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A Cheap “GeoPad” – Putting Together An Affordable Field-Capable GIS/GPS Workstation

Last week, I posted my feature “wish list” for a handheld GPS unit designed for advanced fieldwork by scientists, mappers, technicians, etc.. One step up from that “dream” GPS unit are the mini PDA-like GPS devices / handheld computers already on the market from companies like Trimble, Ashtech, Leica Geosystems and many others. These typically have somewhat larger display screens, usually touch-enabled, and often run Windows Mobile. These can be a good choice for field data acquisition, but also have some drawbacks:

  • The screen size is fine for data acquisition, but can be too small for actual mapping work (both viewing and creating maps)
  • Even the cheapest units will start at over $600; more expensive units can easily run into thousands of dollars
  • The software for data acquisition and mapping is limited by the OS; there’s a lot less available for Windows Mobile than for standard versions of Windows (XP/Vista/7)
  • Windows Mobile isn’t the greatest OS in the world, and development of it has been very slow
  • The software that is available is often expensive
  • Processor speeds tend to be slow
  • Input is often by stylus only, which can be slow
  • Storage space for datasets can be severely limited

One step up (or maybe sideways) from these PDA devices is the concept of a GeoPad, a field-capable full PC running a desktop operating system like Windows XP. I’ve been keeping my eye on these for a while now, as this isn’t a new concept. The University of Michigan’s GeoPad website talks about developing the concept since 2003; they define a GeoPad as:

a rugged Tablet PC equipped with wireless networking, a portable GPS receiver, digital camera, microphone-headset, voice-recognition software, GIS software, and supporting, digital, geo-referenced data-sets.

The advantages of a GeoPad over a PDA-based solution (which the GeoPad site calls a GeoPocket) include:

  • Larger screen area, better suited for mapping, and easier for multiple people to view
  • Full Windows OS, which opens access to all Windows-compatible applications
  • Greater storage space (hard drive or SSD), for more datasets
  • More input options: full keyboard, stylus, mouse/trackpad

But it has disadvantages compared to PDA-based solutions as well:

  • Larger and heavier
  • Shorter battery life
  • Less rugged

But the biggest obstacle to GeoPad adoption might be cost. The GeoPad website lists a number of hardware/software combinations, with costs of about $4000-$5000; while the models are a bit out of data (circa 2007), costs of hardware and software comparable to the ones they list indicate that prices haven’t dropped as much as they have for other computer hardware.

About six months ago, I was asked to figure out whether it might be possible to find a combination of cheap hardware, and free/inexpensive GIS/GPS software, that would let you put together a GeoPad-type system for significantly less than the $4000-$5000 range without sacrificing too much in features. Over the next few months, I’ll be writing a series of posts on how I put together a usable GeoPad system for under $700 in hardware and software costs. It’s not a perfect system;  I’ll point out where it’s deficient, and how to work around some of those deficiencies. But you’ll find some of those deficiencies on expensive systems as well. Overall, my cheap GeoPad does most of what the more expensive systems do, at less than a fifth the cost. And even if you don’t go the cheapest route, hopefully you’ll find some of my experiences useful in putting together a GeoPad system of your own.

PS If you have no interest in this topic, don’t worry; I won’t be focusing exclusively on this. Posts on standard blog topics will continue.

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8 Responses to “A Cheap “GeoPad” – Putting Together An Affordable Field-Capable GIS/GPS Workstation”

  1. 1 Peter Knoop

    Been a while since we’ve had a chance to update the Geopad website with more recent cost estimates. Looking forward to hearing from your future posts what you’ve found out!

  2. 2 Mick Morrison

    Great, I’ve been looking forward to this since you commented on the idea the other day! I’m an archaeo and although I’m yet to take the plunge into netbooks, I think they have a lot of potential. Anyway, thanks, looking forward to your posts.

  3. 3 Marty

    Good luck getting an LCD that can be read in sunlight for that money.

  4. 4 Wolfgang

    There was a tabletPC from Fujutsu-Siemens (ST5111) for about 2.000,- € with a perfect sunlight-readable display, but the production has stopped. The model that followed (ST60xx) unfortunately has a display that is not usable in sunlight. I’m looking forward to your suggestions!

  5. 5 Meg Stewart

    Hey there, I like this topic. A lot! We’ve been using tablet PCs for field work since 2004. The TC1100 had bad visibility in direct sunlight which is all you have (or want anyway) during field work. But we bought HP 2710P with daylight viewable screens and things were much better. We added in two Panasonic Toughbooks to be on the safe side (and we had the cash!) but you can do a lot with a zip lock bag on a tablet. Here’s some info on what we looked into and costs of all this stuff. You don’t need to spend $5000 to map in the field.
    Hardware choices made at Vassar:

    And this is a list of the software we loaded onto those new tablets.

    In the field, I’d rather have a light-weight full-strength laptop (a tablet PC) with all the software and data I need than a PDA, any day.

  6. 6 Drew Loika

    Can’t wait to read about the rest of your project!

  7. 7 Dia

    Hi Leszek,

    Have you been considering car GPS devices as a possible hardware platform for a possible field survey devices? Actually, you can find devices that run Navigation Software on a Windows CE platform.
    Some of them allow you (with few technical “tricks”) to access to the Operating System and, therefore, run any Windows CE Software…

    I have been testing one for a friend of mind who is an OZI explorer addict and the system behaved quite nicely … The GPS device I tested had a 4.3″ screen (480×272 pixels resolution) cost less that a 100€, including a 2GB SD Card…



  8. 8 Chuck

    for thinking outside of the box how about some of these e-book readers. what was it a few months back where kindle (i think. i should have posted then.) released the SDK. no right now they are not color but i bet in the future they will be. they also don’t have smoking processors but you are not doing a full analysis of data on it. so my vote would be for someone to try porting an existing gis solution to one of those. i think they are probably ok in the sun (no personal experience)

    just my two cents

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