Know Where You Stand With GPS

26 April 2015

Words by Michelle Jana Chan 

Until about a decade ago, many of us went trekking with a map in a freezer bag and a compass on a string. Today we have replaced those with a handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) device.

Using satellites, these mini-computers with an antenna can calculate your exact position on Earth, marked by a dot on a screen; a line shows the route travelled and an arrow points towards the next destination – genius.

Some carry a GPS device only for emergencies, to be able to report their longitude and latitude. For this, a good solution is a GPS watch (which is usually aimed at the sports market). But those who want a device to navigate them from A to B and back require a higher-capability machine which can store multiple routes and way points (coordinates of a location).

Here are some factors to consider when buying a GPS device. Regardless of which one you choose, you should continue to carry a paper map and compass in case the electronic device fails.


Image courtesy of Getty

Functionality

GPS devices contain deep menus and sub-menus but many users will not need all these features. Focus on ease of use, mapping capability and memory. Other compelling features include a barometric altimeter which gives a more accurate altitude fix . A three-axis compass orients the map and gives a direction-of-travel arrow even when the user is still. Bluetooth-Smart capability can synch the device to a smartphone.

Screen

A large screen and high resolution show maps more clearly in the optimum scale. Black-and-white screens are cheaper but colour works better with Ordnance Survey mapping. Performance in sunlight, torchlight and low light is important.

Power

Most devices will operate for around 15 hours per charge, but good portable chargers are available. The Powermonkey Explorer 2 can recharge a device about four times. Excellent in cold conditions, the Brunton Hydrogen Reactor comes with two hydrogen fuel cells that each recharge a device up to three times.

GPS reviews

Garmin Oregon 650t

An intuitive touch-screen device that works even when you’re wearing thin gloves. The screen has dual orientation (portrait or landscape) and the backlit display performs well in bright sunlight or low light. There is a barometric altimeter, a 3-axis electronic compass and Bluetooth-Smart capability, and the device comes preloaded with a European recreational map. Maps can be added via a microSD card.

Users can create routes and way points on the device, or online with Garmin’s free trip-planning software BaseCamp. This model has an 8-megapixel autofocus camera (with a flash/torch), which geotags photos to the location where they were taken.

BaseCamp combines these photos with track logs to turn journeys into visuals. Battery life is good: 16 hours using the rechargeable pack, and it also takes AA batteries.

Verdict (out of five stars)

  • Functionality 5
  • Screen 4
  • Durability 4
  • Value for money 4
  • Overall 4

A top-notch touch-screen GPS device with the bonus of a camera.

Satmap Active12

A rugged yet lightweight device with a large, hi-res, backlit screen able to show crisp detailed topographic mapping. It has a push-button interface with a mini joystick, and the pan and zoom functions are quick.

There is a barometric altimeter and Bluetooth-Smart capability but only a 2-axis electronic compass. Maps are supplied on SD cards which plug straight into an easy-to-access slot on the device. This unit comes with a 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map offering full coverage of Great Britain.

Routes and way points can be created on the device, or online with their free mapping tool Xpedition (and the device comes with one year’s free subscription to Satmap’s premium mapping tool). Battery life is up to 12 hours using a rechargeable pack, and it also takes AA batteries.

Verdict

  • Functionality 4
  • Screen 5
  • Durability 4
  • Value for money 4
  • Overall 4

If you prefer push-buttons to a touch-screen, this is a strong contender with a standout screen.

Suunto Ambit3 Peak

A good-looking, Bluetooth-Smart GPS wristwatch in a reinforced casing, the Suunto includes a barometric altimeter and a 3-axis electronic compass. Its navigation and routing capabilities are very good for its size.

The user can store routes and way points online using the Suunto Route Planner but after synching this will not give rise to a map on the watch face. Instead, there will be an arrow pointing in the direction to head, with a notification on arrival at a waypoint.

The watch can synch with an iPhone/iPad (Android support is coming) and the Suunto Movescount app can turn a journey into an animation embedding the user’s photos in their track on a 3D map. Battery life is long: up to 50 hours in GPS mode.

Verdict

  • Functionality 2
  • Screen 2
  • Durability 5
  • Value for money 3
  • Overall 3

This is a slick, neat device worn on the wrist, which is powerful for its size but lacks mapping.

A smartphone/tablet plus app

If you already own a smartphone or tablet, this is the cheapest option as it can be converted into a GPS unit by uploading an appropriate app such as ViewRanger, Anquet or Memory-Map. Alltrails is good for hiking in the US.

If users preload maps, they do not require a mobile phone signal when on the trail. The downside is the performance of a smartphone/tablet in direct sunlight; they are also not as robust or weatherproof as dedicated GPS devices. A waterproof pouch such as those by Aquapac can help.

Another option is the Magellan Echo wristwatch, which leverages off the phone’s GPS receiver and displays data directly on to the watch face, allowing you to stow away the smartphone/tablet somewhere safe and dry.

Verdict

  • Functionality 4
  • Screen 3
  • Durability 1
  • Value for money 5
  • Overall 2

For existing smartphone/tablet owners, this is an inexpensive solution but these devices are fragile and have low battery life.
 

This article was written by Michelle Jana Chan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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