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Will Mobile Phone Displace Hand Held GPS units?
Written by:
Professor Gérard Lachapelle
Department of Geomatics Engineering
University of Calgary

Gerard LachapelleThe past two years have witnessed the appearance of apps for smartphones that can deliver much of the same functions as those of dedicated handheld GPS units. After all, it is only a matter of software now that these smartphones are equipped with GPS chips and barometers.  These chips are the same as those used in dedicated units, hence what are the differences? From a purely performance point of view, little to none for the occasional user. However a more thorough examination reveals significant differences.  First is battery power; if a smarphone app is used in the backcountry for navigation and for distance travelled and height gain estimation, the power will drain quickly if no cellular coverage is available, which is generally the case in the Canadian Rockies, because the phone goes into search mode, thereby requiring more power.  This however can be avoided by turning off the cellular function.  The next issue is the lack of robustness of mobile phones under humid/wet conditions. Excess moisture produced by the body can damage a mobile phone; this can be avoided by keeping the phone in a ziplock bag.  Dedicated handheld units do not have this problem and are much more robust. Hence for the serious and frequent backcountry/multi-day hiker, dedicated units still have advantages. 

Where does this leave the Garmin and DeLorme manufacturers of the world?  Are they going to sit idle while their markets are being eroded? Unlikely, given their ingenuity and competitiveness. Two cases in point: DeLorme InRearch system and Garmin’s training watches. The InReachSE now has a two-way messaging capability and SOS button.  The latter can be activated with one push in case of emergency, resulting in a message for help that includes the user’s location.  The user can also receive and send 160 character text messages, a highly desirable feature for multi-day users. An option is to automatically send positions to a selected recipient for safety purpose. The comlink is the satellite-based Iridium system, available worldwide. The annual comlink subscription fee is reasonable, starting at approximately $15 per month.  I still use my voice Iridium satphone, whose annual basic subscription is $600. Voice and two-way messages are good to have but no integrated GPS chip means that, in case of emergency, I would still have to be able to deploy the phone, punch in a telephone number, talk and describe my location; better to simply push the InReach button while fighting off the proverbial bear that has already taken one arm....  I am considering switching but I need to evaluate the InReachSE in the field first. Garmin’s (and others, e.g. Suunto) training watches have increasing capabilities, such as recording heart rate, temperature and cadence, provided that additional sensors which connect wirelessly to the unit are purchased. The rate of progress (distance, height gain) and energy spent (Calories) can be monitored in real-time by simply looking at the watch. Garmin’s brand new tactix unit, marketed as a military model, appears super robust and has an advertised duration between power charges of 50 hours, more than any handheld devices currently available. GPS watch performances are now similar to those of handheld units, despite the smaller form factor.  New handheld units have the same functions as above in addition to other capabilities such as easy map viewing on their larger displays.  Many have incorporated cameras. I have tried the Garmin Oregon 650t this Summer. The camera is good but the small dimension of the lens and absence of zoom result in limited capability and rapid battery drainage, plus a significant weight increase.  My favorite all-purpose unit is still the GPS/GLONASS eTrex 30.   If one is interested in distance travelled, a more expensive unit does not result in better accuracy as this is a function of the chip used. At this time, the 650t and iPhone 5S chips both overestimate distances travelled by up to 5 to 7% under foliage.  Hopefully the chip manufacturers will upgrade software, although estimating distance when travelling under the above conditions is less trivial than one might think; once when one connects a GPS unit to a computer, suggested software upgrades should be applied.

Choosing the optimal GPS device is obviously a matter of needs and preference.  For a back country hiker generally out of mobile coverage and who might travel alone, communication is important for safety. The InReach system appears to fulfill this need subject to field experience report. Hopefully other manufacturers will come out with competitive products to provide alternatives to users.  For urban joggers and city park hikers, smart phones can be the job.

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