I’ve covered the advantages of using an external Bluetooth GPS transmitter instead of your Android’s built-in GPS before; chief among those are longer battery life and higher accuracy. But it’s also possible to convert your Android phone itself into an external Bluetooth GPS transmitter, where it can broadcast position data to a paired Bluetooth receiver. One useful application for this would be with a laptop that has compatible mapping software installed in it - it can use the transmitted GPS data to plot your position. Examples of this kind of software would be Microsoft Streets And Trips (paid, but available as a free time-limited trial), or the free topographic map software USAPhotoMaps.
To take advantage of this capability, you’ll need the following:
- An Android phone/unit with Bluetooth and GPS. Most currently available Android phones have both, but some Android tablets don’t come with GPS and/or Bluetooth.
- A computer with Bluetooth connectivity. Many modern laptops come with Bluetooth already built in; if yours doesn’t, you might try one of the cheap Bluetooth USB dongles available for $3 or less from Meritline or DealExtreme. Some people have problems with these, but I’ve had good luck with the $2 ones I bought from DealExtreme. All of my tests have been with Windows systems, so I don’t know how well they would work with Macs.
- Software that can take advantage of the Bluetooth GPS signal. Any software that can accept NMEA GPS input on a serial COM port should work with a Bluetooth GPS transmitter.
- Properly-configured Android software that transmits the GPS position data over Bluetooth to the computer.
The last of these is probably the biggest hurdle; setting up the Android phone to work correctly took me quite a bit of time to figure out, and even then I couldn’t get it to work with a few of the apps. If you read the comments associated with these apps, you’ll see that there are some phones that work with some of these apps, while others don’t. Given all the steps you have to go through to make even the simplest app work, it’s not surprising that people have problems.
Here’s a rough outline of the steps you need to go through to get a working Bluetooth GPS connection between your Android phone and your computer:
- Pair your Android phone with your computer with Bluetooth (Settings => Wireless And Networks => Bluetooth).
- Start up the Bluetooth GPS app on your Android.
- If available on the app, make your Android discoverable.
- Use your Bluetooth control panel in Windows to add the Bluetooth GPS device to your Windows system.
- Find out which COM port has been assigned to the Bluetooth GPS device.
- Start up the map software on your laptop, and set the GPS input device to NMEA, with the COM port identified in the previous step.
Not exactly a one-step process. Steps 1-4 only have to be done once if you stick with a single app, but if you install a different Bluetooth GPS transmitter app, you’ll have to do steps 1-4 specifically for that app. And if you go back to the original app, you’ll have to go back and do steps 1-4 again. This is even more complicated if the apps can’t make your Android discoverable – then you have to manually add a Bluetooth COM port to your Windows system. One of the apps I’ll be reviewing in greater detail has some decent online documentation for this process, which helps a bit.
I took a look at four Android Bluetooth GPS transmitter apps for review, two of which simplify the process by making the Android discoverable, two which can’t. These latter two were free apps, but unfortunately after repeated attempts, and much head-banging, I simply couldn’t make them work. You might have better luck than me (and free is nice), so here are links to BlueNMEA and GPS 2 Bluetooth if you want to try them out. Don’t spend too much time, though – the paid apps I’ll be reviewing over the next few days don’t require as much effort to get working, have more capabilities, and only cost about $2. How much is your time worth?