GPS receivers with USGS topo maps

12:44 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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I just received an email from National Geographic, advertising "At Last: Nat Geo Maps on a GPS Device!"  This is rather interesting, in view of the following history -

Some 20 years ago, several companies introduced software for PCs and Apples to display scanned USGS topographic maps. In the lat 1990s, as civilian handheld GPS receivers became available, several of the manufacturers added vectorized topographic maps. The scanned maps are so-called "raster scans" and reproduce the map as a series of pixels, more or less a "photographic" reproduction of the map. Raster maps use a DEM (Digital Elevation Model), which is a grid of specific elevation points, then use a "contouring" algorithm to draw the contour lines. The disadvantage of the raster maps is that you are limited in how much you can magnify the map before seeing the individual pixels. With a vector map, you have unlimited magnification, but the contour lines, water boundaries, roads, and other features are often pretty far off because of the crudeness of the grid used (the USGS DEM models are a 100 meter grid at best, and 1 km in some areas - lots can happen in 100 m, like a major 2000 ft cliff in Yosemite Valley).

Lots of the original companies have vanished. One of the best, Wildflower, eventually merged with National Geographic, which continues to publish TOPO! (disclosure - I did some consulting for Wildflower and later NatGeo). While TOPO! and some other computer maps can exchange some information with GPS receivers, people have wanted better maps on the GPSRs. Magellan, Lowrance, Garmin, and Delorme all include vector maps (some models are "political features" only - that means roads, streets, boundaries; while some include topographic vector maps).

Now here is the interesting thing about the NatGeo "At last!" email. A couple years ago, Magellan and NatGeo announced a series of GPSRs onto which you could load TOPO! topographic maps. These were raster maps, with a very fine scanning resolution. So this is not the first time that there has been a GPSR that could load TOPO! maps. One of the unique features is that NatGeo is offering memory cards with the maps loaded, making installation pretty simple.

Unfortunately, Magellan was having some financial difficulties and got traded among several corporations, at least a couple of which were VC companies looking for a quick way to make money. So maybe the "At last!" means that NatGeo, being a pretty stable and large non-profit has some more direct control over the product. At this point, I do not know who the actual manufacturer of the Active 10 TREK GPS is.

In the meantime, Garmin has made available their own proprietary scans of USGS maps to load on their GPSRs, as has Delorme. Magellan, under their new owners (MiTAC, a Taiwanese company that produces several lines of GPSRs and other navigation gear), has reorganized and introduced several new GPSRs that look very competitive (disclosure - I have received a Magellan 610 for evaluation, as well as a Delorme PN-60/SPOT combination unit, also for evaluation). There are also map hacks available in the geocaching world to scan various maps yourself (such as local county park maps) and load them onto your own unit. The GPSR manufacturers have expressed mixed feelings about these map hacks, being torn between the very large customer base in the geocaching world (literally tens of millions of cachers worldwide) and the risks of people hacking into their proprietary products. They cooperate with the geocaching hackers, but also state "your warranty is voided" if you do this, and issue a strong reminder that their technology is patented, copyrighted, and otherwise protected legally.

Hopefully, I can do a writeup comparing these various units, without running into too much problem with the Fundamental Law of Electronic Widgets ("By the time you select your electronic product, pay the cashier, and head out of the store to your car, there will be at least two new updated versions with dozens of new features and significantly upgraded performance")

6:10 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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I am very curious to hear about your review of the DeLorme/SPOT PN-60.  I have been looking at that receiver recently and am interested.  Might get one for myself next spring.

6:26 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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Thanks for the info Bill, maybe it will soon be time for me to move up from my Garmin E-trex.

7:20 p.m. on November 22, 2010 (EST)
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I would like to know also, I have been using the Garmin etrex vista for a long time.  I got the National Geographic State Topo for California and Colorado.  It works OK but the maps are a little outdated.  I have used the update tool that came with the software, but it's still 1984 to 1996.  This is not a real big problem but near the City, many streets are missing, for a hiker that doesn't matter, but sometimes it does.   I would like to know how the software updates, or supported.  I also use Garmin software to move the information to and from the garmin, NG software is good, but getting profiles of your climb the garmin beats NG. 

2:27 p.m. on November 23, 2010 (EST)
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Mike, the problem that NatGeo, Delorme, and others have is that it takes a long time to update topographic maps. NatGeo's TOPO! does do automatic updates, plus you can do "request" updates if you have version 4 or later. If you go onto the NatGeo website maps section, there are instructions for updating the main program to the latest version. I had to do this when my desktop computer died last June and I was reinstalling everything on the "latest greatest" replacement PC, since my many state discs are release 3 at the latest.

D&G, you will have to wait a few months, since I will be carrying the evaluation widgets with me to Antarctica next month and may not get back until late January (just in time to go to the Outdoor Retailer Winter Show and see even newer models of everything). I will say that so far, both the Delorme PN-60 and the Magellan 610 are very good, aimed heavily at geocachers, have improved maps, and lots of "enhancements". Can't say I am a fan of Magellan's touchscreen, though (I will say the same thing about my iPad's touch screen - I prefer real keyboards, and it's a pain to keep cleaning all the greasy fingerprints off the display screens). Haven't tried the camera and videocam in the Magellan yet (gotta get one of the micro-SD cards to put in it, and the 32G cards are not cheap!).

 

7:09 p.m. on November 23, 2010 (EST)
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Thanks Bill.  Too bad can't hear back from you sooner, but it is what it is.  I am trying to figure out if I want the DeLorme or one of those Garmin Oregon 5xx series models.  I like the idea of the camera built into it for "geologging".   I have found a pretty good deal on the Delorme but haven't found too many reviews on either unit. 

 Hope you have fun on your trip Bill.

12:35 p.m. on November 24, 2010 (EST)
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D&G,

The new Magellan 610 and 710 (and maybe the 510) have built-in cameras and video. Since they came out later than the Garmin Oregon, as is usual in the electronic widget world, Magellan added still more "features". The Delorme PN series do not have cameras.

There are other ways to do the geologging. Nikon, for example, has at least one P&S with a built-in GPS chip, plus they have a small unit that slides into the hot shoe on many of their cameras that will log the coordinates into the exif file that is attached to all the images, and all their DSLRs that have the 10-pin receptacle will connect with GPSRs that have a serial port (a diminishing fraction of the GPSR handhelds, unfortunately - the common serial to USB cable is the reverse of what is needed, though there do exist very hard to find USB to serial cables). There are several 3rd party "geologging" manufacturers as well, though most do not have a way of directly writing to the exif tag file - they depend on matching the date stamp on the camera's exif file to the geologging widget's exif file through their proprietary software.

8:52 p.m. on November 24, 2010 (EST)
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Again, thanks for the info Bill.  I guess I might just wait a little longer before I get one.  I know how to use a map and compass, so I guess that will work for now.  I guess it would help if I wasn't so indecisive and overly thorough in my research phase when it comes to purchasing expensive items.  However, it usually pays off in the end, I guess!

1:30 p.m. on November 25, 2010 (EST)
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I got a DeLorme PN-60 (the one without SPOT) in August, but just upgraded to the PN-60w (with SPOT) due to the REI sale this past week.  While I'm not qualified to do the kind of write-up of a GPSR that we can expect from The OGBO, I'll let you all know how it goes :).

Meanwhile if anyone wants to buy a slightly used PN-60 message me :).

I selected the DeLorme, after reading about them for several years, because (and this is topical) they have a reputation for having the "best" maps.

The downside is the screen is probably among the smallest out there.  And some might lament the lack of a touch screen, but for a device I'll use in varied temperatures, weather conditions, and dusty environments, I actually prefer the nice solid buttons of the DeLorme interface.

The only other GPS unit I've used was a Garmin eMap from 1999 or 2000 so I don't have much to compare it to.  But my impression is the PN-60 isn't for the faint of heart - it seems to be a "serious tool" (just like their advertising claims:) but takes some work to learn to use it (I'm just getting started myself).

So far I'm happy with my decision... and I guess my upgrade to the 60w shows that...

I'll write an actual review once I've better learned how to use the device and have used it in the field for a while.

Oh, and on the topic of "geologging" ... if you mean what I think you mean (show on a map where you took your photos) you can accomplish the same thing using a site like Everytrail.  You upload your photos, and upload the track log from your GPS, and it figures out (based on timestamps) where each photo was taken.  Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, D&G, but it's one approach.

 

5:27 p.m. on November 25, 2010 (EST)
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...Oh, and on the topic of "geologging" ... if you mean what I think you mean (show on a map where you took your photos) you can accomplish the same thing using a site like Everytrail.  You upload your photos, and upload the track log from your GPS, and it figures out (based on timestamps) where each photo was taken.  Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, D&G, but it's one approach.

 

It is also called "geotagging". Yes, that's the way some of the widgets and some of the software work, including GoggleEarth when you do uploads of tracks and photos. The difference with the devices with both an included camera and GPS chipset (or link to an external GPSR) is that the tag goes directly into the exif file that is linked to the image file. You can also do it manually with film images.

7:09 p.m. on November 25, 2010 (EST)
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 You can also do it manually with film images.

Oh, yeah, that's a good point, I'll have to give that a try, updating my raw files directly.

 

8:46 a.m. on December 7, 2010 (EST)
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Bill: National Geographic is now selling the Active 10 TREK on its website; it arrived in our queue today: http://www.trailspace.com/gear/satmap/active-10-trek/

The company is called Satmap.

 

 

 

11:40 p.m. on December 7, 2010 (EST)
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I just got the Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and plan to use it with the trusty compass and paper map (don't want to rely on electronics completely) but also in my car.  I am amazed at how good this thing picks up satellites as in my house it locks on ten.  I am just getting into this again so I am going to learn as much as I can about what is the best maps.  Of course I will get Garmin's city explorer first so that I have it for driving the city streets.  I got a great deal on it from GPS City for $206.00 delivered to my door! 

Thanks for the post Bill!!  :)

10:51 a.m. on January 30, 2011 (EST)
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i bought the origon 450 by garmin back in nov 2010 at bass pro on sale for $270. i don't use need the camera of the 550 .i carry a small camera with me .the magellan has a few more features video and voice record .it also has a bigger price tag. know the t models have preleaded topo maps ,nut  the resolution isn't so . you can get better maps on line from garnim or other for less money then you will pay for the t model. yes the t model has more memory,but you just pop in a sd card and you're ready. it can also find satilite signal batter than my wifes garmin in her car. money was the key for me

ps better come up with a way to charge your batteries on extended trips .

1. solar cell homemade chains or power film

2. power peg is ok

3. old open face fishing real can be made into a generator. made one  will need resistor for certain voltages

2:33 a.m. on January 31, 2011 (EST)
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i bought the origon 450 by garmin back in nov 2010 at bass pro on sale for $270. i don't use need the camera of the 550 .i carry a small camera with me .the magellan has a few more features video and voice record .it also has a bigger price tag. know the t models have preleaded topo maps ,nut  the resolution isn't so . you can get better maps on line from garnim or other for less money then you will pay for the t model. yes the t model has more memory,but you just pop in a sd card and you're ready. it can also find satilite signal batter than my wifes garmin in her car. money was the key for me

ps better come up with a way to charge your batteries on extended trips .

1. solar cell homemade chains or power film

2. power peg is ok

3. old open face fishing real can be made into a generator. made one  will need resistor for certain voltages

 I'ved gone exclusiveley to Accuterra HD as an app on my 32GB I-Phone. It is an incredibly powerful and user-friendly system, is Applesque in its intuitiveness, and is very accurate. I was suprised, as I didn't think initially that the phone would be suitable for committed outdoor use. Combined w/ my I-Surge Apple-Certified solar charger/case, I now have a top notch device for my primary navigation, and for next to nothing in cost. I also have a padded/weatherproof case for the backcountry. If you have an i-phone don't count it out.

5:53 p.m. on February 1, 2011 (EST)
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i would break an iphone outback but sounds real good . i don't own an iphone . garmin is water proof all round. besides my 2 way radio i carry  (water proof too) don't use to much electronics .i turn off my cell and pack it away most times. i'll pass on the info. cool beans.

mud

8:12 p.m. on February 1, 2011 (EST)
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LOL. Yeah your setup is definitely more durable and efficient, no question. I wasn't intending for my post to be directed at you to change your behavior. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Sounds like you have a great setup for your needs.

Your home-made suggestions for power backup sparked my interest in sharing about the existence of some real phone alternatives to buying separate GPS gear. Obviously there are trade-offs, but it's nice to know that the i-phone (and probably other smartphones) can easily be equipped to take into the backcountry and provide reliable navigation. Also having GoSkyWatch (like GoogleSky) to show my son a complete map of all of the constellations, stars, planets, and galaxies just by pointing my phone at them is an incredible way to star-gaze.

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