Avoiding the Chasm

September 15, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job: Comparing GPS Devices

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 10:11 pm

I have just walked the first 100 miles of the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk; the section between St. Bees and Reeth in Swaledale. Before setting off I was keen to ensure that, as well as the obvious set of guides, maps and compass, I had a good GPS device to help with navigation when visibility got poor. I’ve been caught out in dense fog on a high fell in the Lake District and I know how difficult it can be to find the right route down in such conditions.

I already own two GPS devices: an iPhone and a TomTom GO 730 both of which are excellent devices and purchases that I am entirely happy with. I have seen a lot of discussion in online forums about the merits of various handheld GPS units and was aware of more and more software for the iPhone that made use of its built in GPS hardware. I wanted to know if either of my existing two devices could be usefully used on a trek or if I needed to invest in yet another gadget.

After much research I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was very very happy with it. I carry an iPhone all the time but I wouldn’t even bother switching it on if I had the Garmin with me. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its uses. For example, RouteBuddy have released a series of Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale maps of the UK National Parks which are stored on the iPhone and so can be viewed even when out of network contact. Their free iPhone application `Atlas’ can also be used to view the free OpenStreetMap map of the UK (and the rest of the world) and of course there are the excellent iPhone Google Maps and Google Earth applications. All of these are good for browsing in the pub or at home.

There are, however, a couple of big problems with the iPhone when used outdoors. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. With location services enabled to allow a GPS fix I estimate that you would be lucky to get more than two or three hours of continuous service from it, possibly less. A separate battery pack might extend that by a factor of two or three but you’d still be worrying about your chances of lasting for a good day’s walk and you would have the additional inconvenience of having to lug the weight of the battery pack. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously as far as safety is concerned, you will find that the iPhone is useless in the wet because when you are wet you won’t be able to operate the touchscreen. I discovered this inconvenience on a particularly wet day when I needed to call a Youth Hostel to book a bed for the night.

The map that comes with the Garmin is hopelessly basic, but if you download the free contour maps from the Scottish Mountaineering Society website and install (either manually or from the Internet) some routes and waypoints or POIs onto the Garmin it is an excellent hiking tool. Oh and it’s waterproof to 1 metre depth of water, its GPS is considerably more accurate than an iPhone and having it on continuously for 100 miles of walking it only got through 4 AA batteries. I’d rather have the combination of a paper map in a waterproof case (or one of those waterproof laminated ones) and a handheld GPS than risk having my map in the GPS. At least then if the device fails you still have a map (and, it goes without saying, a compass). The Garmin will give you a very accurate grid reference to read off on the map.

My advice is stick to the right tool for the job: iPhone for indoors, Garmin GPS60CSX for outdoor on foot and a TomTom (or similar) for the car. I don’t think any of the devices work well in the wrong environment.

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