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Android: The Future Of Consumer GPS – Part I

I’ve owned a handheld GPS ever since the first “consumer-grade” model, the Motorola Traxar, was released in 1993: $900, 6 AA batteries, 8 satellites max, could only record waypoints, and about the size and weight of a brick. Man, was that an awesome GPS unit! I’ve upgraded several times since then, and am glad that handhelds have improved as much as they have. But I’ve always chafed at their restricted ability to record information out in the field: waypoints with a name and short description, tracks with a name, and that’s pretty much it.

Back in January, I posted my “wishlist” for a field-ready GPS unit;  I had hoped that the newer Garmin Oregon models might satisfy most of those requirements, but a lousy touch interface makes those units too difficult to work with. I tried to put together a “field-ready” semi-rugged Windows netbook that met most of my needs, but the poor screen visibility in sunlight conditions was just too great a restriction on its use; while still handy to have, full utility required either shade or a cloth draped over my head. I had pretty much given up on finding what I wanted, and was about to buy one of the new Garmin 62-series GPS units as an upgrade from my trusty Garmin 60Cx; nowhere near all the features I wanted, but enough extra ones (aerial/raster imagery, three-axis compass) to justify the purchase.

A recent upgrade in local cellular antennas finally let me dump my landline phone, and move over to a full-time cellular connection. As part of that process, I decided to pick up an Android smartphone, specifically a Motorola Droid X. While I knew it came with a GPS, that wasn’t the primary reason for getting it – I just wanted a phone that would allow me to stay connected to email and Internet when I was out and about. But having used it for a few weeks now, I’m now convinced that GPS-capable Android-powered units, phones or otherwise, are going to completely transform both the handheld and automotive GPS markets.

Here’s a comparison of my Droid X with the comparable top-of-the-line Garmin unit, the Oregon 550. Bold text indicates which unit IMHO has the advantage in that category.

Motorola Droid X Garmin Oregon 550 Comments
Price $569 list $499 list The Garmin is often discounted by about $100; the Droid X currently isn’t, but will likely drop dramatically in price over the next six months. This doesn’t include cellular plan costs.
Weight 6 oz. 6.8 oz.
Processor Speed 1 GHz 200 MHz (?)
Storage RAM 8 GB 2 GB
microSD expansion Comes with 16 GB, can take up to 32 GB Comes with none, can take up to 4 GB
Display size 4.3” diagonal 3” diagonal
Screen Resolution 480 x 840 240 x 400
DPI 240 157
Color Depth 16 (24) 16 Droid X screen is 24-bit-color capable, but some specs indicate that the OS is only displaying 16-bit color
Daylight Screen Visibility Good Very good Biggest problem with Droid X screen is glare; screen protector helps with that.
Shade/Indoor Screen Visibility Outstanding Very good
GPS Satellites 12 12+ Unclear from specs
WAAS/EGNOS No? Yes Unclear from specs
Assisted GPS Yes No Network signal reduces TTFF
Three-axis compass Yes Yes
Camera 8 MP 5 MP
Multiple camera modes Yes No Droid X has standard, macro, panorama, plus multiple exposure controls
Video Yes – 720p HD No
Barometric Altimeter No Yes
Calculator Yes Yes Droid X has advantage because you can download and install multiple calculator apps
Touchscreen Yes; multi-touch capacitive Yes; resistive A draw; multi-touch is useful, but resistive can be used with gloves on
Keyboard data entry Yes; multiple QWERTY keyboards available, some with text prediction Yes; A-Z keyboard You can choose your preferred data entry mode with the Droid.
Voice-to-text data entry Yes, with wireless connection No
Voice recording Yes No
Text data limits Limited only by unit’s memory Limited by waypoint data fields – about 80 characters
Wireless connectivity WiFi; 3G; Bluetooth Proprietary wireless interface With a Garmin, you can only transfer wireless data between compatible units
Battery life 5-6 hours (?) 16 hours For Droid X, depends on screen brightness, whether you have the wireless connections on, etc..
Field-rugged No Yes Garmin is IPX7-waterproof
Built-in maps Yes Yes Garmin has baseline vector map; Droid has Google Maps
Free up-to-date online maps and POI data Yes No Garmin’s detailed vector maps have to be purchased; updates cost extra. Droid has access to continuously-updated maps for free, but these typically require the unit to be online.
Offline raster maps Yes with third-party apps Yes with Garmin Custom Maps, BirdsEye subscription
Offline vector data Yes with third-party apps Yes with free/paid Garmin maps Garmin data ecosystem still far superior here.
Car navigation Yes (free, but requires wireless connection) Yes (requires paid Garmin maps) Draw; Droid has voice, 3D navigation, but requires wireless connection; Garmin works offline.
Waypoints, tracks, routes Yes with third-party apps Yes Droid third-party apps give you more freedom with what you do with the data
Geocaching Yes with third-party apps Yes
Ability to add additional applications YES NO

I could go on, but just from the above, the Droid X is at least competitive with the Garmin feature-wise, and you could easily make the argument that overall it’s far superior. The few categories where the Droid X falls short (WAAS, ruggedness, battery life) can be partially remedied with add-ons: you can use it with a WAAS-capable Bluetooth GPS transmitter, spare batteries are cheap on eBay, and cases offer some level of physical protection. But more to the point, they are due to the Droid X being designed to be primarily a cellphone, not a GPS unit. It really shouldn’t be hard at all to design a unit that remedies those failings, and sell it at a  reasonable cost.

Here’s a link to a mil-spec ruggedized Android GPS unit already available; currently costs $1200, but divide that by the factor of 3-5 that military contractors typically add on and you’d have a reasonably-priced consumer unit. Less-expensive consumer Android models with GPS are on the way, like the Samsung Yepp at about $350, or this Archos mini-tablet for $150; it’s not that big a stretch to think that fully field-qualified versions of those units could be made and sold fairly cheaply. And I’m especially intrigued by the Notion Ink Adam, an Android-based tablet due out late this year or early next year. The Adam will be offered with an optional 10.1” Pixel Qi LCD screen, which can be switched from a standard transmissive LCD mode to a sunlight-visible transflective color mode, and then to a low-power black-and-white e-Ink-like mode. With  GPS, WiFi, 3G, and built-in camera, this model will sell for $498, or less than a Wifi-only iPad.

But hardware is only a small part of Android’s advantage; the big advantage is that you can put applications onto an Android unit to add functionality, something you can’t do with standard Garmin GPS units. There are already hundreds of position/geography/location-aware apps available for Android units, and that number grows every day. There’s currently only a very limited number of GIS-related apps, but I’d be surprised if many more of those don’t show up soon. And even with the limited number of apps currently available, you can already do far more with an GPS-equipped Android unit than with a standard handheld GPS. Given the impending death of the classic Windows Mobile platform, the primarily OS for many portable GIS and data acquisition apps like ArcPad and Terrasync, it would make sense for companies like Trimble and Ashtech to look at Android as a viable platform for future hardware and software development.

I suppose that the Apple iPhone/iTouch/iPad/iOs ecosystem could be a viable alternative to Android-based models – the hardware and software are certainly good enough – but I doubt it will be. Anyone can license the Android OS and create a hardware device that uses it, which means more models, more competition, and lower prices. Apple has firm and exclusive control of all hardware that runs iOS, which means fewer models and higher prices. I think they’re repeating the same mistakes that resulted in Windows dominating the PC market, but whatever; at least for now, it’s a lucrative market for them.

All for now – a few more random thoughts tomorrow.

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5 Responses to “Android: The Future Of Consumer GPS – Part I”

  1. 1 sal cangeloso

    Great post!

    A handset like the Droid X is a passable GPS device as is, but you can really see the potential there. Smartphones are going to take a bit bite out of the sub-$200 GPS market, but the next step is moving Android on to devices like the Garmin 62 series (or Trimble handheld, etc). Use the Android framework with a great GPS chipset and antenna, and you’re going to have a killer device. It’ll be much more flexible than anything a single company can build in-house and it will be fully expandable through apps.

    The other option, as you noted, is augmenting a phone (something like the Magellan ToughCase) but enthusiasts and professionals are going to want dedicated devices for the foreseeable future.

  2. 2 Leszek Pawlowicz

    Thanks for your comment. I completely agree – for use out in the field, I’d prefer to have a unit designed for that purpose, though it would be nice to have at least the option for a 3G data connection. And I’m sure they’re coming, but I don’t know yet from who. I have some thoughts tomorrow on how Android affects the current big three handheld GPS makers (Garmin, Magellan and DeLorme), and whether there’s a chance that any of them might successfully switch over to Android. And I’ve got a special Android-related announcement coming up on Wednesday ;-).

  3. 3 Peyton Yon

    The biggest problem with Android and Iphone is the lack of pre-loaded base maps \IF YOU DID’NT BRING IT, IT ANINT HERE\… unless you can download the maps that are compatible with the phones applications before you launch into the wilderness, you will need cell coverage or a WIFI signal for the maps to appear. Don’t figure :)

    IN SHORT: Neither phone offers Google or anyone else as your pre-load base map or TOPO graphical map source. For that matter you need a cell connection or WIFI for map detail on either phone.

    APPILICATIONS that support on board base maps and/or TOPO Maps to be downloaded in advance of your entry into the area wilderness your considering.

    Iphone: GPS Motion X / TOPO Maps
    Android: Should have the same applications offered by now.

    Google Earth: Requires Cell coverage or WIFI Connection for maps in the field they do not offer pre-loaded base maps simply because we don’t have enough RAM storage space on the Android or Iphone phones

    Secondly Issue: For comparisons they should have used The IPHONE 4 and not the GARMIN 550T standalone GPS for comparison for a true APPLE to APPLE product. A Standalone GPS is for OFF THE GRID reliability of where you are information, without the need for a cellular service contact and the required signal coverage.

    Third Issue: The Garmin 62T was not referenced in the comparison charts which is the GOLD STANDARD for standalone Portable GPSMAP products.

  4. 4 Leszek Pawlowicz

    Thanks for your comment. I do talk a bit about the online/offline data problem on my AndroGeoid blog:

    But this is an issue with Garmin units as well, most of which only come with a rudimentary basemap; you have to obtain more detailed maps, either by buying them or using more limited free maps. And it’s not a limitation of the Android OS, since you can pre-load data. There are several car navigation apps for purchase that store data for offline use, as does Garmin’s car nav app on their Garminfone. There are quite a few apps that let you cache map data on an Android for offline use – I’ve already covered a few on AndroGeoid, and expect to cover quite a few more in the near future. It wouldn’t be that difficult to create an app that would display Garmin data on an Android, similar to the gpsvp project that let you view Garmin maps on a Windows Mobile PDA, or Windows PC.

    I’m not sure why you think that RAM space is an issue for Google Earth. My Android phone has 512 MB of RAM, which is well within the specs for running Google Earth on a regular PC. The maximum cache space for a PC installation of GE is 2 GB, and my phone has 24 GB of storage space available; 2 GB allows you to cache quite a bit of data for offline use (see my posts on pre-caching Google Earth data for exactly this kind of use). Limiting Google Earth use on Android to only times when you have a data connection is a choice by Google, not a necessity.

    The Droid X (and for that matter, most Android phones) have a stand-alone GPS chipset that can be used when there’s no cellular coverage, so there’s no reason to use the iPhone for comparison. Since Apple owns the hardware, only they could create a field-friendly iPhone, and that’s unlikely; Android’s more open nature means that any manufacturer who wanted to could create a field-friendly unit.

    The 62ST has only been out for less than two months, so it’s way too early to call it a gold standard. People have already noted issues with reception under tree cover compared to the older 60Cx model, and fit/finish issues (i.e. the “creaking” problem). List price on the 62ST is even higher than for the Oregon 550T; for that higher price, you lose the camera and touchscreen, and have a smaller screen size with much lower resolution (ppi). And you are still limited to only that functionality that Garmin decides to add to the unit.

    There are still limitations to Android for GPS use in the field; I discuss both battery life and ruggedness in my post. But these can be fixed; the limitations of current Garmin units can’t be resolved. I’ve been a Garmin user for 10 years now, and have had good experiences with them; you’ll have to pry my 60Cx out of my cold dead hands. But Android is the future.

  1. 1 Still Looking For A Good Fieldwork Handheld GPS: A Review Of The Garmin 62s Part I
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