Tips for Buying a New GPS Receiver
By Patty Winter
Is your current GPS receiver (GPSr) getting long in the tooth? Do you want to surprise your honey with a brand new model for Christmas or Hanukkah? Caching Now is pleased to offer some tips on selecting a GPSr, just in time for the holidays. We’ve also included links to the websites of manufacturers and retailers where you can get more details on specific features to help you narrow down exactly the right unit for yourself or someone on your gift list. Ready? Let’s go!
The most popular manufacturers of GPS units for hobbyists and “prosumers” (high-end consumers) are Garmin, Magellan, and DeLorme. Recently, smartphones such as the Apple iPhone and the Palm Pre have begun including GPS receivers. (More on those later.) Prices range from about $150 for basic models suitable for geocaching, to $600 for high-end models with more features.
Geocachers and benchmark hunters will want to carefully consider several features when choosing a GPS receiver. But first, let’s dispense with some features that are important, but not usually something you have to factor into your decision.
• Sensitivity. Almost all consumer-grade GPS receivers these days have high-sensitivity receivers and at least 12 channels.
• Accuracy. WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) is also usually a given. Read our article on WAAS if you’d like to learn more about this technology—including when you might want to switch it off.
• Connectivity. The days of serial-to-USB interfaces are over. All the consumer models made by the leading GPS manufacturers have USB connectors, so they’ll plug right in to your desktop or laptop computer.
So which features do vary? You’ll definitely want to compare specs on these:
• Memory. The amount of memory in a GPSr determines how much personalized information you can add to it. You aren’t likely to fill it up with geocaching GPX files or NGS datasheets, but maps are another matter. Some geocachers like to have street maps and topographic maps and terrain photo (aerial) maps not only for their own areas, but for a few adjoining regions as well. That eats up memory quickly, so consider how many maps you’ll need to keep in your GPSr—or at least, how many you’ll want to download for each day’s activities. The memory available in a GPSr is usually a combination of built-in memory and some sort of memory card (SD, microSD, etc.), so make sure you understand what the memory options are for the unit you’re considering. Consider adding a high-speed memory card reader to your computer; they can read and write data faster than when the card is in the GPSr.
• Maps. What you’re hunting (geocaches or benchmarks) and where you plan to hunt will determine what kinds of maps you need. If you mostly search in urban areas, the built-in street maps that come with most of today’s GPS units will be just fine. But if you’re adventuring further afield, you’ll probably want a GPSr that comes with—or lets you load—other maps, such as topos or aerials. Such detailed maps can alert you when a geocache that seems nearby is actually on the other side of a canyon, or help you plan a route along a gentle slope instead up a cliff!
• Software compatibility. Make sure that the software included with the GPSr will work with your computer so that you can transfer maps. This isn’t usually an issue for Windows users (unless perhaps you have a really old version), but is definitely something that Linux and Mac OS X users will want to pay attention to.
• Waypoints. 500 waypoints are probably sufficient for most geocachers and benchmarkers, but 1,000 will give you a lot more breathing room. Garmin units have a feature called “points of interest” (POIs) that provides another way to store data. For example, benchmark hunters can use separate POI databases to organize their National Geodetic Survey (NGS) datasheets for different counties.
• Geocaching-specific features. Many models have special geocaching icons that change when you mark them as found. (Benchmarkers can use the icons for survey stations.) “Paperless geocaching” lets the unit display the entire cache listing, sometimes even including logs. And some companies have been authorized to capture geocache information (such as LOC and GPX files) directly from the Geocaching.com website. These are all very helpful features for geocachers.
A few features of lesser importance that you may also want to think about:
• Antenna connector. Most people get by fine with the built-in antenna, but an optional external antenna definitely gives you more flexibility, particularly in your car.
• Physical features. Screen size is a personal preference, and your preference may be affected by what kind of map you’re viewing. There’s no substitute for trying out different receivers in person. Also decide whether you want a color screen or can get by with black and white. Weight, size, battery life, and whether the unit is waterproof (and floats!) are factors that will affect your decision in some cases, such as if you plan to take it backpacking or kayaking.
By the way, it’s doubtful that you will find GPS car models good for geocaching or benchmark hunting. Yes, you can hand-carry a car GPSr, but they aren’t really designed for the accuracy needed for field use. Specifically, users have reported that units designed for cars typically don’t update their location often enough at a walking pace. That’s a problem if you want accuracy within feet for a geocache or benchmark. See the GPS and Technology forum for discussions on this issue.
Whew, that’s a lot to think about! But if you consider what kinds of activities you’ll be doing—and, of course, how much you can afford—you can narrow the field to a manageable number of models for in-depth research.
What about smartphones and PDAs?
We are now seeing the advent of truly GPS-capable smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone, Palm Treo and Pre, RIM Blackberry, and other models from leading mobile phone manufacturers such as Sony, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung. Going the other direction, GPS maker Garmin has begun offering cell phones.
I don’t think anyone will claim yet that a smartphone is as capable as a dedicated GPS unit, but they’ve made major strides in the past couple of years. If you want to geocache with a smartphone, make sure that it includes built-in GPS hardware, not just software that triangulates your position from cellphone towers. (Some units, such as the Apple iPhone, offer both capabilities.)
Here are some geocaching software options for smartphones and PDAs:
• Trimble’s Geocache Navigator runs on a variety of smartphone models (pricing depends on the carrier).
• Cachemate is for geocachers and benchmark hunters who have Palm OS, Pocket PC, Windows Smartphone, or Google Android devices ($10).
Giving a GPS as a gift?
Buying a GPS receiver for someone else is tricky. Unless you overheard her while she was talking to Santa at the mall, you probably won’t know exactly which model she wants. What to do in that situation? Here are some options.
• Gather intelligence. Perhaps friends of the intended recipient can tell you which models he or she has been lusting after. Or, if you can find a subtle way to do it, try extracting the information directly. “Honey, would you like some tortilla chips and salsa to hold you till dinner? Oh, and speaking of chips, what do you think about SiRFstarIII chipsets?” Something like that...
• Give a gift card. Probably best to avoid store-specific cards unless you’re sure that retailer carries the models your loved one will want to choose from.
• Make a gift certificate. You can download a printable gift certificate template from Microsoft’s website. Even better, design your own certificate using images of geocachers and GPS units.
Visit Caching Now next month for Part 2 of our Holiday Gift Guide. Next time, we’ll discuss accessories for the avid geocacher or benchmark hunter, including software, cache containers, travel bugs, and more!
Here’s where you can find out more about buying a GPS receiver and the features mentioned in this article:
Patty Winter is the contributing editor of Caching Now. A freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she writes marketing materials for high-tech companies, and magazine articles about science and technology. An avid benchmark hunter, she is especially interested in Disney benchmarks and the survey marks in Yosemite National Park.
Originally published, November 2009.