This material originally published in slightly different form on the Free Geography Tools website.

I’ve owned a handheld GPS ever since the first “consumer-grade” model, the Motorola Traxar, was released in 1993: $900, 6 AA batteries, 8 satellites max, could only record waypoints, and about the size and weight of a brick. Man, was that an awesome GPS unit! I’ve upgraded several times since then, and am glad that handhelds have improved as much as they have. But I’ve always chafed at their restricted ability to record information out in the field: waypoints with a name and short description, tracks with a name, and that’s pretty much it.

Back in January, I posted a “wishlist” for a field-ready GPS unit on my Free Geography Tools website;  I had hoped that the newer Garmin Oregon models might satisfy most of those requirements, but a lousy touch interface makes those units too difficult to work with. I tried to put together a “field-ready” semi-rugged Windows netbook that met most of my needs, but the poor screen visibility in sunlight conditions was just too great a restriction on its use; while still handy to have, full utility required either shade or a cloth draped over my head. I had pretty much given up on finding what I wanted, and was about to buy one of the new Garmin 62-series GPS units as an upgrade from my trusty Garmin 60Cx; nowhere near all the features I wanted, but enough extra ones (aerial/raster imagery, three-axis compass) to justify the purchase.

A recent upgrade in local cellular antennas finally let me dump my landline phone, and move over to a full-time cellular connection. As part of that process, I decided to pick up an Android smartphone, specifically a Motorola Droid X. While I knew it came with a GPS, that wasn’t the primary reason for getting it – I just wanted a phone that would allow me to stay connected to email and Internet when I was out and about. But having used it for a few weeks now, I’m now convinced that GPS-capable Android-powered units, phones or otherwise, are going to completely transform both the handheld and automotive GPS markets.

Here’s a comparison of my Droid X with the comparable top-of-the-line Garmin unit, the Oregon 550. Bold text indicates which unit IMHO has the advantage in that category.

Motorola Droid XGarmin Oregon 550Comments
Price$569 list$499 listThe Garmin is often discounted by about $100; the Droid X currently isn’t, but will likely drop dramatically in price over the next six months. This doesn’t include cellular plan costs.
Weight6 oz.6.8 oz.
Processor Speed1 GHz200 MHz (?)
Storage RAM8 GB2 GB
microSD expansionComes with 16 GB, can take up to 32 GBComes with none, can take up to 4 GB
Display size4.3” diagonal3” diagonal
Screen Resolution480 x 840240 x 400
Color Depth16 (24)16Droid X screen is 24-bit-color capable, but some specs indicate that the OS is only displaying 16-bit color
Daylight Screen VisibilityGoodVery goodBiggest problem with Droid X screen is glare; screen protector helps with that.
Shade/Indoor Screen VisibilityOutstandingVery good
GPS Satellites1212+Unclear from specs
WAAS/EGNOSNo?YesUnclear from specs
Assisted GPSYesNoNetwork signal reduces TTFF
Three-axis compassYesYes
Camera8 MP5 MP
Multiple camera modesYesNoDroid X has standard, macro, panorama, plus multiple exposure controls
VideoYes – 720p HDNo
Barometric AltimeterNoYes
CalculatorYesYesDroid X has advantage because you can download and install multiple calculator apps
TouchscreenYes; multi-touch capacitiveYes; resistiveA draw; multi-touch is useful, but resistive can be used with gloves on
Keyboard data entryYes; multiple QWERTY keyboards available, some with text predictionYes; A-Z keyboardYou can choose your preferred data entry mode with the Droid.
Voice-to-text data entryYes, with wireless connectionNo
Voice recordingYesNo
Text data limitsLimited only by unit’s memoryLimited by waypoint data fields – about 80 characters
Wireless connectivityWiFi; 3G; BluetoothProprietary wireless interfaceWith a Garmin, you can only transfer wireless data between compatible units
Battery life5-6 hours (?)16 hoursFor Droid X, depends on screen brightness, whether you have the wireless connections on, etc..
Field-ruggedNoYesGarmin is IPX7-waterproof
Built-in mapsYesYesGarmin has baseline vector map; Droid has Google Maps
Free up-to-date online maps and POI dataYesNoGarmin’s detailed vector maps have to be purchased; updates cost extra. Droid has access to continuously-updated maps for free, but these typically require the unit to be online.
Offline raster mapsYes with third-party appsYes with Garmin Custom Maps, BirdsEye subscription
Offline vector dataYes with third-party appsYes with free/paid Garmin mapsGarmin data ecosystem still far superior here.
Car navigationYes (free, but requires wireless connection)Yes (requires paid Garmin maps)Draw; Droid has voice, 3D navigation, but requires wireless connection; Garmin works offline.
Waypoints, tracks, routesYes with third-party appsYesDroid third-party apps give you more freedom with what you do with the data
GeocachingYes with third-party appsYes
Ability to add additional applicationsYESNO

I could go on, but just from the above, the Droid X is at least competitive with the Garmin feature-wise, and you could easily make the argument that overall it’s far superior. The few categories where the Droid X falls short (WAAS, ruggedness, battery life) can be partially remedied with add-ons: you can use it with a WAAS-capable Bluetooth GPS transmitter, spare batteries are cheap on eBay, and cases offer some level of physical protection.

But more to the point, they are due to the Droid X being designed to be primarily a cellphone, not a GPS unit. It really shouldn’t be hard at all to design a unit that remedies those failings, and sell it at a  reasonable cost. Here’s a link to a mil-spec ruggedized Android GPS unit already available; currently costs $1200, but divide that by the factor of 3-5 that military contractors typically add on and you’d have a reasonably-priced consumer unit. Less-expensive consumer Android models with GPS are on the way, like the Samsung Yepp at about $350, or this Archos mini-tablet for $150; it’s not that big a stretch to think that fully field-qualified versions of those units could be made and sold fairly cheaply. And I’m especially intrigued by the Notion Ink Adam, an Android-based tablet due out late this year or early next year. The Adam will be offered with an optional 10.1” Pixel Qi LCD screen, which can be switched from a standard transmissive LCD mode to a sunlight-visible transflective color mode, and then to a low-power black-and-white e-Ink-like mode. With  GPS, WiFi, 3G, and built-in camera, this model will sell for $498, or less than a Wifi-only iPad.

But hardware is only a small part of Android’s advantage; the big advantage is that you can put applications onto an Android unit to add functionality, something you can’t do with standard Garmin GPS units. There are already hundreds of position/geography/location-aware apps available for Android units, and that number grows every day. There’s currently only a very limited number of GIS-related apps, but I’d be surprised if many more of those don’t show up soon. And even with the limited number of apps currently available, you can already do far more with an GPS-equipped Android unit than with a standard handheld GPS. Given the impending death of the classic Windows Mobile platform, the primarily OS for many portable GIS and data acquisition apps like ArcPad and Terrasync, it would make sense for companies like Trimble and Ashtech to look at Android as a viable platform for future hardware and software development.

I suppose that the Apple iPhone/iTouch/iPad/iOs ecosystem could be a viable alternative to Android-based models – the hardware and software are certainly good enough – but I doubt it will be. Anyone can license the Android OS and create a hardware device that uses it, which means more models, more competition, and lower prices. Apple has firm and exclusive control of all hardware that runs iOS, which means fewer models and higher prices. I think they’re repeating the same mistakes that resulted in Windows dominating the PC market, but whatever; at least for now, it’s a lucrative market for them.

There is a question about how the current big three handheld GPS makers might be affected by Android, and how they might respond. Personally, I think it’s going to be tough for them to adapt. Up until recently, handheld GPS units have been a fairly limited specialty market, allowing manufacturers to control interfaces and map data, and charge exorbitant prices due to limited competition. In most consumer electronics fields, prices drop even as capabilities increase; that really hasn’t been the case for handheld GPS. Android has the capability to turn GPS into a commodity market, meaning less control and more competition, leading to lower prices. And this is an environment that the old-school GPS vendors may not be ready for.

Magellan: Magellan is still struggling to overcome the disastrous premiere of their Triton line in 2008: decent hardware with capabilities unique at the time (raster imagery, 3-axis compass) sabotaged by horribly buggy software. Most of these problems got fixed, but too late to make a difference. Magellan was acquired late in 2008 by MiTAC (parent company of Mio, and they’ve just recently announced a new series of Explorist models, due out this fall.  For standard GPS models, the specs on these look pretty good, and the prices are very competitive. But in the long run, I don’t see how they can compete with more-capable Android models that are likely to sell in the same price range or even lower.  Putting someone else’s Android unit into a Magellan body with a better antenna and waterproof/field-rugged design might be a better way to go. They already have some experience using that approach with their new case for the iPhone, which enhances the iPhone’s GPS abilities while offering better protection against the elements; they just have to do it more cheaply.

DeLorme: DeLorme has moved into second place for handheld GPS units with their PN series, the first consumer models with raster/aerial imagery, and the first models with an affordable subscription plan for this imagery. They’ve also come out with a new model recently, the PN-60, with an upgraded interface and the ability to interface with SPOT communicators for satellite text messaging. But $400 for a GPS with a 2.2” display? No touchscreen? No apps? Their $250 xMap software lets you upload GIS data (raster and vector) to their PN models, but you can already put raster imagery on Android models, and GIS vector data can’t be too far behind. I don’t see this proprietary hardware line as having much of a future, and they don’t have much experience with alternative hardware.

Garmin: Garmin seems to develop an OS for their GPS units, and then use it as long as they can. The OS developed for their eMap model in 1999 was adapted and upgraded for most of their handheld models through 2006, culminating in the classic 60/76Cx series. These were probably the best-selling handheld consumer GPS series of all time, and four years later are still among their most popular units. They’re only 2.5 years into their next-gen GPS OS, the one that powers the Colorado/Oregon/Dakota/62/78 series, and they’ve certainly released a ton of variant models in these lines. The question is whether they can move past their own proprietary hardware and software designs and move quickly to an Android platform, using their strong GPS expertise to bring additional features that will differentiate their models from the rest of the market. I’d like to think so – I’ve been a Garmin fanboy for 10 years now, and even now that I own a Droid X, you’ll have to pry my 60Cx out of my cold dead hands. But their recent history isn’t encouraging. Their first attempt to move Garmin technology to a cellphone platform, the nuvifone, was universally despised by reviewers. Their second effort, the Garminfone, was based on the Android platform, and received much more favorable reviews; the car navigation software of the Garminfone is generally considered to be the best Android car navigation system so far. If the phone had come out in the latter half of 2009 as originally scheduled, it could have been a huge success. But instead, it was first released in June 2010, and was crippled by:

  • Older software; it ran Android 1.6 when every other phone being released at the same time ran Android 2.1
  • A custom interface that makes it very difficult to upgrade to more recent Android versions
  • Slow processor
  • 3 MP camera
  • A screen pixel count 1/4 of its similarly-priced competitors, and a smaller screen
  • Garmin car navigation software on competing models that, while not as good, was free
  • Lousy battery life
  • No headphone jack

In short, simply not competitive with other Android phones. A month-and-a-half after being introduced for $199.99, it was already discounted by $70, and was part of a “buy one, get one free” package from T-Mobile. Even with that, it’s only sold about 20,000 units, which Garmin themselves acknowledged as a disappoint performance in their latest quarterly report.. If Garmin is going to survive in the consumer market, they’re going to have to move faster than that in developing products. And they’re going to have to give up control of the overall interface in favor of Android’s standard, putting their interface into just their applications. And they need to leverage their GPS engineering capabilities and map data into advantages that make  their units stand out. If they don’t, they’re going to have a tough time surviving in this new market.

So old-school GPS makers may or may not be able to make the switch to the new Android paradigm. But there’s already a lot of GPS-equipped Android smartphones out there, and the ecosystem is likely to explode in the next six months with small non-phone units, slates and tablets. And the universe of geography-related apps is likely to grow in a similar fashion. And that’s what this website will be devoted to – Android as a tool for working in the new mobile geography world.

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