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Dedicated GPS or smartphone with GPS for touring/blogging

Old 08-19-13, 12:20 PM
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Dedicated GPS or smartphone with GPS for touring/blogging

So, I recently joined the 21st century and acquired smartphones for my wife and myself. I'm currently using the Endomondo app to track ride statistics along with a simple Sigma BC1609 computer as a back up and because I like to monitor my cadence data. I'm hoping to start doing some S24O trips as well as some longer weekend long tours in my local area. I'd like to blog about these trips and have the option of putting a map of the route I took up on the blog, possibly with click-able points of interest that might link to photos within the blog or simply just allow folks to see on a map where exactly I rode. I've been looking around for apps that might allow me to do this. Also, I'd like the option of being able to program in a route and have the ability to follow that route on the stand-alone gps or phone. Some routes I've been thinking of riding can have a few twists and turns which it'd be nice to be able to follow turn-by-turn directions or be able to follow way-points on a stand-alone gps. My main concern with the smartphone is that the battery life can be an issue unless I'm using an external battery pack or connecting it to a dynamo powered charger. Also, I don't think the gps in the phone is necessarily the most accurate. Compared to my bike computer which is calibrated to my exact tire circumference at the optimal psi I typically run, the Endomondo gps measurement is always a few tenths of a mile off even over the short 11 mile distance of my one-way commute. Totally mileage over a lengthy day or a tour would be suspect I think. Also, it seems like the gps track can be kinda screwy looking when you're looking at the maps. I'm just wondering if it'd be better off to buy an inexpensive stand-alone gps unit like one of the Garmin ETrex units with expandable memory and just save my phone for calls and occasionally looking something up on Google maps, versus trying to make it into a robust gps navigation unit, which it probably can't be. For the record, my phone runs Android 2.3.3 and is a Casio GzOne Commando from Verizon. The phone is a mil-spec waterproof, shockproof monster, but alas is hamstrung with an older version of Android with only 3G capability.
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Old 08-19-13, 05:34 PM
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Rarely will a multiuse gadget be as satisfactory as a dedicated gadget, tho the pkg as a whole may be more convenient.

Don't 'smart' phone's require a cell signal for their gps function? That cannot be as reliable as the satellite signal used by a dedicated gps, nor as accurate. As you noted, battery life on a smart phone is really quite limited compared to a gps.

Truth is no gadget is really needed in a touring environment. They are just convenient and entertaining. Paper maps work just fine.

That being said, I take a gps and a flip phone when touring. Each has long battery life and the phone doubles as a decent camera for journal pictures, especially with some simple processing of the pictures.

Gadgetology can be as complex as one wants. Or really simple. Just depends on one's predilections.
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Old 08-19-13, 05:37 PM
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I haven't done all the pieces you ask about - but here is how I've used my (Android) cell phone along with other tools:

1. Blogging. I've done a lot of my blogging with Wordpress. It is a nice flexible platform with a ton of plugins and ways to customize.
For example there are plugins that let you attach latitude/longitude coordinates to posts or to photos and then display on a google
map. There are also settings to let you blog by email via an email address you keep private.
2. GPS. I've done more of my GPS tracks with a standalone Garmin bike GPS. I like some of the cycle computer functions.
3. Cell phone. With those two pieces above, here is what I've done with my cell phone:
a. I have posted short quick "blog by email" pieces of text or photos to my blog from my cell phone. This is particularly handy
when there is cell phone coverage but not easy access to wifi. I had a recent extended tour across Africa where this was
the case. The emphasis is on short since I find it much easier to type on a laptop (perhaps after the trip) than on a cell phone.
Sometimes I'll have the quick "I am alive" type posting with the cell phone and then turn it into a more extended journal page
when I have better laptop access.
b. I have also used the Wordpress for Android plugin. This is an alternate way of uploading blog postings.
c. I have used the GPS on the cell phone to quickly record my GPS coordinates using an Android application. These later get used when
geocoding the posts and photos. I've also used the GPS along with maps to ask the "what is nearby" or "how do I get to" type questions.

What I haven't done is except for short trial runs, use the cell phone as a cycle computer to record a cycle track. I also haven't used it to do blogging that requires a lot of typing. Those functions seem to be getting better over time as smart phone technology matures, but with what I use, I still like using other pieces for those functions.
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Old 08-19-13, 07:38 PM
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Originally Posted by Cyclebum
Don't 'smart' phone's require a cell signal for their gps function? That cannot be as reliable as the satellite signal used by a dedicated gps, nor as accurate. As you noted, battery life on a smart phone is really quite limited compared to a gps.


Depends on what software you use. Google Maps generally needs a cell connection (there are workarounds); but an app called "CoPilot" has you download the US/Canada maps at one shot and store them on your memory card. Admittedly, it takes storage space and it's not a free app; but I've found that it works well for me. (I use the app in the US. I don't know if it has maps areas beyond the US & Canada.)

Battery life is still an issue; but using just the GPS takes less power that GPS plus cell.
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Old 08-19-13, 08:15 PM
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Do some/most smart phones have a traditional, satellite linked gps receiver? I thought they worked only off cell towers for gps functions.
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Old 08-19-13, 08:37 PM
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GPS routing is occasionally a nice feature to have, especially off road, but I'm having trouble picturing it being used on tour unless you're packing a laptop. I'd rather do my routing via the smart phone and maybe screen capture the days overview in case I went out of cell coverage. I could picture myself touring without my Garmin but not without my iPhone.
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Old 08-19-13, 08:52 PM
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Originally Posted by Cyclebum
Do some/most smart phones have a traditional, satellite linked gps receiver? I thought they worked only off cell towers for gps functions.
My smartphone (Droid Razr Maxx) and tablet (Nexus 7) work just fine with out any cell, data access or wifi. Google Maps can download sections for offline usage with just the GPS.
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Old 08-19-13, 09:27 PM
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I'll just toss out what I am doing after a 2,000 mile tour with a standard wired bike computer, Android smartphone and an Android tablet(wifi only). The smartphone was the a very useful tool. Especially for checking weather and locating motels and resources. Of course text messaging and calling but you don't need a smartphone for that. The tablet was good for route planning, location verification and entertainment.

I have concluded that if you want to tour with a smartphone and not worry about battery life then the only thing that comes close to being foolproof and worry free is to use a hub dynamo to charge a a battery pack cache and run the smartphone off it.

With the battery pack cache I can also now take my Garmin Edge 500 and charge it every night too and have the ride stats and track recorded for uploading later.

While the smartphone camera is great I still like my small Canon AA battery camera with a view finder. Again I can charge a couple of eneLoop AA off of the battery pack as well.

Of course with the hub dynamo you can have a good headlight and taillight for those early morning starts to avoid heat and winds.

Expensive I suppose but IMHO worth it. The SON28 should last a lifetime.

I see where there is the resistance to use any electronics touring. To me its kind of like saying I don't need TP but when you have it it beats the alternatives.
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Old 08-20-13, 09:16 AM
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Originally Posted by Cyclebum
Do some/most smart phones have a traditional, satellite linked gps receiver? I thought they worked only off cell towers for gps functions.
I recently bought a Chinese smartphone on ebay running Android 4.1. Some of the ones sold lack the GPS circuitry, I was careful to buy one that has the GPS chip. I have an Android tablet that lacks the chip, that requires wifi connection to know where it is.

I use wifi to load apps, etc., but have not yet bought a SIM card or a cell plan. So, without a SIM card I have pretty good proof that you do not need a cell connection to make the GPS work. My phone however does not have a flux gate compass so the mapping apps do not work as well as they could because some apps check that sensor to see which way the phone is oriented.

I have three pertinent apps that use the GPS chip in the phone off line when I am not connected on wifi. I know this from going for a walk where there is no wifi connection in a park. Those are:
- GPS Test.
- Maps With Me.
- Soviet Military Maps.

The Maps With Me app allows you to download state road maps and use those maps offline. I think it is great. But, it needs to be running with screen on to track and keep updating location.

The Soviet Military Maps paid version (about $11) allows you to download maps and then use it offline. The maps can have a lot more detail than the Maps With Me maps but consume a lot more memory. There also are choices of maps, including some topo map options. This app will keep updating location and creating a track when I have the screen turned off, which is great for battery life.

That said, for cycling I will continue using my vintage Garmin Etrex Legend and Etrex Vista GPS units that use AA batteries. They are over a decade old, black and white screens, not very fancy. I use the US Topo Maps version of Mapsource (bought that about a decade ago) to load maps into those GPS units. I usually get 10 to 12 hours in battery save mode on an older pair of rechargeable AA batteries. I carry enough rechargeable batteries to last about 5 or 6 days before I need a charge. If I ran out of power, I could buy some disposable AA batteries instead.

I plan to carry the smartphone so I have a wifi device where it is available. And I can use the GPS mapping ability as a backup to my regular GPS. Next summer I might have to use the smartphone as my principal GPS as I may tour somewhere where I do not have any base maps in my GPS, but I will worry about that later. I know that battery life will be an issue which is one reason that I bought a dynamo hub, but have not yet invested in the hardware to turn it into a USB charger.

If you want accuracy for distance traveled and speed, get a good bike computer. It is better than my GPS for this data. My GPS which I usually run in battery save mode also has more accuracy than my smartphone for this data too. My GPS would be even more accurate if I used it in normal mode with WAAS correction enabled, but that would cut battery life and it still would be less accurate than the bike computer.

Photo shows right to left electronics, my Garmin Etrex Vista (elevation profile shown on screen), bike computer on stem and heart rate monitor left of stem, and on far left my wrist watch.

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Old 08-20-13, 09:39 AM
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I prefer to save phone battery for any emergency. I also find smartphone displays very much harder to read in sunlight. If you have a pre-arranged route and want to stay exactly on it, I find the etrex-20 and ridewithGPS to be excellent, simple, and cheap. And I will usually create routes in advance.

And lately I don't even carry paper maps as a backup --preferring to just pull out the smartphone if I need additional perspective beyond my garmin unit.

I will also point out that on our annual WI ride (~700 miles) those of us with GPS frequently correct or bail out paper map users when roads are not marked or there is any confusion.

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Old 08-20-13, 12:57 PM
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Just more support for having multiple options.

I currently travel for business driving, frequently and use my phone GPS all the time. I've been caught many times with no cell connectivity causing Google Navigation and Waze to stop functioning. My fall back is that I bought the Navigon app for Android which doesn't need the cell signal...however you do have to already have the address you are heading to saved locally ;-). One gets spoiled with having a connection to look things up or access emails with the address in them over the network.

Overall the phone has worked well enough, but I have a tether to vehicle power keeping it going also. GPS nav uses a lot of battery power on the phone. You would want a sizeable battery pack to keep a phone going all day on a bicycle.

For your use, I would go the portable dedicated mapping GPS route with pre-loaded maps and routes and one that runs on AA batts, and have the phone as an added item, not primary for your navigation.

The RAM mounting systems are pretty solid as an option for mounting the GPS too if you are looking for a solution there. They are pricey, but they are built like it too. Also, have a tether line to anything mounted long term to a handlebar, in case the primary mount fails. It can just be a simple piece of 550 paracord, but you want something to tie it off so if it does break free from the mount it is "caught".

Only other advice with traveling with technology...test test test. Make sure if you want to upload through a tablet or laptop that you test the procedure at home a few times before you try to take it on the road with you.

One last note, a google gmail account with google drive and google documents all configured is very handy to have. This way you can have all the documentation noting your route plans, any hotel info, uploading pictures etc, all available from any convenient computer (like a community library) if all else fails. You can upload when possible your photos, or retrieve copies of your route plans if you lost them or the GPS failed you if you have them all stored in google documents or on google drive.
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Old 08-20-13, 02:14 PM
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I rode and blogged across the US from LA to Boston this past May and June. Used a Garmin 810 linked to an iPhone to record the trip and let family live track the ride. The 810 uploads to the iPhone at rides end and the iPhone uploads to Garmin connect. Take pix from the bike using waterproof Nikon Coolpix. Upload pix daily to an Ipad, edit with iPhoto and upload to Picasa. Use Wordpress on the Ipad to blog, link to Garmin connect for route information in the blog and link to pix on Picasa. It worked very well. Recent upgrades to the 810 and the Garmin app, however, are now giving me fits.
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