Published on: March 28, 2015 | Last Updated: January 21, 2020
What is GIS Software?
GIS software is a computer-based tool for examining geographic patterns, trends and relationships. They allow organizations to store, analyze and visualize data for geographic locations anywhere on Earth. By connecting geography with data, you understand data through a geographic context.
ArcGIS Pro modernizes GIS with a ribbon interface, 64-bit processing and 3D integration. It’s a massive overhaul with a focus on quickness, ingenuity and cartography. Even though ArcGIS Pro is a big machine with lots of moving parts, it earns top spot.
ArcGIS Desktop is cutting edge in GIS. It raises the bar to the next level by doing what other GIS software can’t. Its success is that it’s expandable. From field apps to modeling and scripting, ArcGIS is a powerhouse for all things GIS.
Open source flows in the DNA of QGIS 3. It’s been genetically tailored to break the mould of commercial GIS. Not only because it’s now in 3D. But QGIS plugins still give you the power to analyze like the Incredible Hulk.
QGIS 2 is the largest community effort in the history of GIS. And because it’s community-driven, it’s wildly innovative and inventive. Even though QGIS 2 is completely open source, it still rivals the best.
GeoMedia has 40+ years of history. But lately, it’s taken a bit of a slide. Nevertheless, it’s still solid as GIS software. Especially, when you pair it up with ERDAS Imagine, you get arguably the best suite in remote sensing.
At its core, MapInfo Professional is all about locational intelligence. And just like GeoMedia, it’s been a tale of shrinking market share. But don’t get fooled. MapInfo is still gifted as an well-rounded GIS software suite.
Feature Manipulation Engine FME® isn’t a full-fledged GIS package. Instead, it wrangles and slays your data like a Jedi. It’s extremely powerful and has a surprisingly active community. In fact, its yearly World Tour is a blast to attend. But just don’t use FME® for making maps.
Global Mapper is like a “Swiss army knife” in GIS analysis. It’s straight-forward to get started. But at the same time, it has an incredible amount of flexibility. For example, it has powerful display for LiDAR and elevation.
If you eat, sleep and breathe GIS, gvSIG is free and open source GIS software. Its features may surprise you. For example, it has a field app, 3D capabilities and a desktop application. But it’s light on documentation. Especially, anything in English.
GRASS GIS is one of those suites that let you geoprocess until the night falls. It’s a loaded gun with sophisticated tools. It’s so powerful that you can unleash GRASS GIS in QGIS as a separate toolbox. But its clunky interface and stubborn map projection rules hold it back.
WhiteBox GAT is the diamond in the rough. If you need terrain and hydrological analysis, then it’s a superb choice. The LiDAR support is out-of-this-world. But it also has 360+ plugin tools. It deserves a higher ranking. But it’s just not strong in mapping, editing and data management.
Cadcorp meshes GIS with CAD. In a near flawless way, it adds rich functionality for mapping and styling. In a ribbon interface, inter-operability and web mapping both shine in Cadcorp.
13 GE Smallworld
If you’re in utilities, then GE Smallworld is for you. When GE acquired SmallWorld, it rose as the top GIS software for utility companies. The key is its robust data model which allows various geometry properties per object.
Manifold System is something you can just pick up and get accustomed to quickly. Its highlights are its intuitive interface, programmability and 64-bit processing. Manifold GIS has a solid set of tools. But without the high price tag.
TatukGIS is straightforward and well-rounded. Its leading features include its state-of-the-art editing, format support and scripting environment. Fun fact: The origin of TatukGIS is based on Tatuk Lake in British Columbia, Canada.
Maptitude stands out as one of the more affordable one-stop shop GIS platforms on the market. While it’s true that Maptitude is a low cost, professional GIS, you might want to look elsewhere for higher level analysis.
If you started using Autodesk, AutoCAD Map 3D has the same look and feel to it. Basically, AutoCAD Map bridges the gap between CAD and GIS. You get map layouts, data management and editing capabilities. By linking CAD and GIS, you get the best of both worlds.
MapViewer is part of the Golden Software suite. Alongside Surfer and Didger, you get a nice mix of 3D, analysis and editing capabilities. But it’s key feature is how you can produce professional quality thematic maps.
The 80s are making a comeback. As part of it, ILWIS is still embracing the era. But if you need remote sensing tools, it’s a decent place to look. There’s also 3D visualizations and stereo imaging. Despite its desperate need for makeover, ILWIS is versatile in specific niches.
The name of the game for SAGA GIS is geoscience. If you go down this rabbit hole, you may get lost. Documentation lacks do much that you don’t even know the input and output. But it has some of the rarest tools you’ll ever find in GIS software.
Krig with the best using GeoDa. GeoDa is a specialist in statistical tools. As you work in this open source GIS software, you explore spatial statistics. Through state-of-the-art geo-visualizations and geo-simulations, it’s the ultimate tool for spatial modeling.
Bentley Map combines the power of CAD with the strengths of traditional GIS. For example, it offers robust inter-operability, overlay tools and high quality cartographical output. It’s not only for 2D. But you can perform GIS analysis in 3D too.
IDRISI by Clark Labs is mostly for raster analysis and image processing. For example, it’s equipped with 300+ analysis tools. But it also focuses on Earth modeling too. For example, it has modules for land change, biodiversity modeling and climate change.
TNTview, TNTedit, TNTmips and TNTscript are part of the MicroImages GIS software family. At the basic level, TNTview is an open viewer. As you move up the license levels, each one adds extra capabilities. Overall, it’s a decent option for all-around mapping, analysis and editing.
MapWindow is an open source project. While it does about 90% of what GIS users need, it specializes in hydrology. It still struggles with some of the basics. But it’s a decent volunteer effort.
Volunteers world-wide work on this open source desktop application. Most of the focus for uDig is on database viewing and editing. Even today, updates continue to roll in. But the interface really just needs a fresh coat of paint.
27 Jump GIS
You’ve got two tickets to the OpenJump show. Would you go? In short, Jump GIS is good at doing the basics. It started as a tool for data conflation. Then, it grew into a modest size open source project. Despite its light functionality, developers still support the project.
FalconView is a flight simulator so it’s unfair to compare in this list of GIS software. If you want to do fly-throughs, Georgia Tech built it for this purpose. Otherwise, you can render features in 3D like LiDAR and elevation.
OrbisGIS is still a work-in-progress. It’s now released as a cross-platform open source GIS software package. Specifically, OrbisGIS is designed by and for research.
30 Diva GIS
Diva GIS is an open source GIS software package that’s simple and light-weight. Biologists use it for mapping biological richness and diversity distribution. It’s functional. But there’s not a lot here for mapping and functionality.
Mapping out the GIS software landscape
If you’re in the geospatial industry, your choice in GIS software is critical.
We’ve mapped out the GIS software landscape for you.
You have 30 options to choose from. What did you pick?
We’d love to hear from you so please leave us a comment below.