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Pump It Up

Like any good filling station, MSN gives out more than just maps and directions; it lets you compare fuel prices in the neighborhood. You may not see every station, but if you can plug in a ZIP code, you'll probably learn something useful about what's close by, as well as the local and national average, low, and high prices. To motor there, open a neighborhood map. On the right side of the screen, click Traffic Reports. A new screen opens. On the left, click Gas Prices. Enter a ZIP code and scroll down for price details.

Yahoo! has SmartView, which overlays symbols on a map you've already conjured up. One click down is a choice such as Gas Stations. You aren't looking at a new, strange map, with a note to scroll down for a list of gas stations and prices, as you do with MSN.

The bad news is that Yahoo! provides no prices. You have to pause your mouse over each icon to see the type of service station, and then click it to get an address, phone number, and a web site or web search—but there is no automatic price information.

On the plus side, you can leave the map at Tucheefeel Falls on screen. Start clicking down the prodigious list of Yahoo! SmartView features to get the same type of overlay icons. In other instances, there's no disappointment about missing gas prices; while I won't list all the available overlays, Yahoo's expandable categories include food and dining, recreation and entertainment, community services, shopping, travel and transportation, and financial info and ATMs. Among many useful sub-categories are food by ethnicity, WiFi hot spots, amusement parks, post offices, and tourist spots. The "insider" tourist spots weren't there, such as Seattle's Fremont Troll, but Yahoo! pointed out a plethora of other worthy Seattle spots, such as Discovery Park and Bruce Lee's gravesite.

Here's a typical SmartView example for theater listings: Hover over the SmartView icons to pop up the theater's name; then click to get the theater's address, phone number, ticket prices for all age groups, handicap accessibility, show times, and a link back to driving directions.

By contrast, MSN uses City Guides with Citysearch. It includes user ratings, but can be slow, even with a high-speed cable connection, due to some large animated graphical ads. However, some of the restaurant web pages are richer, more informative, and representative of the area. Two of the better category leads are Hobbies and Entertainment/Performing Arts Events.

By now, you're wondering how MapQuest compares on city sights. First of all, MapQuest makes maps and gives directions. Very well. It offers airports by state, although I'm not sure why it needs a huge separate button for that feature. The initial airport list doesn't turn up every little launch pad; for example, Washingtonians see Boeing Field, but not Harvey Field, until they do an expanded search. (Inexplicable: MSN Yellow Pages listed 137 airports for Washington State, including tiny Harvey Field, but didn't list small but important and well-known Boeing Field.)

Anyway, Yahoo! and MSN have free email accounts and scads of data on restaurants and shopping, but they were known content providers for a long time before they sidled into the map biz. MapQuest is about maps. And they do fine with airports, too, thank you, for whatever reason.

I almost missed MapQuest's huge section of Everything Else. Under the title Find It, MapQuest has the subtitle "Don't know the address? Find millions of places: airports, hotels, post offices, restaurants, schools, theaters, and more." When I found it, I wished I hadn't. I clicked a category and it demanded a city and state or ZIP. I complied. It had already populated the place category with the choice I'd made, so I got a list of department stores in my chosen city. When I chose another category, however, I had to supply city and state again. Dumb.

Beyond the pay packages for traffic overlays by cell phone, MapQuest offers a package called Find Me for all the "Wrong Way" Corrigans afraid of getting stranded out there. Find Me pinpoints your location via your GPS-enabled mobile phone, lets you share your location with trusted people via text messages or its secure web site, and gives maps and driving directions to nearby places. Find Me requires a compatible Nextel mobile phone and costs $3.99/month or $5.99/month with data access included.

If you don't like the idea of paying a fee every month, consider Microsoft Streets & Trips 2005 with GPS Locator. For a one-time fee of $129, you get a lot of mapping and travel-planning power, plus the GPS hardware, and there's no waiting for a download on a cell phone. If you carry a laptop, this is an option, but Streets & Trips includes Pocket Streets for your Pocket PC or Smart phone, so if you already have a GPS locator, consider Streets & Trips without GPS for $29.95 (after a $10 rebate).

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