Please create an account to participate in the Slashdot moderation system


Forgot your password?
Cellphones Handhelds

Recycling an Android Phone As a Handheld GPS? 328

imblum writes "So my dad's antique handheld GPS unit just went toes up and I was considering replacing it for him with an old Android Smartphone. All he really needs it for is hunting and camping (no navigation), so I don't want to pay for cell or data service. I found the program Mobile Atlas Creator to download map files onto the SD card, and an app called Maverick Lite to view them. Now all I need is to decide on an Android phone. I was considering a Samsung Behold II ($100-200 on Craigslist), but thought it would be nice to get some input from the Slashdot community. It seems like I can get a lot more functionality for the money out of an old Android than I could from a big name handheld GPS. Does this plan sound reasonable? Is there anything I'm overlooking?"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Recycling an Android Phone As a Handheld GPS?

Comments Filter:
  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:25PM (#33247116)

    Battery life will not be as good as on a real GPS, but should be ok.

    • by Peter Simpson ( 112887 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:31PM (#33247180)
      GS runs on AA, can get spares & carry them with you. Android will want to be charged at some point, and how will it behave if it can't find a cell site? GSM units will keep transmitting, increasing battery drain. Spend a hundred bucks on a new GPS for him.
      • Hundred bucks? You can get a nokia for like $30 dollars and have GPS on it. I gues you can get a dedicated GPS navigator for less than that.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by stephanruby ( 542433 )
          Like I've explained in a previous post in much greater detail, the GPS of a Nokia phone (even with its free off-line Ovi vector maps) is almost completely useless without a data connection.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Airplane mode disables all the wireless including gsm. Battery life will still likely be an issue for hunting, probably can get a few days with occasional checks.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:19PM (#33247558)

          Airplane mode disables all the wireless including gsm. Battery life will still likely be an issue for hunting, probably can get a few days with occasional checks.

          If he's going out into the wilderness any appreciable distance and doesn't know how to use a map and compass, or how to find the four directions without a compass then he might be a candidate for a Darwin Award except that he's apparently already reproduced.

          Seriously. A sharp person can learn basic old-fashioned navigation in about ten or twenty minutes. Do that and a GPS device is just a convenience. Nice to have for sure, but out in the wilderness you need some skills too. A knowledge of common edible plants for the area and the know-how to make basic snares and traps for wild game and makeshift shelters is a good idea too.

    • by kurokame ( 1764228 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:44PM (#33247296)

      It might not be a good idea for multi-day hikes, but you can probably get reasonable single-day battery life out of many or most models. Particularly if you power off the other radios, and if you can power off the unit itself when it's not being actively used.

      As to why this and not a dedicated GPS unit - sure, a dedicated unit will probably have better battery life, and it might be better for GPS usage in other ways as well. But it's almost certainly less flexible. I can really only use it for GPS - what if I also want to take pictures or make notes about each location I'm at? Sure, I could carry more dedicated devices to handle those functions. But at some point, isn't it worth carrying one device which can serve several functions while fitting in my pocket? Also, a dedicated device probably comes with the software package that it comes with. Adapting a smartphone means that you're running a mobile computing platform which just happens to have a GPS sensor - you can probably pick among several options for the software, or even program your own. Some smartphones also have additional sensors like accelerometers or compasses which could improve the functionality - not all, of course, but potentially valuable if you can get it. Maybe some dedicated GPS units have this as well, but I doubt that the really cheap ones do.

      For the subby, the situation they describe really does make it sound like a dedicated unit is at least worth a serious look. A dedicated unit is more likely to "just work" and that's likely all the guy wants.

      • by humblecoder ( 472099 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @09:43PM (#33248070) Homepage

        As someone who owns an Android phone AND a dedicated GPS, perhaps I can inject something into this conversation:

        Another consideration is how well it will hold up under the elements. Even the cheapest Garmin eTrex (which I own BTW) is pretty rugged. I wouldn't trust my Android smartphone out in the woods in the rain, mud, etc. Some other pluses of going the dedicated route:

        - Battery life is better on the dedicated GPS, and when it does run down, it takes standard AA's.

        - The dedicated GPS seems to have a better "time to first fix" than my Android phone, but that just might be because of the specific model. However, if your one purpose is to do GPS, it makes sense that you would do it better than a multipurpose device.

        I do think it would be cool if there was a dedicated GPS that took pictures too. You could use the GPS to geotag the picture and have it as an icon for a waypoint to help remind you what that waypoint is.

        • by Gibbs-Duhem ( 1058152 ) on Saturday August 14, 2010 @04:10AM (#33249508)

          I did a reasonably extensive amount of research into how to do this, and I'm pretty confident I know the answer.

          1. Get OruxMaps - it allows you to use maps without an active internet connection.
          2. While connected to wifi, download the tiles from google terrain (or one of the other map sources available). If you know exactly where you're hiking, you can get zoomed in maps for say a 20 mile square around the center of your hike with amazing resolution.
          3. Put your phone in a plastic bag, and only take it out if you actually don't know where you are (I find that I almost always do).

          In terms of battery life, I was using my android phone as a camera too, and checking GPS every few hours to verify I was in the right place, and it lasted for three days taking down the battery by 40%. Make sure to turn off the cell tower seeking and such or else you will drain the battery really fast. Airplane mode probably won't allow you to receive GPS, unfortunately, but you can at least turn off wireless, data connections, etc.

          If you aren't going to be gone very long, and you want a cool log of your trip, you can have OruxMaps poll the GPS in "power saving" mode, which as far as I can determine seems to mean connecting, and then dropping to low power (non-receiving) mode for 10-20 seconds before polling the satellites again. Then you can tell it to make a "track", and it will record your hike -- average speed, immediate speed at each point, speed distribution, altitude map, total distance, and other cute information.

          Hopefully someone will mod this up high enough that the submitter can see it... this is the part of ask slashdot that always confuses me. Hopefully a few hundred other people came up with the same solution, so at least one of us is actually noticed =)

  • I don't know what Android does with the maps. But if the maps are fetched dynamically from the network, your old Android phone is going to need a subscription, and you're SOL when you take a wrong turn and wander off the grid. Been there / been burned by Blackberry.

    • Oh, I guess I could actually read the summary. :-)

      Does this third-party software do routing and announcements?

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      The summary mentions offline maps, and there are lots of android apps that use them.

  • Why? (Score:5, Informative)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:26PM (#33247138) Homepage Journal

    You're talking about spending $100-200 on an Android phone, and you can get a real dedicated GPS receiver for $90 that requires no effort to set up, no purchase of an additional flash card, has a warranty, etc.

  • Used GPS are cheap (Score:5, Informative)

    by winkydink ( 650484 ) * <> on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:27PM (#33247148) Homepage Journal

    I just bought a used Magellan explorist 500 ion Amazon for $7. Why bother with hacking an android phone?

    • Because buying a GPS doesn't overcomplicate the solution to this person's dad's issue.

    • Used GPS are cheap

      and often nearly useless. sorry, but when I'm backpacking, a screen with an arrow pointing up and a set of geo coords are worth almost nothing to me. there may be hundreds of kilometers between me and a road.
      BR though, I guess that's part of the joy of being canadian.

      • by RingDev ( 879105 )

        there may be hundreds of kilometers between me and a road.

        Not in the US. In the mainland, no matter where you are, you are never more than 25 miles from a road. Might not be a heavily trafficed road, but a road none the less.


  • by Gazoogleheimer ( 1466831 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:29PM (#33247160) Homepage
    There's a reason why 'real' GPS units cost more, despite not necessarily having as many fancy 'features' that often end up being unnecessary.

    Cell phones rarely have WAAS. Cell phones usually also use the cellular system to receive the phase of the GPS satellite transmission to aid in reception--but--if you don't have any service, the accuracy can get pretty deplorable (well, compared to say my GPSmap 60CSx that usually locks within fourteen to sixteen feet)...the battery life isn't as good, cell phones are horribly made, and the chipsets and antennae are simply much, much, much better in a dedicated unit. Pick up a used GPS--that's a real GPS--and it will be much better suited to hunting and camping rather than looking for the closest Starbucks. Real GPS units have rubber gaskets for a reason.
    • I think that this is right. GPS is not just the ability to get a location. There is a whole bunch of other stuff which you can throw at the signals to get a better, more accurate location. On top of the software, the hardware is also quite important. A really good antenna is worth big money, and there are probably is dedicated hardware these days optimised to solve for coordinates which uses less power than the software of a phone. Now, your Dad may not know that he should turn off bluetooth and wifi in or
    • by countertrolling ( 1585477 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:41PM (#33247266) Journal

      ...chipsets and antennae are simply much, much, much better in a dedicated unit.

      He said "Android", not "Apple"...

      • You know Android is the operating system. And has no say on the quality of the hardware it is setup on.

      • by PipsqueakOnAP133 ( 761720 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:50PM (#33247768)

        I know you're trying to be funny, but I've been in a situation where I had to find out how worthless all the "GPS-capable" smartphones in my hiking group really were. For the discussion at hand, it doesn't matter if it's an Android, WinMo, or Apple. They're the same: absolute crap.

        You're looking at a few crappy metal traces which are shared with all sorts of other radio gear compared to an actual hard-core ceramic patch antenna.

        Want to see quick numbers? Let's go to

        Cell phone class antenna: GPS-09131
        Gain: 2.6dBi

        Mini wussy GPS helical antenna: GPS-09871
        Gain: 18dB (typical, they claim)

        Old school generic ceramic GPS antenna: GPS-00177
        Gain: 26dB

        A group of us got lost in the hills hiking. Given that most phones depend on cell tower assistance for GPS, all of them couldn't tell us where we were. So after wandering into the next park's guest station, they drove us 45 minutes back to our starting location. Next time, I'm bringing an old WinMo2003 handheld with a GPS CF card because it actually has the right kind of antenna. (as well as WAAS support, etc)

        Android phone as a GPS in the woods? Hell no.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Yeah. You have a fundamental misunderstanding what antenna gain means. As a passive device, an antenna can not provide "gain" in the sense you are thinking of. Antenna "gain" is merely its directivity minus its insertion loss. I do not doubt that the insertion loss may be lower on a dedicated unit. Still, "gain" is not a good thing.

          Gain is approximately directivity. Directivity tells you how "pointy" your beam is. A high gain antenna will allow you to measure fainter signals, assuming you are aiming

  • A lot of phones download satellite positions from time to time to enable them to pick up a signal quicker. You could do this over wifi, but it isn't quite as convenient as having it doing it over the cell phone data connection automatically. Or you could not download it at all and wait a few more minutes every time to get a position.

    • All GPS receivers (AFAIK) have a map of ephemerides, they all know approximately where the GPS satellites are. What a phone does is work out an approximate location using other sources (cell towers, wifi hotspots) which speeds up the GPS solution.
      • My phone has something called "Quick GPS" which is scheduled to download something every week.

      • All GPS receivers (AFAIK) have a map of ephemerides

        Sort of. It depends on whether you're cold or warm starting the GPS device. []

        First, here is how Garmin defines their FOUR startup modes.

        Search the sky - Time, position, almanac, and ephemeris data all unknown.
        AutoLocate - Time, position, and ephemeris unknown, almanac known or partially known.
        Cold Start - Time and position known to within some limits, almanac known, ephemeris unknown
        Warm start - Time and position known to within some limits, almanac known, at least 3 SVs Ephemeris are known from previous operation.

        The satellites (SVs) broadcast two types of data, Almanac and Ephemeris. Almanac data is course orbital parameters for all SVs. Each SV broadcasts Almanac data for ALL SVs. This Almanac data is not very precise and is considered valid for up to several months. Ephemeris data by comparison is very precise orbital and clock correction for each SV and is necessary for precise positioning. EACH SV broadcasts ONLY its own Ephemeris data. The validity of this data is dictated by the particular satellite and may be valid up to 4 to 6 hours. Each set of ephemeris data gives a "fit" indication which tells how long the particular Ephemeris data is valid. The Ephemeris data is broadcast by each SV every 30 seconds so GPS receivers have frequent opportunities to receive and log this essential information.

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        Not quite. The ephemerides data changes with position and over time. Normal gps units download updates slowly from the satellites themselves. Cell phone gps can speed this up by grabbing the data over the cell data network. IIRC most of the cell phone gps chips can ONLY do this, which means they can't work without a cell data connection. It appears that the cell companies here in Canada let this data pass even if you don't have a data connection. Others may not. And if you're outside cell reception you mig

  • For you dad... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:31PM (#33247178)

    Get a good Garmin or other hand held GPS. One that can be operated with winter gloves on or such. If he's like my dad, he's not going to want to mess with any other applications or functionality. He wants a device to tell him how to get to the next camp site or hunting spot. Not listen to MP3s. He's also going to want something that is probably water proof, drop proof and has a battery life much longer than that of an old phone.

    Garmins are by far the easiest to hack and even allow you to use your own maps. TomTom from what I've heard locks their stuff down hard. Plus Garmin has been around longer in the 'off road' GPS device market.

    For yourself, sure, sounds like a fun project. I'm considering an iPod Touch + Bluetooth GPS + Jailbreaking as an in car GPS device. I was looking for an application to make the maps from OSM, but it looks like Mobile Atlas will do that.

  • maybe these (or similar) are available, cheap, used? []

    I have one that I use on bike and motor scooter. they even make handlebar mounts (ball mounts) for them.

    it is a REAL gps unit with antenna and NO need for a-gps or any of that stuff.

    touch screen is great, color is great, speed is great. but it IS a very old model, by today's standards.

    still, I do think a dedicated satellite antenna-based gps is the way to do.

    if I had to COUNT on a gps, it would not b

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      If you "COUNT" on a gps, you get what you have coming to you. Always have at least a topo and a compass if you really want something to count on.

    • "if I had to COUNT on a gps, it would not be a 'cell phone' version.."

      If I had to COUNT on a GPS, I'd have maps and compass too.

      Never neglect your land nav skills or Very Bad Things could happen to you.

  • durability (Score:4, Informative)

    by KnightBlade ( 1074408 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:37PM (#33247232)
    A GPS device in my experience is much more durable than a smartphone. Smartphones are delicate devices. My GPS has been dropped tons of times, been left in the car in hot weather and cold winter, even sprayed with water on a couple of occasions. It still works. I doubt a smartphone would do that. On the other hand you could use the android for more than just navigation. You could have apps installed that don't need an internet connection, music, videos and what not. Although most new GPS devices do play mp3s.
    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      My Droid has gorilla glass, even keys won't scratch it. I have dropped it onto tile floors and it just scratched the bezel. I have used it in temps from 100+ to -20. Water is an issue that smartphones need to deal with.

      • A handheld GPS unit might survive a drop on a trail where the unit falls/slides 10 feet down a rock-face (my experience in the Blue Ridge / Appalachian Mts). A decent GPS will be water resistant and not be bothered by rain or being splashed with water (might even survive falling into a stream at the bottom of the previously mentioned fall -- again, has happened in my experience in the Blue Ridge). A Droid won't survive that.
  • by arifyn ( 711614 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:39PM (#33247252)
    A real outdoor GPS (not a car-nav unit) will have substantially better battery life and be reasonably waterproof and shockproof. It also probably won't be dependent on a touchscreen that is impossible to operate with gloves or as soon as your hands get wet/cold. It may have a screen that is actually readable outdoors. Many GPS units take standardized (AA) batteries so extended trips without recharging are relatively easy.

    An android phone will have a bigger, more colorful screen and a more open/versatile OS, and it will undoubtedly be easier to load whatever maps you want on it, rather than vendor-approved, possibly expensive ones. Without some sort of additional protection, though, the device will break the first time it gets dropped on a rock or rained on. It'd be more suited to city and car navigation than camping and hunting.

  • by rampant mac ( 561036 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:45PM (#33247304)
    Get him a dedicated GPS device. What are they, under $100 now? They work off satellites and don't require any spotty cellular phone triangulation. Do it. You seriously don't want to be the guy who sent his father out into the woods with sub-par gear. That's how people fucking die.

    I live within eyesight of Mt. Hood so I don't take a "quick jaunt in the woods" at face value. Prepare for the worst, pack your gear like it'll be the last trip you ever take.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      Then bring a real map and a compass and know how to use them. That is my backup to my smartphone when I go out into the woods.

      I tend to try to live ready for anything though, knife, firestarting stuff and various other tools on me at all times.

    • Get him a dedicated GPS device. What are they, under $100 now? They work off satellites and don't require any spotty cellular phone triangulation. Do it. You seriously don't want to be the guy who sent his father out into the woods with sub-par gear. That's how people fucking die.

      I generally agree, but having one's GPS go out is not a good reason to die in the woods. The GPS should be treated as a convenience, not a necessity. At some point we always have to rely on the tools we are carrying with us, but

  • by Khashishi ( 775369 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:53PM (#33247366) Journal

    Android is what, 22 months old?

    • In tech terms, 22 months is "mature". Windows 7 is half as old and is already well accepted in the community. Then again, after Vista, I would have accepted Windows 98 with newer drivers as a replacement.

      • by cosm ( 1072588 )

        Windows 7 is half as old and its existence is already well accepted as not going away any time soon in the community.

        Fixed that for ya. I know a lot a lot a lot a lot of workstations, servers, kiosk that are still running just about everything pre-7. Accepted in the community and being considered old do not necessarily have a 1 to 1 relationship.

  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @07:55PM (#33247380)

    Depends on how your dad uses his GPS and what he needs to do with it, but Android smart phones aren't generally designed for rough conditions.

    I've got a Garmin eTrex and an Android phone. The Garmin is way more ruggedised than the touch screen smart phone (Motorola Milestone). I don't think the Milestone would cope with pouring rain, snow, getting knocked about in rucsacs, dropped in puddles, sat on, etc, and still function in bad weather at night when I really need to know where I am: it might be life or death. "Smart phones" with a few exceptions are much too flimsy for outdoor use in severe conditions.

  • by toygeek ( 473120 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:05PM (#33247464) Homepage Journal

    Dear slashrock,

    My gene donor's old wheel finally broke. Sure, I could tell him to buy a new one that would work perfectly but I have some old rocks laying around and was thinking of learning masonry so that I could build him a new one. I have pretty much everything I need, and it'll only cost twice as much as a new wheel. I plan on using rocks. I know its older technology, and not as reliable, nor are they made for wheels (not since bronze finally got out of beta, anyway) but I figure that re-using old technology would be good.

    So, what kind of rock should I get? Granite? Sandstone? And which quarry should I get it from? I was thinking that granite would last longer but sandstone would ride nicer and would be easier to lob at a dinosaur in case of attack.

    Thanks SlashRock!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 13, 2010 @09:25PM (#33247982)

      "So, what kind of rock should I get? Granite? Sandstone? And which quarry should I get it from? I was thinking that granite would last longer but sandstone would ride nicer and would be easier to lob at a dinosaur in case of attack."

      Wheels made from rocks are quite a demanding application. Most rocks are very strong under compression (e.g., in a building or wall), but many are relatively weak under tension [] with low elastic [] strength, and therefore they will break relatively easily when a wheel is sheared laterally, such as when rounding a turn (due to forces acting perpendicular to the direction of travel). A way to mitigate this is to make the wheel rather thick, but the disadvantages (weight) are obvious.

      Granite [] is probably a better choice than sandstone [] because most sandstones have individual grains that are in contact only over a small part of their area, with the spaces in between cemented together by other minerals that are often quite soft (e.g., calcite). Worse, many sandstones don't have those spaces fully infilled (i.e. the sandstones are porous []), which does increase their elastic modulus [], but makes the material more prone to surface wear (it's easier to rub the mineral grains off the surface -- and it's even worse if water freezes in your neighborhood). Cracks tend to propagate []easily in sandstones. By contrast granite and other intrusive igneous rocks [] are comprised of mineral grains that grew together as the molten rock crystallized and therefore the grains interlock quite tightly with virtually no open spaces between them (i.e. they are holocrystalline [] and often equigranular []). A downside, however, is that some of the more common minerals in many granites (e.g., feldspars [] and micas []) have good mineral cleavage [] (it's not what you think, it's planes of weakness in the crystal structure), and the more coarse-grained granites therefore tend to break more easily (because the cracks propagate along the relatively large, weaker cleavage planes in the large grains). One way around this is to look for a granite with less of the minerals that have cleavage (i.e. less feldspar and mica) and more of the minerals that don't (e.g., quartz []), and to choose a granite that is as fine-grained as possible (then the random orientation of the cleavage planes from grain to grain will mean the cracks can't propagate as far along them before bumping into a grain boundary). As a bonus, quartz has a greater hardness [] than feldspar or mica, so frictional wear will be reduced too. Therefore, a nice, fine-grained quartz-rich granite (ideally a quartzolite, but they are quite rare) is probably your best granite option. A fine-grained, non-vesicular [] mafic [] igneous rock, such as a basalt [] or diabase/dolerite [], might work well too, although they have higher density and don't have significant quartz (but the very small grainsize partly offsets this).

      But why limit yourself to granite or sandstone? You can get

  • I was considering a Samsung Behold II

    Samsung phones are known to have GPS problems. I can also confirm this first-hand. I don't know whether it's the GPS chip they use in Android phones, or it's a more widespread problem, but you'll have a lot better quality GPS hardware if you go with HTC or Motorola.

  • If your Dad's taking this thing hunting, camping, and hiking... Buy him something that'll be durable enough to survive the aforementioned hunting, camping, and hiking, in the rain, because Murphy's law says it will rain and the device will get wet. Get him one that uses replaceable batteries like AA alkaline or CR123 lithium so he can carry spares that he can get anywhere (like a convenience store along the interstate). Don't get him a toy. Don't kludge something together. It's not worth the hassle.
  • Ok, so I have a Blackberry. []

    I use Blackstar + Mobi Pocket Reader for paperless one-device geocaching. Its ok for city work but I wouldn't rely on it in the countryside. For one, the phone boosts the power to try and get a cell signal and drains the battery in just a few hours.

    Maybe there is a link in there to an Android app for you.

    • by h4rr4r ( 612664 )

      Put it into airplane mode, if blackberries do not have that then buy a better device:)

  • Make sure the whatever app/phone you use does not require cell service to work.

    Had this problem with one of my old phones years ago, if it didn't have signal to a tower it was a paper weight.

    I don't have a smartphone so I don't know if this is still an issue.

    I would second (third, fourth, N+1) getting a dedicated GPS unit if you need one for hiking. Its always better to get something built for the job than a hacked solution, just not as much fun.
  • Last year while camping in Canada, I tried out the free version of MotionX's GPS app on my iPhone 3G. It worked quite well, so I bought the full version when we went into town for ice and I found some wifi. Earlier this year, a coworker got a few of us into geocaching. With my new iPhone 4, MotionX GPS seems to be just as accurate as the others' Garmins. However, the iPhone seems to be much more impacted by leaf cover while in the woods. When I get right on top of the target in the woods, it gets jumpy

  • by richardkelleher ( 1184251 ) on Friday August 13, 2010 @08:56PM (#33247810) Homepage
    I took my Moto Droid to France and Spain this spring for just that purpose. By definition there was no phone network in Europe, it only works with Verizon. I downloaded maps using MapDroid and planned to use it for GPS and email in wi-fi zones. The wi-fi email tool worked ok except the phone has a hard time hanging onto a wi-fi connection. As a GPS it was worthless. I find that if the phone network is disabled, the GPS takes forever to find it's location (sometimes it failed completely). If you are planning to not have a phone network connection, don't bother with this one.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."