user interface as simple as possible.

eDofE has no duplicate, remove or route snapping buttons.

Printing

Printing is almost exactly the same as in OS Maps, except the route card feature, which is covered in the “extra features” section.

Sharing

It’s really easy for participants to send routes directly to individual leaders. They simply tick the route(s) they want to send, then select a leader, and click the Send button. A message is sent to the leader, with a link for them to open the route. The route is not added to the leader’s list of routes, so you always have to access it via the message. So make sure you don’t delete the message until you’re sure you don’t need the route any more. Alternatively you can download the route as a GPX file and save it to your computer.

Sending a route, as a participant.
Receiving a route, as a leader.

Extra features

The Route Card system on eDofE Mapping is different to the one used on OS Maps.

On both systems, only named waypoints will appear on the route card, which is a huge improvement over some old method of generating route cards which would give you a table row for every single point on the map. On OS Maps, to name a waypoint, you click it on the map and click Edit. On eDofE Mapping, you click it on the sidebar and click Edit. On both systems you can enter a title and/or a description.

On eDofE Mapping, there is a Route Card button at the top of the screen, which you use to enter loads more information about the team and route. This allows a DofE-template route card to be generated for printing.

Field for the route card header.
More info for each point on the route card.

Overall

I think that eDofE Mapping does a great job of what it’s designed to do, which is to support DofE participants and leaders. It’s brilliant that this is provided to all participants and leaders at no extra cost, and it saves you the headache of trying to negotiate commercial or volume software licenses for other products.

Further reading

If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at my mapping software comparison article which covers six of the most popular mapping software packages.