The Treehouse Blog

Tag: gpsOne

Device Convergence: GPS

by on Jun.01, 2010, under Technology

Are cell phones yet to the point where they can replace a hand-held hiking GPS?  Up until recently, I’ve been quick to dismiss this notion.  The announcement of Garmin’s latest hand-helds that appear to be moving closer to their cell phone brethren has me wondering.  Reports of the new touch-screen interface are about as bad as one would expect.

So, what are the issues?  I tried my G1 running OruxMaps on a 3.5hr / 10 mile hike in the mountains on Monday to get a better perspective.

Battery Life. It barely survived.  I would probably expect twice the battery life from my Garmin GPSMap 76S with a constantly running display.  Can the battery life issues be solved with an external AA-based battery pack to keep the cell phone charged?  I have no experience with these things.  Reviews indicate that ones without regulators aren’t worth much.  I might have to try one.

GPS Hardware. Cell phones may have GPS receivers, but it is not their primary function.  Most Android phones I’ve looked at seem to use the Qualcomm gpsOne chipset instead of a dedicated chipset such as the oft-mentioned SiRFstar III.  This is a cause for concern, since gpsOne currently seems to lack support for WAAS and likely is not as sensitive as the SiRFstar.  The upside of gpsOne is that AGPS will provide a faster lock when within range of the cell network.

Usability. Another major hurdle is the availability of high quality GPS software for the phone.  I’ve tried Maverick Lite, OruxMaps, and My Tracks and found them all to be lacking the necessary features of a hand-held GPS.  My Tracks is the Google-sponsored outdoor activity tracking app that was very recently open-sourced.  Maverick and Orux both provide offline map access (another must), but they seem to accomplish this with saved graphic tiles and not vector data as would be desired.  Any new GPS solution I get should have high-resolution topo maps included.

Durability. Hand-held GPS receivers tend to be waterproof and a bit rugged.  I’ve dropped my GPSmap 76s a number of times – and it once fell off my bike at 15+ mph.  There’s no way any phone I’ve owned would be happy with that kind of treatment.

Bottom line?  Not sure yet.  I do think the concept of a hand-held GPS is already starting to fade.  I’m not ready just yet to give mine up in favor of the cell phone.  I hope the newly open-sourced My Tracks starts gaining some useful hand-held features.

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