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Thread: Why GPS?

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    Carpe Velo Yo Spiff's Avatar
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    Why GPS?

    I've been listening to others talk about their GPS devices and how much they like them. What benefits are there to the lower end models that seem to go for $150-$300?

    I am not a racer, and I don't train like one either. I'm strictly recreational and I've always been happy with the basic functions. I would find mapping capability to be a big draw, as I enjoy free-form exploring, but those models with mapping seem to go for $500+. I do like to see a real map and be able to relate it to the road I see in front of me. I have an Android phone I can use if I get lost, but don't care for the idea of putting it on my handlebars. I also think my phone would run out of power if I was out all day using it for that.

    So, is there something about the lower priced GPS's I am not understanding, or is it a higher priced model I would actually be after? Thanks.

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    There's one very important pending issue you can only understand by plugging the word "Lightsquared" into Google.

    When you say "GPS" it seems like you mean what I would call a PND, which is really a small computer that runs a GPS mapping application, which has an internal GPS module, right?

    There are a lot of differences between them. For the ones that come with maps, the upgradeability of the maps is important. You can buy a perfectly good GPS, but that GPS may become hard to use in a few years without map updates, because streets and things associated with them change. For a cheap GPS, that may not matter to some people as much as others, personally, I hate it when a perfectly good piece of equipment (a computer) becomes useless because of what is essentially vendor-lock in in software.

    There are two main map vendors.. Most personal navigation software in PND devices use one or the others maps. A GPS may not be upgradeable, or it may come with one map update, (right after you buy it) or it may come with the ability to update maps indefinitely (worth $50-100 premium in cost or more, because it will mean the GPS will not become unable to deal with recently changed roads) Thats a very important factor you should consider if you are going to be using the GPS in a car.

    For off road, there is a web site you can get topo maps at which work with even the cheaper "nuvi" Garmins (IF they allow you to add an mini-SD card to store them on). Thats a nice feature -

    Also, there are bicycling and sports oriented GPSs, some GPSs that try to do a semi decent job of wearing many hats, hiking and off-road friendly GPSs, and car-only GPSs that dont understand the differences between car and bicycle travel at all.

    The most flexible of all GPSs - for some people, would be one you make yourself. It could also be one of the most affordable. But it would probably be bulky compared to the snazzy, tiny units. Depending on your skills.

    Price does not map as much to quality as you woud think, but it should buy you better software. Many PNDs are based on Windows CE, but not all. (some vendors use their own licensed realtime os's or sometimes, linux)

    The PND vendors all use different navigation software. For cars, Ive had good experiences with software from igo, a hungarian company.. But Ive never used a bike-specific PND. My wife and I have a low end Garmin now tat has a bike setting, and from what I can see, its better than I expected. For some cities, they have extra, high detail maps you can buy (for around $20) which go into extreme detail on bike and public transportation stuff. For some people, that makes a lot of sense, I think. But some people here have complained about Garmin's tech support. (I have not had to use it yet..)

    The unit we have is solid, and performs okay, but its lacking the fine grained level of configurability that I like. Its clearly an entry-level unit.

    Really, when you buy a PND, most of what you are buying is the SOFTWARE, not the hardware, even though the software is tied to a specific unit.

    If you are willing to use a laptop, say as your hardware, (you can downoad open source navigation software that can run on it) you can get a GPS dongle that perfoms decently for $25 these days, or even less. What that will give you is a source of GPS navigation data in NMEA format streaming on a virtual serial port. (the GPS dongles use UART to USB chips from companies like Silicon Labs or FTDI that register themselves as a serial port)

    Most GPS software that runs on laptops will look to the serial ports for their NMEA data.

    A very small subset of GPS units can also output raw GPS data. Ublox has several chips that can do that. But most of the chips from most manufacturers communicate in NMEA and usually their own binary format, but its the same info thats in the NMEA data stream, just a bit faster.

    I hope all thats helpful.

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    The main reason you might want to use a "low price" GPS like the Garmin 200 is to track your progress assuming you upload the "after ride" data to Garmin's website, or other websites that allow you to do so. You can then compare, say your average speeds last year to this year's.

    One other advantage with these devices is you can move them from one bike to the other. I move mine (a Garmin 500) from my road bike to my folding bike to my commuter. No need to calibrate anything as the speed/distance/position is automatically provided by GPS.

    I too carry a smartphone with me so the mapping which may come in handy if I get lost (very unlikely) will be via the smartphone. OTH, the smartphone has limited battery life and is much less robust than my Garmin so I would not want to use it to provide real time cyclocomputer data.

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    24-Speed Machine Chris516's Avatar
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    While I don't race, I actively ride fast.

    The problem I have with a GPS-enabled cycle computer is, that it could make the bike a bigger target for being stolen. Also, The GPS-enabled cycle computers are much more expensive. Garmin for instance, can cost $400+.

    Without having GPS on my bike computer, it still does:

    1. Speed, Max. Speed, Avg. Speed
    2. Odometer(two separate records of everything)
    3. Altimeter
    4. Date
    5. Time
    6. Ride Time/Total Time
    7. Laps
    8. Sprints

    So I don't bother with buying one that is GPS-enabled.

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    Carpe Velo Yo Spiff's Avatar
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    That all helps. Thanks to all of you. It's probably not something that suits my needs at this point, it seems.

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    I biught two GPS dongles a few months ago for $20 and they work great. They are USB flash drive-size dongles. Ive seen a small box shaped thing you can plug them into which also costs around $20 which supplies them with power and adds some extra flash memory to the mix. Using that you can log your trips and download it TO YOUR OWN COMPUTER when you get home. No need to subscribe to any service. I can launch any one of several free programs to do whatever I want.. One is part of gpsd, another is GPSBabel, there are dozens of others.. OpenStreetMap has a nice one that has mapping capabilities just like a GPS.

    Anyway, you dont need Garmin to download track logs from any logger-enabled GPS and turn them into KML files or GPX files.

    You can build a data logger for very little yourself with the Arduino approach.

    You'll need an Atmel microprocessor, an SD card socket, an SD card, and a few other parts.. (besides the GPS module, which can be very cheap these days.) It wont give you realtime location, (unless you add an LCD readout to show you your lat/long and the time, which would probably add at least $15 to the cost and reduce your battery life if you leave the backlight on) but the logging will give you the ability to later on see where youve been.

    A big advantage of the GPS module approach is that some newer modules now can give you up to 20 Hz resolution. Thats 20 position velocity time fixes a second.

    And then write all that to your SD card.


    Quote Originally Posted by Chris516 View Post
    While I don't race, I actively ride fast.

    The problem I have with a GPS-enabled cycle computer is, that it could make the bike a bigger target for being stolen. Also, The GPS-enabled cycle computers are much more expensive. Garmin for instance, can cost $400+.

    Without having GPS on my bike computer, it still does:

    1. Speed, Max. Speed, Avg. Speed
    2. Odometer(two separate records of everything)
    3. Altimeter
    4. Date
    5. Time
    6. Ride Time/Total Time
    7. Laps
    8. Sprints

    So I don't bother with buying one that is GPS-enabled.
    Last edited by christ0ph; 12-24-11 at 10:28 PM.

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    Senior Member mechBgon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Yo Spiff View Post
    I've been listening to others talk about their GPS devices and how much they like them. What benefits are there to the lower end models that seem to go for $150-$300?
    Surfacing from the fine-grained details, some of the attractions are:

    1. you don't necessarily need to install anything on the bike. Just attach the head to your bars (for my Garmin, that's 1/4 turn to attach it to a mount held on by two O-rings).

    2. because of reason #1, you can easily move it to any bike. Or your hang glider, BattleMech*, or flying car.

    3. many of them will read heart-rate senders if you want that info for health/calorie reasons.

    4. If you want to review your route afterwards, you can chuck it into the TopoFusion Pro demo software, it's free with no time limit. Example below. This can be fun if you did a big climb and want to show someone.

    5. most cycling computers don't have altitude readings, and hey, sometimes those can be interesting.


    *note that the use of reflective armor on your BattleMech will reduce GPS accuracy.



    For a while I thought my Garmin Edge 500 was going to obsolete my traditional cycling computers, but ended up sticking Cateye wired units on my commuting bikes again. For one thing, they don't require startup time. For another, they don't require charging. If I'm doing an interesting route where I want to look at elevation numbers, adding on the Garmin is as easy as two O-rings.

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    christoph, good to know about these low cost alternatives. The original reason I bought a Garmin 500 a few years ago was that it was the cheapest option I could think of which will allow me to capture telemetry data of my rides not just for training reasons but at the time I wanted to superimpose telemetry data via a home brewed app I was programming, on cycling videos I was capturing with my GoPro:

    http://youtu.be/Aw_I_c3iYfc

    The 500 was one of the cheaper options that allowed capturing of GPS along with heart rate and cadence information. As mechbgon mentioned it is relatively easy to get additional attachment heads for the Garmin 200/500 devices and attach them to the handlebar or stem of your bikes. The GPS unit can easily be removed from the bike by a quarter turn.

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    Somebody would have to be completely nuts to leave a GPS unit on a bike or in a car when they were gone.

    I personally would not want an obvious GPS - or anything that looked like one, whatever its cost or lack of it, on my bikes handlebars in some areas when I was riding!

    Altitude fixes when they are wrong are usually due to multipath. The way to get good altitude GPS mesaurements is by means of a good antenna properly positioned. (it needs to be level, and it should not have any obstructions near it.

    The very best setup woud be on the top of your helmet. There is no reason you could not combine a very bright LED light and a horizontally placed GPS antenna with a small ground plane (circular piece of metal) at a height just slightly above your head. Your GPS receiver should be waterproofed and in your helmet for protection. You can use bluetooth to communicate with a computer/display unit.

    You might look a bit "eccentric" but its the optimum placement.

    Look at the antennas used in geodesy for ideas.


    Quote Originally Posted by cyclocommuter View Post
    christoph, good to know about these low cost alternatives. The original reason I bought a Garmin 500 a few years ago was that it was the cheapest option I could think of which will allow me to capture telemetry data of my rides not just for training reasons but at the time I wanted to superimpose telemetry data via a home brewed app I was programming, on cycling videos I was capturing with my GoPro:

    http://youtu.be/Aw_I_c3iYfc

    The 500 was one of the cheaper options that allowed capturing of GPS along with heart rate and cadence information. As mechbgon mentioned it is relatively easy to get additional attachment heads for the Garmin 200/500 devices and attach them to the handlebar or stem of your bikes. The GPS unit can easily be removed from the bike by a quarter turn.
    Last edited by christ0ph; 12-25-11 at 08:52 AM.

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    Senior Member Garfield Cat's Avatar
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    Hiking. I can track my route after the hike and see it on Google Earth. I set the intervals to one-tenth of a mile.

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    Level of detail

    Is there any reason you want so little detail?

    By modern standards, track logs aren't that big, in my opinion. Even when they are being recorded at 20 Hz.

    Quote Originally Posted by Garfield Cat View Post
    Hiking. I can track my route after the hike and see it on Google Earth. I set the intervals to one-tenth of a mile.

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    Senior Member Garfield Cat's Avatar
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    I hike with my wife and she likes to see where we hike.

    That and the photos on my little camera makes for some good things to share with her friends and family.

    The Garmin Edge 305 simply does the job, both on the bike and otherwise.

    Since I live in So Cal, I wanted to do the Hollywood tour on that bus to see the Hollywood stars' homes. I though about using my Garmin to track the route and download it so that I can see where it was for future reference. That and a digital voice recorder would make it fun. Until the Hollywood star gets a divorce and moves out.

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    Member vinced's Avatar
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    I take a handheld GPS (Garmin GPSMap60cx) with me on rides. It small enough to fit in my shirt pocket, but big enough to maintain satellite lock most of the time. I use it primarily to track rides and also determine where I am, if I get lost. This unit is a multi-pupose device since I use it for geotagging (photography), in the car and for geocaching, which was the main reason for buying it. I can download the info from a ride to my computer and view it in/on numerous websites and mapping programs.

    I still use a bike computer during the ride, but the GPS provides me with additional information, that I can view as I go.
    Vince D'Elia

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    2 Fat 2 Furious contango's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Yo Spiff View Post
    I've been listening to others talk about their GPS devices and how much they like them. What benefits are there to the lower end models that seem to go for $150-$300?

    I am not a racer, and I don't train like one either. I'm strictly recreational and I've always been happy with the basic functions. I would find mapping capability to be a big draw, as I enjoy free-form exploring, but those models with mapping seem to go for $500+. I do like to see a real map and be able to relate it to the road I see in front of me. I have an Android phone I can use if I get lost, but don't care for the idea of putting it on my handlebars. I also think my phone would run out of power if I was out all day using it for that.

    So, is there something about the lower priced GPS's I am not understanding, or is it a higher priced model I would actually be after? Thanks.
    You can get free maps for a lot of GPS units. I'm not a racer by any means, I don't train like a racer, I ride for fun and for function even if I do like to chase the hardcore roadies once in a while (and lose 99% of the time I do, but that's not the point).

    What I like about a GPS is firstly the fact I go geocaching by bike, secondly it keeps a track log of exactly where I went so I can find cool parks and hills again if I want to, thirdly it lets me just ride and get lost knowing the GPS will route me home any time I feel the need.

    Depending on just what it is you want to be able to do with it you should be able to get a functional basic unit for a couple of hundred $$$. If you want somethign that supports heart rate monitors, cadence sensors and put full-price commercial maps on it then you could be looking at a whole lot more.

    You can always buy a used unit. Something like an old eTrex should do what you need, look for something with HCx in the name - H for high sensitivity receiver, C for colour screen, and x for the fact it has a memory card slot. I forget if the eTrex takes a regular SD or micro SD card, but stick one of those in with maps and away you go.
    "For a list of ways technology has failed to improve quality of life, press three"

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    2 Fat 2 Furious contango's Avatar
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    Oh yes, if I found an area where I loved to cycle but found one of the roads in or out to be one I wouldn't want to ride again due to traffic/hills/whatever I can overlay my track log on a map and look for an alternative easily.
    "For a list of ways technology has failed to improve quality of life, press three"

  16. #16
    Zoom zoom zoom zoom bonk znomit's Avatar
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    I had a few weeks in Aussie last month. Knew I could borrow a bike while there so jumped onto garminconnect and looked at the rides the locals were doing.
    Downloaded a fun looking route and off I went. Fantastic ride.
    http://connect.garmin.com/activity/133603604
    Downside was I had very little idea where to find water or food and struggled now and then with the fine detail on the MUPs.

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    If you are willing to put up with outdated maps and no upgradeability you can always find new old units.. unused but outdated units. With no map update path. Ive seen them for as little as $15-25.

    The ones with Sd card slots work fine for logging. just turn the screen brightness almost all the way down.

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