Thursday, 17 August 2017

Probably a complete waste of money

If maps bore you, look away now!

I both use and collect Ordnance Survey maps, the 1:25,000 scale being my favourite. This scale was introduced by the OS after the Second World War, to fill a big gap in scales between the One-inch maps at 1:63,360 (which later became the 1:50,000 Landranger series) and the Six-inch maps at 1:10,560 (which later became 1:10,000).

I have an impressive collection of paper 1:25,000 maps, with examples going back to 1946. The latest version of these is known as the Explorer series. They are perfect for looking at a small area in great detail, with obvious local history applications. They have always been the walker's map as well, for the detail includes such things as field boundaries, and small buildings, and all paths and streams. But this level of detail is also useful for general getting about, not just for ramblers. I like to have 1:25,000 mapping for every area I am likely to visit during the year, plus other areas that interest me for one reason or another.

In recent years I have stopped buying paper maps, preferring to install a digital version on my phone and laptop. Some time ago I discovered the OS's MapFinder application, which let you buy, download, install and view 1:25,000 Explorer mapping. Each map cost only £1.99 - or just £1.49 if a the map included a lot of empty sea. For this modest amount you got a 10km x 10km square of mapping - that's 100 square kilometres - known as a 'tile'. It really was quite painless to buy a few tiles at a time. I started about two years ago, and soon built up a collection that now covers all of South-West, South and South-East England, with the exception of the Thames Valley, London and Kent. I also have a few map tiles for parts of Wales, North-east England and Scotland.

The bulk of my purchases were in 2015 and 2016, but I've added a few more still during 2017.

I now have exactly 500 digital tiles. The total cost of these comes to £935.03. That's only £1.87 per tile on average. I'd have spent less if I'd bought the seventy-odd paper maps for all the areas covered by that £935, then downloaded the free digital version that now comes with every paper map. But that would have two downsides:

1. I haven't the shelf space to store another seventy-odd new paper maps, which I am not likely to look at once I've downloaded the free digital version.
2. Crucially, the free digital version of these paper maps isn't high-definition. Meaning that you can't magnify the map very much on the phone.

The maps bought and viewed with the OS's MapFinder app are high-definition, and you can magnify them as much as you please, and without the detail getting fuzzy. That's such a big advantage. It's the number one reason by far why I've continued to load them onto the phone, despite becoming aware during 2016 that the OS were no longer developing their MapFinder app. I thought that meant only that users wouldn't be able to share marked routes and so forth, which didn't affect my own usage at all. But I now think it means the OS have stopped maintaining the app entirely, effectively abandoning it. If so, it will certainly stop working at some point, maybe when Samsung phones upgrade to Android O later this year. When MapFinder stops working, I won't be able to access my 500 map tiles, and that £935 will become wasted money.

The strange thing is, you can still download and install MapFinder from the Google Play Store. That really does seem odd, if the app is officially a dead duck! It's inviting people to spend money uselessly.

Mind you, it may be that the app is already crippled, so that you can't actually buy maps with it any longer, only view whatever you have installed. I say this, because although I successfully added a batch of maps at the start of August, I can't any longer. Selecting the 'Buy Maps' option just makes the app crash. It seems that I am stuck with the 500 I have managed to install, and can never now add more.

It has crossed my mind that perhaps the original development parameters did not envisage a person ever buying as many as 500 tiles. Only a very few people with particular needs would do so. They were presumably ignored when allocating money for the development of MapFinder, and a 500-tile upper limit was arbitrarily set. Well, if so, I've hit that limit.

For now, I can still view my 500 tiles - and very useful they are, especially in high definition! But for how much longer? I'm already considering alternatives.

The most obvious alternative (as I already have a longstanding account with them) is to look at Memory-Map's offerings. It's tempting to get their All-GB Explorer mapping - the entire country at 1:25,000 as a one-off purchase - which incidentally means that it can be installed onto the microSD card in my phone:

There you are. £275 to get a USB stick through the post, to plug into my laptop and have all of the country at 1:25,000. Then to copy the lot to Tigerlily, and have all of the country on two mobile devices. Oh wow! For just £275! That is such good value for money.

I won't do anything just yet. So long as I can use the MapFinder app, I might as well stick with it. If it remains viewable for a couple of years more, then I won't feel so bad about spending that £953, because I'll be getting proper use out of the map tiles I bought. But one day the app will fail. And that'll be well before the maps in question would ever have become seriously out-of-date. At that moment - if not before - I will pop over to the Memory-Map website and get myself a better deal.

Do I feel annoyed with the OS? Yes, I do, although I'm just as annoyed with myself.

In their defence:

# They did announce back in 2016 that MapFinder was being nudged aside in favour of a newer app. The current notice on the relevant webpage (look closely at the opening image) makes it clear what the deal now is.
# I didn't have to install MapFinder, nor did I have to go on buying more and more maps for that app, even if the high-definition feature was in practice irresistible.
# I have in fact used the maps purchased, and to that extent I'm a satisfied customer. (I can't see myself clamouring for a refund or anything like that)

I can absorb the cost of those 500 map tiles. I can shrug my shoulders. Many other people won't be able to. So I say that the OS was very wrong not to withdraw the map-purchasing facility back in 2016. There must be thousands of people around who have a collection of these Explorer map tiles installed, and count on the continued good health of MapFinder. They are going to be very miffed one day soon. I can see this coming up on BBC Radio 4's consumer programme You and Yours. The fallout won't do the OS's reputation any good.


  1. I am still able to purchase new maps on MapFinder, though following your warning I won't be doing so. Perhaps there is a 500 limit that has stopped you.

  2. I have mapfinder on my phone and it is wonderful. Two days ago I bought a new tile and it wouldn't load. Contacted OS but no reply as yet. Now I know what the reply will be. Sadly I anticipated the reply to reinstall the app and did so. This deleted all the perfectly functioning map tiles I had and yes, none of them will install now. It is purely related to Android version as I can download to an old tablet. Be warned that if your Android device updates you will not be able to add maps. Don't delete any. Shame on you OS. This was a far better app than its replacement

  3. I am the "unknown" who posted a comment on 20th July. OS did reply, and far more positively than I expected. For every tile I have in MapFinder, they gave me a redemption code for the corresponding map in OS Maps. Obviously some tiles were on the same map, but equally I now have a whole map for each of several isolated tiles. I still think MapFinder is the better app, but OS did the decent thing.


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