OK folks, let’s put on our big boy pants and play grownup GPS.
|“Look at me! I know how to use GPS for
something other than geocaching!”
Simple to operate and
has no issues with operating under
a proprietary grid system
|Thales Mobile Mapper|
Most consumers are not educated enough to understand that a dedicated GPS unit offers features that make it uniquely suited to outdoor use in rugged environments. GPS integration in a smartphone is a compromise, particularly the antenna system. On a smartphone GPS has to coexist with a range of other receivers and transmitters that all require their own antennas – cell, wi-fi, Bluetooth, etc. A smartphone is first a phone, and other features like GPS get secondary design consideration. But with a dedicated GPS unit optimized GPS reception and performance is the primary design goal. First and foremost we expect a GPS unit to provide fast and accurate position fixes under a wide range of conditions. If you want to know where to find the nearest Starbucks get a smartphone. If you are on a seven day backpacking trip and its been raining the last three days and you want to know where the next campsite with a bear box is located get a dedicated GPS.
So let’s take a closer look at how the market is broken down.
|The Garmin eTrex is perhaps the most
successful line of consumer GPS units in the industry
No compass, no altimeter but hey,
at least it runs Windows!
3. The high end market is dominated by survey-grade GPS units that start around $5,000 and can peak out at over $30,000. For that price (along with a subscription to a real-time correction service that runs a few thousand each year) the user gets accuracies on the order of a few centimeters horizontally and vertically while working on-the-fly. Not for the casual user, but it is interesting to note just how much accuracy thirty grand can buy.
We selected a fair number of units to test – the Magellan 315 and Thales MobileMapper mentioned earlier, a Trimble Juno and Yuma, a Magellan eXplorist 610, a DeLorme PN-60 and a Garmin eTrex 20.
|Top – Trimble Yuma
Middle – DeLorme PN-60, Thales MobileMapper, Magellan 315
Bottom – Magellan eXplorist 610, Trimble Juno, Trimble TSC-2
The DeLorme and the eTrex quickly fell out of the competition. The DeLorme does not support user coordinate systems (a very disappointing shortcoming in an otherwise outstanding GPS unit). The eTrex does have a user coordinate system setting, but it only works in meters (our custom airport coordinate system is set up in feet). I was really pulling for the eTrex 20 because it’s the cheapest of our test samples ($175 Amazon price), has a good screen, an intuitive menu system and its receiver tracks both the US GPS and the Russian GLONASS satellites. Alas, Garmin tech support could never figure out how to get it to provide readouts in feet so back to the store it went.
The Trimble Yuma is really a tablet computer running Windows 7. It is a very capable device, but at the $5,000 price point falls way outside of our test objectives.
The Trimble Juno is an interesting unit. It is essentially a highly customized PDA that runs Windows Mobile 6.1. This Juno is really the lowest entry point in terms of price and features for a serious handheld GPS mapping and field data collection device. Unfortunately the entry price is still too steep for this test – the hardware itself costs around $1,000 and the software needed to do field reconnaissance and data collection – ESRI’s ArcPad – runs an additional $400. A good device, just too expensive and too complex for the non-technical user.
The Trimble TSC-2 seen in the picture above is not really a GPS receiver. It is a survey-grade data collector that pairs with a high precision GPS receiver via Bluetooth (we use a Trimble R8) . I threw it into the picture just for comparison.
The Magellan 610 pulled ahead early in the competition. It’s a mid-sized unit that’s a bit chunky but fits well in the hand. It uses a touch screen interface and it includes a 3.2 mp camera that geotags each image. After some fiddling it took our custom coordinate system and returns very good accuracies on the order of +/- 10 ft. I should mention that a large airport is an ideal location to test potential GPS accuracy since you have open skies horizon-to-horizon. If the GPS satellite is above the horizon your receiver will see it. No trees, buildings, towers, etc. in the way. So please, don’t take my accuracy results as gospel. Your real world results will vary.
|Magellan eXplorist 610
A very capable little device
Where the Magellan 610 stumbles is ease of use. It has a lot of features – GPS, camera, compass, barometer and altimeter. It is a jack of all trades and, to be honest, most features are fairly well integrated. However, learning to use them takes time and it’s easy to get lost in the touchscreen menu system. The Magellan also suffers from a disease that afflicts most other consumer grade handheld GPS units – ‘gamesmanship’. In an effort to attract new customers manufacturers like Magellan, Garmin and DeLorme have built their user interfaces around the game or sport of geocaching. It’s a fun game and a great way to get tech savvy kids off their asses and into the outdoors. The low end GPS manufacturers see this as a market niche they can exploit and have structured most of their unit’s features around geocaching.
The problem we face is that geocaching-oriented GPS units makes lousy general purpose or field data collection units. By focusing on geocaching the manufacturers have ignored the needs of a whole different market segment – the map data developer.
A weak coordinate system library, the lack of a GIS-industry standard vector data format such as the ESRI shapefile, weak data attribution tools on the GPS unit and a weak desktop mapping interface all hinder the use of these units as data collectors. DeLorme comes the closest with it’s XMap desktop GIS software, but the cost is over $800 per license it continues to use a proprietary vector data format linked back to the PN-series receivers.
What the industry needs is a low-end map data collector that has a simplified interface optimized for adding and attributing data collected in the field. It needs to use industry standard vector and raster data formats and should come with a more robust desktop mapping interface oriented towards the field mapping industry or enthusiast. Magellan seems to be dipping its big toe back into this market with the Magellan eXplorist Pro 10, but this device still requires a third party software package like ArcPad and offers no improved desktop mapping software.
|Magellan eXplorist Pro 10
This is just a re-packaged Magellan 610, but a good start!
So GIS industry wonks, here’s what I want:
1. a handheld GPS unit with a large, high resolution screen that is easy to read in broad daylight
2. consumer-grade accuracy using WAAS correction
3. a user interface highly optimized for field data collection – no third party software requirements!
4. a robust horizontal and vertical coordinate system library and the ability to accurately define a user coordinate system
5. a 5 megapixel digital camera with flash
6. the ability to configure field collection jobs or scenarios and save them as project files
7. twelve hour continuous use battery life
8. an external antenna port
9. fully waterproof
10. improved desktop software for device configuration and data download and upload
11. use of industry standard vector and raster data formats
And I want this all at a $700 retail price point.
So get to work. I expect some nice surprises in your 2013 lineups!