Once you’ve got the GPS bug, you’ll find there’s a lot more than simply knowing where you are and where you’re going. There’s also knowing where you’ve been, so you can plot your bike rides in Google Earth, geolocate your trail photos after the fact, or otherwise track your movements. This requires what’s known as a GPS “logger,” which is either a feature in some of the higher-end handheld GPS navigation gadgets, or a stand-alone device. I’ve used two of the stand-alone variety on robotic aerial photography planes, which is admittedly a little extreme, but the conclusions are useful for anyone just going for a walk in the park.
The first is the i-Blue 747 Bluetooth device from Transystem, and the second is the TrackStick II. One is great, and the other isn’t. Both come with software that will output your track data to a Google Earth file that you view and send around to friends. (Note: neither support the Mac, so you’ll need to use Parallels, dual-boot or find a different device if you’re one of those happy Apple folks.) There are probably other uses for these GPS loggers involving your teenage children, your car and various banned locations (and no doubt even creepier uses that I haven’t thought of), but I didn’t test those.
The i-Blue 747 can be found for less than $70 at Amazon. It’s got 16MB of memory, tracks 32 satellites and has Bluetooth so you can use it for real-time communications with a PDA or smartphone. It comes with rechargeable lithium batteries and is really small (approx 2.9″ x 1.75″ x 0.75″). It also saves GPS positions once per second, which is important when you’re moving fast, either on a car or bike or — in my case — in the air. In our testing, the i-Blue 747 acquired a satellite lock in less than minute and was rock-solid in keeping it. [Note: the software communicates with the device via a virtual Com port, handled by a driver. It can be a little tricky to figure out which Com port, however, so I suggest you go to your Windows device manager and see which port was assigned to the device and set the software to use that. On one of my machines it was port 5; on the other it was port 10; it depends on how many other drivers you've already loaded.]
The TrackStick II costs a jaw-dropping $190 at Amazon. It only has 1 MB of memory and only tracks 12 satellites. No Bluetooth, so it’s just a logger with no real-time function. It requires AAA batteries, which only last for a day or two of regular use, and is long and rectangular (4.25″ x 1.25″ x 0.9″), about twice the total size of the i-Blue. It has a built-in USB jack, so you can plug it straight into your PC. Aside from that advantage (the i-Blue requires a standard USB cable), the software does essentially the same thing as the i-Blue’s.
In testing, three serious problems cropped up with the TrackStick (aside from it being expensive, big, and badly underfeatured): 1) It only records a GPS record every 15 seconds in low-power mode and every 5 seconds in high-power mode. Even at the highest, battery-draining settings, that’s too slow for accurate tracking; 2) It takes forever to get a satellite lock. The first time, it took more than half an hour and subsequently it took more than three minutes; 3) Keeping that satellite lock is a struggle, too. By having a GPS chip that only sees 12 satellites, the TrackStick II suffers from frequent drop-outs and glitchy datapoints. We found it essentially unusable.
Basically, I can’t understand why the TrackStick is even sold. The i-Blue 747 does everything at a third the price, and it also does important things like Bluetooth, 1-second GPS sampling, and has a useful amount of memory.
– Chris Anderson
i-Blue 747 GPS Logger
Available from Amazon
Manufactured by Transystem Inc.
Related items previously reviewed in Cool Tools: