Now here’s an interesting gadget that addresses some issues I’ve had with using an iPod Touch or an iPhone in the field as a GPS. GPS apps have been available since the beginning, I think. At first, the iPhone calculated location based on cell tower triangulation. It wasn’t long before Apple put a GPS chip into the iPhone and that has only resulted in an increase in the number of people who use their smartphones as a GPS in the boonies. Android phones and others have GPS chips in them, also.
My biggest beef with most of these (Garmin’s offerings excepted from this beef) is that the GPS chips are anemic, at best. They’re just not up to par with the new GPS receiver chips included in purpose-built GPS receivers. As such, when the GPS chip is on its own (when there aren’t nearby cell towers to augment that positional calculation), smartphones aren’t so good and start to behave like GPS receivers did shortly after selective availability was turned off in 2000. The GPS works okay in open country, but get under a dense canopy and your reception is shot. Modern GPS receivers address this issue in a big way with much improved processing of signals to remove multi-path errors especially. Many modern receivers get solid signals inside buildings.
Enter the Magellan Toughcase.
“Oh, it’s a Magellan,” you say.
“Hear me out,” I’d respond.
“Aren’t you a Garmin fanboy,” you’d retort.
“That’s just the only brand I own right now. I have enjoyed the Trimbles I’ve used, if you want me to talk about those,” I’d remind you.
If that’s how the conversation would go, you’d have a point. Magellan doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations among GPS users because it’s lagged behind in customer service and product support. However, I’d point out that those circumstances are with Magellan’s handheld GPS firmware. People have long complained about Magellan’s tendency to avoid firmware updates for known bugs. I hear inklings that they’re getting better about that. The beauty of this device is that it’s not tethered to any of Magellan’s apps. You can use ANY GPS app for it that you wish. Magellan does offer an automotive navigation GPS app if you so choose to use it.
The big features with this are that it offers a protective sealed housing so you can use your iPod Touch/iPhone in the sticks without worrying about the rain frying it. It helps protect it against drops (though I still don’t recommend dropping it). It offers an external high-sensitivity GPS receiver. That means that iPod Touch users without any sort of GPS now get a GPS receiver, and it means that iPhone users no longer need to worry so much about what happens to their GPS when they’re out of range of cell towers. Finally, it adds an auxiliary battery.
This addresses a few concerns/qualms I’ve had over people using their smartphones as their GPS in the woods while hiking and mountain biking.
- Protective housing. To be fair, protective housings have been on the market for years now. Otterbox has arguably been making the best ones. This one is simply an additional protective housing on the market.
- External high-sensitivity GPS receiver. This finally gives the i-crowd a decent GPS. Magellan has chosen the SirfStarIII chip for this. Granted, even this one is a bit dated, but it’s a proven chipset that has graced some of Garmin’s most popular and best receivers for quite some time.
- Auxiliary battery. Magellan claims the auxiliary battery will double your potential battery life. While I would have preferred to see the case use AA batteries so someone could simply use the battery (rechargeables, lithiums, or cheap alkalines) of their choice, I understand that by choosing a LiIon, Magellan has kept output high while keeping weight (and bulk) down. You could simply use one of these to recharge it.
One thing this case doesn’t address is that the GPS apps on the iPhone and iPod touch (as well as Android phones, for that matter) don’t have a very good way to load maps. Sure, with most apps, you can “fool” the app into caching those maps by viewing them before you leave coverage by manually scrolling around the extent you’ll use at all the relevant zoom levels. But ugh, who wants do do that? Fortunately, I have been made aware that Trimble Outdoors has a tool available for Android currently and soon for iOS that will let you choose an extent and zoom levels and load the maps for you the same way you’d load maps to your Garmin before you go out on a trip. I’m not sure if there are other apps out there that will do this yet, but Trimble Outdoors has their own set of apps that this tool will work with, and it’ll be a solid addition. It looks like this will finally start giving smartphone users viable mapping capabilities.
I know I’ve already stated that I want to get my hands on one of the new Garmin handhelds. I still do. But being an iPod Touch user, I certainly see the utility of this. Mapping apps aren’t really all that useful for me right now because they depend on a Wifi hostpot’s location being known. It works for some hotspots. When it works, it’s pretty close. However, sometimes it doesn’t work. My personal hotspot makes my iPod think I’m halfway across the country because the folks who keep track of such things haven’t updated their database yet. Many other hotspots just aren’t known. Relying on that sketchy info for location doesn’t really work.
I’d like to get my hands on this gadget, too. Unfortunately, I think I’m going to have to pick just one.