As the last packages arrive for Christmas, it's also time to begin tracking that diligent and timeless courier, Saint Nicholas. While past generations may have had to rely on a massively distributed amateur radio network coupled with a bevy of powerful telescopes, today's youth can get their data straight from powerful American institutions like NORAD and Google. Here are your best options for keeping an eye on Santa in 2012.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command has been tracking Christmastime sleigh activity since 1955, when (according to its site) a misprinted phone number in a local newspaper ad sent children to the Air Defense Command in Colorado for updates on Santa's progress. For the past several years, NORAD has been using Google's Earth tool, but it recently switched over to Bing, which means that even Christmas is now fair turf for platform fan wars.
If you're going with NORAD, the simplest way to watch is online, where you can find live satellite imagery like that above, locations of past present drops, and "Santa Cam" renderings of the Big Man visiting notable locations. NORAD also posts Twitter updates under the handle @NoradSanta, in case you'd prefer a more text-based approach. It likewise boasts the most cross-platform app selection, with iOS, Android, and Windows Phone versions. On iPhone, where we tried it, it's not the most polished app, but it offers a map and some guidance as to where Santa will touch down, along with basic games.
Outside the web and app ecosystem, NORAD is still doing Santa tracking the old-fashioned way — through personal communication. A staff of volunteers will respond to emails sent to email@example.com or phone calls made to 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723).
Despite losing out to Microsoft for NORAD partnership this year, Google has launched a competing tool powered by Earth and Maps. The web-based Santa Tracker is actually pretty stylish, with a dashboard charting presents delivered, distance traveled, time of departure for a given location, and a rotating personal status update. You can also sign up to get a call from Santa or, as with NORAD, play games. As expected, there's a Chrome extension, and 3D satellite imagery requires the Google Earth plugin. Windows Phone and iOS device owners are out of luck app-wise, but Android users can get what is hands-down the most attractive tracking app we've seen.
Whether you prefer Google or NORAD is mostly a matter of taste, but if you decide to use both, you may run into some triangulation problems: the locations are generally off by a country or two, so while Santa is giving out presents over Melbourne in Google, he'll be traveling over Japan in Bing/NORAD. NORAD, of course, warns that Santa "functions within his own time-space continuum," while Google may still be working out some bugs with its redesigned algorithm.
Google and NORAD have the top tier of Santa tracking pretty much wrapped up, but below these two, you'll find a mass of free and paid apps on pretty much any platform. Once again, this is a matter of taste — some offer extra features like Christmas lists or texts to Santa, but without the support of a global mapping network, their location data may be suspect. Apple has not yet commented on whether its new Maps can accurately mark Santa's locations, and a Siri search brings up the remote and somewhat dubious location above.