Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Gear Review: The Electronics

I will be the first to admit that I brought way too many electronics on this trip.  You can see in this photo the Garmin Oregon 450 GPS unit, my iPhone 3GS, my Planet Bike Protoge 9.0 cyclocomputer, and in the bar-mounted bag on the right was my new Panasonic Lumix TS3 waterproof camera.  Makes for a bit of bar clutter.  In addition to this mess, I also carried around an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, a Princeton Tec EOS headlamp, a New Trent external battery pack for the iPhone, back-up batteries for the camera, 6 rechargeable AA's for the GPS unit, a battery charger for the AA batteries, and 3 AAA Lithium-Ion back up batteries for the headlamp.

In theory the iPhone should be able to replace both the camera and the GPS unit, and meanwhile redue a lot of the spare battery clutter to boot.  But as it turns out the iPhone is good at a lot of things, but not good enough at anything to be the sole unit I would rely upon.  The camera quality on the 3GS sucks, and I'm not too optimistic that the iPhone 5 will be much better in this department unless they replace the epoxy bubble they use for a lens now with some optical quality glass.  Also, there's not much controling the image you're getting out of the iPhone, I'd like to be able to control the shutter speed, ISO, manual focus (for macro shots) and most critically have an adjustable exposure compensation.

On the other hand, the Panasonic Lumix TS3 was an excellent little camera, a huge improvement over our old P&S camera.  The controls are all easy to get to and adjust (not hard to access, stupid modes for fireworks, and candlelight, and firelight and starlight) its GPS enabled for geo-tagging my photos (important when photographing rare plants), waterproof and "shockproof".  In fact, I dropped it onto asphalt while rolling along at 15mph, and after re-seating the SD card it works just fine.  My only complaint is that its way to easy to get a finger, and thus a fingerprint on the lens and that its pretty expensive at over $300.

One more camera related review: the Eye-Fi Moble X2 SD card I used took a lot of work to set up properly, but once it was set up, I could wirelessly send photos from the camera to the iPhone ANYWHERE, no Wi-Fi network required.  This along with the wireless keyboard meant that I could upload photos, type up, and post to my blog as long as I had the faintest cellular signal... or i could just compose the whole thing and post it once I rolled into a town where I got a phone signal.  Brilliant.

As for that Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, it worked well and was relatively compact, and was waterproof as long as I kept it in a large zip-lock bag.  However its pretty heavy being made out of a big hunk of aluminum.  I was hoping to have the Jorno folding keyboard for this trip... to bad they're running a full year behind when they said they were going to release it... I preordered mine back last December and won't see it until next spring!

But the really crippling aspect of the iPhone that makes it useless for navigating and general use is the pathetic, abysmal, embarrassing battery life.  I have to turn on every battery saving setting I can find, and then keep it in Airplane Mode most of the time, and it still runs out of batteries about 2/3rds of the way through each day while on tour.  Then there is the hassle of turning Airplane Mode off, the switching to the app you want to use, waiting for the GPS to connect, figure out where you are and where you are going, then quit the app, so you can go back to setting and put it back in Airplane Mode before shutting it off.

This made the New Trent IMP880 8900mAh External Battery Pack, a necessary and trip-saving accessory.  It charges from the wall, holds about 5 iPhone charges worth of battery power that you can dish out whenever you need it.  There are other models and brands with different battery capacities for different folks, but this one I think is well suited to my needs.  It worked flawlessly, really an accessory that every iPhone owner needs (at least until Apple gets their act together).

Apple needs to triple or quadruple the battery life on these phones.  The battery inside the iPhone has less juice than a single AAA battery!  I think they could increase the battery power this much by making it about 1/8th" thicker.  I don't know why Steve Jobs is so obsessed with making the iPhone thinner, I have never heard anyone complain about their phone being too thick.  Meanwhile, I have problems with the battery running down in daily use, not just on tour, and that's just pathetic. Apple also needs to develop a setting/mode to allow us to turn off all-cellular transmission/reception while leaving the GPS function on.  Kind of like Airplane Mode + GPS.  This, I would imagine would be easy to do, and it would save people like myself who both work and play out of the cell network a lot of battery power, since when the phone is "searching..." it takes a lot of extra juice.

All of this is a shame because the GPS software for the iPhone is pretty good (or at least maturing into something pretty good) and the GPS chip itself is about as accurate as any consumer-grade GPS device.  I tested out both Motion-X GPS and Gaia GPS on this trip.  Both apps allow you to download maps ahead of time so you don't have to rely on cellular coverage to see where you are going.  In both you can upload GPS waypoints and tracks, so you can see your route.  Motion-X is a bit more advanced in this department as you can manage these files through iTunes, but with Gaia, you have to email a GPX file to a special email address as an attachment, which works, but is clunky.  Both apps have problems with tracks disappearing so you have to re-load them, but Gaia seems worse for this.  Of course, the best solution for this would be if either app developed a desktop companion for their software to allow you to manage layers, maps, waypoints and tracks, but I'm not going to hold my breath for this.

Gaia has the huge advantage of being able to download actual USGS Topo maps.  I found that these coupled with OpenStreet Maps was all I needed for navigation.  However, the topo maps were hard to read with my iPhone 3GS, I'm hoping they work better with the RetinaDisplay on the iPhone 4.  Gaia also has a lot of clutter on their maps screen, and while you can minimize it to some degree, I don't see why I need even a little tab to see the exact longitude and latitude coordinates of my location.  I can't imagine this information ever having any practical use.  It'd be nice to have the option to eliminate these entirely from the screen.

I have been using Motion-X GPS for a while, and it works OK, but its interface is too complicated and cluttered, its a bit buggy still.  Also, though I spent HOURS downloading maps to this app before I left on my trip, some of them mysteriously disappeared, so I couldn't rely on Motion-X GPS to help me with navigation when I was out on the trail.  Very frustrating.  Overall, I Think if they could work out some bugs, streamline and simplify a bit and get the topo maps on there, this would be a solid App.  But for now at least, despite its faults Gaia GPS is my choice for iPhone-based navigation.

Both of these apps have a lot of potential, but are unfortunately held back by the iPhone hardware.  I think the outdoor enthusiasts best hope is if a case manufacture would come forward with a case that was not only a shock/water resistant case, but also had an extra battery pack built in.  Right now you can buy one or the other, not both.  Also, it would be good if someone came up with a decent handlebar mount for the iPhone, the Topeak iPhone Drybag I used worked, but you have to take it out of the bag to get a decent photo, and there's really no shock protection if you drop it.  But their clip system worked great, and its the way I will be carrying around my iPhone on my bike for commuting and recreational rides back home.

The Garmin Oregon 450 is a decent GPS unit, and since this the first time I have used a GPS for navigation (I've used Trimble units for data gathering for scientific field work) I don't have a lot to compare it to.  It works great when you're on the bike and need to know where to turn next.  And it runs for a full day, and then some using NiMH rechargeable batteries.  This made it my go-to navigation device.  However, it has several faults.  The user interface was clunky.  And what really drove me crazy was that the topographic lines were in dark brown while the roads were in light grey, so it made it really hard to see where the roads were going in any area with rolling hills!  I had to turn the topographic map off in the end and rely on a regular street map, which is not optimal. I should be able to adjust the apperance of the topo lines and the roads to meet my needs.  Also, to switch between the "direction of travel is up" mode when navigating to the "north is up" mode when I just want to look at the route overall, you had to exit the map, open up the settings, etc.  This took 8 taps of my finger to get there, really this should be something you should be able to do by one click to the compass in the upper left hand corner.

The small, low-resolution screen makes it very difficult to use if you are trying to look at the "map" and decide on a new route.  The iPhone apps did this job a lot better, since you could easily zoom in and out and see a clear map of your surroundings.  Or you could try a good, old-fashioned paper map.  But either way, I would never take this GPS unit into the wild alone as my only navigation device.  In this day and age with smart phone and other devices so prevalent, I think we expect more out of our hand-held devices.  I think Garmin is in big trouble with their stand-along units.  They are going to need to improve their screen quality, improve the quality of maps that they offer and provide a better user experience or they are going to be left in the dust by the GPS apps on smartphones.  It is nice that Garmin provides a desktop companion for their units, called Garmin Basecamp, but it is really clunky software with 5 actual applications you have to download.  Basically it works, but the user interface is crap and its buggy.

All I have to say about the Planet Bike Protoge 9.0 is that it works well, and that it displays the temperature as well as all of the standard bike computer info.  Like a bank clock, it estimates a bit high in full sunlight, but seems pretty accurate in the shade, or when shaded by the shadow of my body.  Also, somehow if you put your iPhone right next to it and start playing MP3's it will reset the Protoge... that's some serious electromagnetic interference, so beware of that.

All in all, if the iPhone could do what its supposed to do, I could have cut probably 2 pounds of electronic gear from my kit.  Another solution I am considering is a generator hub hooked up to charge the iPhone while I ride.  It would add a little bit of rolling resistance, but in return I would have all of the utility I need and a lot less electronic clutter!


  1. What did you use to attach the Garmin to your bike? I've just bought a bike and have the 450 so want to attach it like you have.

  2. Garmin Makes a handlebar mount for it.

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