The logs for this blog indicate a lot of visitors have come by recently looking for information on using handheld GPS units (Christmas gifts, perhaps?). So for those newcomers, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of the free applications I’ve found to be among the best for a variety of handheld-GPS-related tasks, along with some worthy alternatives that also have something to offer. Most are Windows-only, but a few are also available in native format for Mac and Linux, and may well run in Mac under Parallels/Boot Camp and Linux under WINE.
Downloading/uploading point and track information
While most handheld GPS units let you create waypoints, routes and sometimes tracks directly, their small size and limited input options can make this difficult and time-consuming. These programs speed up and simplify that process tremendously.
Best: GPS TrackMaker
While I use this program mainly for downloading and uploading data files in a variety of formats (GPX, KML, SHP, MMC and more), the program has many more useful options for creating waypoints and tracks, simplifying existing tracks, altitude profiles, even interfaces for working with Google Earth and Google Maps. Supports 160 different GPS models. More info.
Worthy alternative: EasyGPS
GPS TrackMaker has lots of features, but that can make the interface a bit cluttered. If you’re only interested in working with GPX or LOC files, EasyGPS is a clean, simple alternative that also supports GPS models from a wide range of manufacturers. More info.
GPS datafile creation with maps
If you want to create waypoints and routes by drawing them directly on a map, here are some options.
USAPhotoMaps downloads USGS topo data, and one-meter black and white aerial imagery for the entire United Sates (0.25-meter color aerial imagery for some urban areas), and lets you create highly-accurate waypoints for export to a GPS unit. Route and track support, on the other hand, are pretty weak. More info.
Worthy alternative: You can always create points and tracks in Google Earth for export to a GPS (see below), or use an online service like TakItWithMe (more info) Digipoint 2 (more info) or quikmaps (more info) to take data created in a Google Maps interface to GPX format. But be aware that positions in Google Earth or Google Maps can be off slightly from their true position.
GPS file format conversion
There are dozens of formats for saving geographical data, but most GPS utilities only support a few of them. So it’s handy to have software that will convert from your obscure and bizarre format to one in more common use.
GPSBabel is the sine qua non of GPS format converters, handling more different formats than any other program I know. It’s a command line program, but comes with a GUI that, while not fully user-friendly allows reasonably easy access to most of its conversion capabilities. More info.
Worthy alternative: ITNConv
ITNConv handles a few formats that GPSBabel doesn’t, and also allows editing/creation of GPS data files in a Google Maps interface. More info.
Best: Google Earth
You probably already have Google Earth installed on your computer for general geographic browsing and exploration. But you may not know that in addition to its native data formats of KML/KMZ, Google Earth can also directly open GPX and LOC data files exported from your GPS, so you can see where you’ve been. If you want to connect your GPS directly to Google Earth, you could pay $20/year for Google Earth Plus, but I have a series of posts on getting Google Earth Plus features for free, along with some features GE+ doesn’t support, like exporting data from Google Earth to your GPS.
Worthy alternative: WorldWind
WorldWind was one of the earliest digital globes, and open source if that’s important to you. In some ways, it’s superior to Google Earth in its support of GPS, with built-in support for real-time GPS positioning in the main version. The free GPS2WorldWind plugin adds extensive support for importing and exporting data from/to Garmin GPS units, and limited support for other units through the NMEA interface.
Geotagging refers to embedding location data into the header of picture files, so that you can associate the picture with the location it was taken. Many free programs will do this automatically by matching a photo’s timestamp to the time you were at that location according to your exported GPS data. Geotagged photos can then automatically be displayed in a map program at the location they were taken; for example, Picasa can take geotagged photos and convert them into a KML file for display in Google Earth.
I’ve covered a fair number of photo geotagging tools on this blog (see the series listing at the end of the above post), but GeoSetter has the best mix of features and usability of any of them. More info.
Worthy alternative: GPicSync
Although it lacks some of GeoSetter’s features, GPicSync has a simpler interface that might appeal to some, and has some features that GeoSetter lacks. For example, you can associate audio and video files with the pictures, so that GPicSync will create links in the Google Earth / Google Maps files that link to the audio/video. More info.
GPS satellite visibility
The accuracy with which your GPS unit can determine your position depends partially on the number of satellites visible in the sky from your location, and also their geometry, i.e. how widely spaced apart in the sky they are. The more satellites there are, and the more widely-spaced they are in the sky, the more accurate your GPS-determined position will be. While most GPS units will give you a rough estimate of how accurate the current position it’s giving you is, they won’t tell you when during the course of a day you can expect to get the best (or worst) accuracy. For that info, try this program:
Best: Trimble Planning
Trimble Planning will calculate the relative degree of geometry-dependent accuracy for a specific location, and how it changes with time, presenting this data in easy-to-interpret graphic and tabular formats. A more detailed description of the program can be found here; more advanced users might want to take a look at my post on how to incorporate the effects of GPS satellite blockage by terrain on these accuracy calculations.
Worthy alternative: Live Satellites Google Earth UI (no longer available)
I used to link to Paul Seabury’s Live Satellites Google Earth UI, but that application has been pulled. Orbiting Frog has a similar application that is a bit more difficult to use, since you have to manually enter satellite parameters, but it’s still worth a look; see this post at the Google Earth blog for more info.
Looking for a GPS application that isn’t listed above? Try doing a search on this blog – I’ve covered dozens of different GPS applications in addition to the ones I’ve highlighted above.