TAC 40 Index
The Scottish Mountaineering Club - Edited by Ken Crocket and Donald Bennet
System Requirements: Mininum 120MHz Pentium, Windows 95, 16MB RAM, 20MB hard disk space, 4-speed CD drive, 16-bit colour, Windows-compatible sound card. Price: #40
Love the Scottish Mountaineering Club or loathe them, it's hard to deny that the most significant computer-related hill publication of 1998 is their long-awaited CD-ROM on the Munros. Your Editor has been involved, albeit fairly peripherally, in the planning and production of this, so he's in no position to offer objective critical comment. Likewise, to a lesser degree, Alan Blanco, who helped with some late-stage checking. But TAC doesn't lack for info-techno hill-lovers, so Grant Hutchison and Perkin Warbeck were each asked for their thoughts on what the SMC has produced. Note that this is the first published review of the actual over-the-counter CD. The disk wasn't shipped until the very start of December, so anything you've read in other magazines before now was based on late-stage beta versions, test CDs that were likely to put a different spin on things entirely.
NICE BOX. Inside, there's a single CD, with installation instructions. There's no manual, but there's no need for one - the interface is intuitive, and there's a Help icon available should you ever need it. It installed easily on my machine, and courteously offered me the latest version of QuickTime for Windows, necessary to view the video clips. It also provides its own uninstall option.
The program runs full-screen, but switches your desktop to a 640x480 display. If you usually run at higher resolution, then you'll be aware of a little blockiness - picture quality doesn't suffer too visibly, but the bitmapped text has a Lego look to it. Normal resolution is, of course, restored when The Munros shuts down. But if you run at high res, and if, like me, you work with several small windows open at a time, you may find that your desktop has been rearranged. Any small windows that were open when the program was started will end up either resized to fill the screen or shoved upwards and leftwards - Windows fiddles with the desktop, trying to accommodate it to the low screen resolution temporarily forced by The Munros. Maximised windows don't seem to be affected, and of course nothing happens to those who run at 640x480 all the time, so many folk won't notice a problem. Be aware, though, that if you use Alt+Tab to toggle out of The Munros to use some other program, you'll find yourself in 640x480 land. And the Munros screensaver plays the same trick, rendering itself entirely useless to folk who work with lots of windows open on a big desktop.
The opening screen offers six options: The Munros, Log Book, Gallery, The Web, Backpack and Quiz & Trivia. Each option has its own attendant musical sound-track. The demented electronic bagpipes associated with the first section are likely to prompt many users to turn off the sound - but be sure to turn it on again later, or you'll miss out on a lot of information.
Click on this option, and you'll see a map of Scotland, divided into the familiar seventeen sections of Munro's Tables. Click on a section, and you're into the Section Information screen - there's a picture in the background, and scrollable descriptive text occupies half the screen. (Most of the program text appears in this standard format, and the scroll arrows work rather nicely - generating a slow scroll if you move the mouse cursor over the arrow, and a faster scroll when clicked.) At bottom left there's a compass icon - click on that, and a Section Map appears, with Munros marked in familiar black triangles, and roads, coasts and waterways also indicated. Icons at bottom left allow you to zoom in and out (although the detail of the map doesn't alter; it just gets bigger and smaller). Click on a hill, and you're into a page that deals with that Munro alone, or perhaps in a logical grouping with one or two others.
There's a full-screen picture of your chosen Munro in the background. Scrollable text provides route information, pretty similar to that given in the Munros guidebook. The title section includes name, height, grid reference, OS map, and Munro number. An icon at top left lets you know if a Harveys map is available for your chosen hill. A Gaelic voice pronounces and translates the hill name(s). You can have this repeated by clicking on a microphone icon (which bears an unfortunate resemblance to an ice-cream cone). Other icons provide access to:
1 - A local route map - in the familiar ridge-and-summit format. This is nicely animated - a red marker wends across the map, and a voice-over gives synchronised details.
2 - Images - full-screen pictures of the current mountain(s).
3 - The log book - direct access without returning to the Main Menu screen.
4 - A search tool - finds Munros that meet specific criteria: section, name, height, OS sheet, and availability of video display.
5 - Printing - the relevant map and text are printed.
6 - Movies - eight video/animation files are included, and each can be activated from any of several peaks included in the movie. Rather pretty computer-animated fly-rounds, with synchronised narration, cover Arrochar (two), Ben Lomond, Ben More, Ben Nevis, Lochnagar and Torridon. There's also real-world helicopter footage of the Aonach Eagach, and a 360-degree panorama featuring the Mamores.
Oddly, there's no way to get straight to a Munro page, apart from drilling down through the three upper layers. This is a bit vexing, if all you want to do is look up a single hill.
A small database lets you record your Munro conquests under the following headings: name, date, time taken, travelling time, weather and companions (up to three), with room, too, for free-text notes. Type the first few letters of the name of your chosen hill, and the program offers a list of matching Munros. However, it doesn't differentiate clearly between hills with the same name - type in "An So", and you'll be offered An Socach, An Socach, and ... you guessed, An Socach. (This is redolent of New Labour's triplicate line on education; no prizes for guessing which hills will feature in "Chris Smith's On-Grid Guide to Munrobagging" - Ed.) There's no obvious indication of which is which, apart from the order they appear in. My first attempted entry ended up attached to the wrong Ben Vorlich. The log book is searchable by hill name, date, time taken and companion(s). Although "weather" also appears as a searchable option, I couldn't get it to retrieve any records for me. Irritatingly, you're kicked back to the main menu after a single successful search, even if several items matched your search criteria. Nowhere can you find out how many Munros you've logged, and there's also no facility to simply leaf through your log book. Given that the product is aimed at a population rich in list-tickers, it would certainly have benefited from a better database.
Click here, and you can browse through the whole stock of mountain pictures (around 280). There's some overlap with other SMC publications - for instance, of the fifteen images available in Section 17, seven have previously appeared in the second edition of the Munros guidebook.
Here's a single-page listing of useful and interesting web-sites, which communicates with your web browser - click on an address, and your browser is loaded to take you to that site. Of course, it's loaded in 640x480 mode, and some web-sites look a bit crumpled at that resolution - the SMC's own site among them.
The metaphor in operation here is: "it contains useful stuff to keep you safe, comfortable and informed on the hill." There are several sub-sections, by various authors, containing a lot of material in the form of scrolling text, images, sound and video. Some also provide reference lists for further reading. Like a good-quality Curate's Egg, it's excellent in parts, and nowhere really bad. The sections are as follows:
1 - History - from the earliest recorded ascents to the publication of Hamish's Mountain Walk. The text on "Munros defined" provides enough material to keep the cartographic pedants chattering for months to come. There are black-and-white period photos, and a graph of the recent Munroist explosion.
2 - Flora & Fauna - discusses the alpine and moorland habitats, and some basic conservation concepts, using diagrams, wildlife photos and a few recordings of bird calls and rutting deer. An interesting overview - but there's neither the space nor the intention to produce a detailed wildlife guide.
3 - Clothing & Equipment - the clothing section is written in the high-tech, low information style of a gear advertisement, and is very much A Message From Our Sponsors. Be sure to watch the pointless clothing video, but only for its triumphant closing words: "And this is the correct way to wear a balaclava!" Blimey. And all these years I've been putting the hole at the back. But the winter equipment video redeems the whole section - it covers the use of ice-axes and crampons, and is worth a dozen diagrams or a thousand words.
4 - Avalanche Awareness - this excellent section concentrates on bullet-pointed lists, and is as information- dense as the previous section was sparse. The video concerning the use of a snow-pit to assess avalanche danger is the highlight of the whole CD, for my money.
5 - Navigation - good solid stuff again, covering the use of map and compass, and managing to remain fairly clear even when embroiled in the convoluted business of allowance for magnetic variation. Some useful advanced techniques are described, including a handy section on Aspect of Slope navigation, and there's a good overview of electronic adjuncts like altimetry and GPS. The diagrams are clear.
6 - Tourist Information - a few rather odd pages giving details of major Scottish tourist information centres. Presumably another Message From Our Sponsors.
7 - Glossary - definitions of various words with a hill theme, containing some jokes.
Well ... there's some Munro trivia, appearing as a simple scrolling list; and there's a quiz, somewhat enlivened by an animation featuring a wee man trying to climb a mountain before nightfall.
And now I've got to tell you that the program regularly falls over with quite spectacular video crashes on my machine - such that I have to reboot to restore normality. Not every time I run a movie, but maybe one time in three or four. To be fair, I need to report that this did not happen to various folk who were doing beta testing. But there's nothing very odd about my machine - it's a multimedia Dell which exceeds the minimum spec, it's still got all its factory fittings, and it has never played me false with video before. To further be fair, it seems to be a problem with QuickTime, rather than The Munros - the crashes occur in exactly the same way when I run the movies straight from CD, without activating The Munros at all. But the fact remains that there is an as yet unquantified risk of system crashes associated with the video display. The SMC and their software studio are aware of the problem, and are talking to the QuickTime folk at Apple about it. There's a general help page planned for the SMC website, but at time of writing no word of a solution.
So. A lot of work has gone into this, and a lot of information and nice sound and pictures. It looks good, and the interface is easy to use. It's hampered, though, by a rather poor database. The forced 640x480 mode gives a full-screen display while not soaking up too much disk space, but the trade-off in rearranged desktops and squished web browsers will irritate some folk. And there's the spectre of some very annoying video crashes.
"The Definitive CD-ROM"? Not yet, I'm afraid.
Review version 1.0 - Grant Hutchison
TAC 40 Index