Buyer's Guide to GPS Devices and Software

GPS technology has found its way into many cars over the past few years, but has yet to conquer the bicycle.

GPS technology has found its way into many cars over the past few years, but has yet to conquer the bicycle. There are some obvious reasons for this. Many cyclists, most especially the performance conscious, will rightly baulk at the extra weight. And will the combination of pothole-induced jolts and the wet UK weather prove too much for a small box of electronics?

Given the noise on our roads 'talking' GPS systems are a non-starter for cyclists. Practical considerations aside, do cyclists even really need a GPS to tell them where to go when they now have a huge range of cycling-specific maps? GPS accuracy has moved steadily from being able to locate you within the area of a football pitch to within just a few feet, so that navigation on a street level basis is now entirely feasible. A number of factors are now combining to make GPS technology more of an option for cyclists.

The units themselves have become smaller and, crucially, battery technology has improved to provide longer life for them. Memory cards are also widely used, vastly increasing the map area you can take with you. And we have now reached the point where GPS software can be bundled with technology you might take on a ride already: cycle computers, mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants).

Yet problems still remain with GPS units. The units can't be folded out like traditional paper maps and so their use for 'overview' planning of routes, as opposed to on-the-ground navigation, is fairly limited. GPS technology allied to quality digital maps also remains relatively expensive - systems such as Memory Map are superb route planning tools and can be used on a PDA, but to get the most out of them a desktop computer used before and after the ride is best.

Digital map coverage is also generally limited to developed countries, or at most the large urban areas of developing countries - which seems a big shame as this lack of coverage fails to exploit one of the GPS's strengths - the global presence of the free GPS signal. Despite their limitations, certain cyclists will undoubtedly still find them useful. To give you a flavour of what's on offer on the following pages we look at a number of different systems: two dedicated GPS devices plus a cycle computer, a phone and a PDA using various types of navigation software.

Glossary

  • Bearing/Heading: Bearing is the compass direction to the next waypoint, while Heading is the actual direction of travel (which is usually expressed in degrees)
  • Bluetooth: A form of separate wireless GPS receiver/transmitter that may be required to make some GPS PDAs work
  • EGNOS/WAAS: Systems that use extra satellites linked to ground stations to improve GPS accuracy. These two systems are compatible with each other but can only be used with GPS units specifically enabled for use with them
  • Geocaching: The GPS equivalent of a treasure hunt, using given co-ordinates to find the location. There's no reason why you can't do this on a bike!
  • GPRS Information: Downloadable and up-todate information on such things as accidents, congestion, road closures and so on.
  • Map Position Format: These are the type of grid used by the makers of your map (although there are some maps that don't have grids). Three common ones are British Grid or OSGB - used for the easy to understand Ordnance Survey grid references popular here - Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) and latitude/longitude. A similar GPS setting is Map Datum, which also needs to be set correctly for your GPS to work accurately alongside a map
  • Odometer: Measures the distance you've travelled since it was last reset
  • PDA: Personal Digital Assistant - for example, palmtop computers. Some are GPS enabled, including the Navman PiN570
  • Route: Predetermined points, which are known as waypoints (see below), linked together in the order you intend to travel to them
  • Track: The record the GPS unit makes of your actual course over the ground on any journey that you undertake
  • Waypoints: Specific locations that are stored in the GPS - usually used to navigate to or linked together to form a route. May also be known as Points of Interest (POI), or by the more traditional term, Landmarks.

Which cyclists would use one?

The off-roader or wilderness rider 

GPS units have great potential where there is no obvious path or many, many possible paths and especially in conditions of poor visibility when you are unable to pick out many landmarks. Cass Gilbert used one on his ride through the Mongolian grasslands where myriad jeep tracks were virtually indistinguishable. For this kind of riding a simple unit such as the Lowrance may well be best. You can get a position fix (as long as you have the GPS unit set to the correct Map Datum - see above) which will locate you on what may well be a poor quality/indecipherable map and get you pointed in the right direction.

In any event, for the more obscure parts of the world you may well struggle to get hold of good quality GPS maps in the same way as with good quality paper maps. 

Long distance tourer

With the advent of removable SD cards, the many maps you need to cross a large area has been condensed down to the smallest level - for example you can get the whole of the UK street level on a tiny SD memory cards.

Performance cyclist

The recently launched Garmin Edge combines GPS technology with performance tools such as a heart rate monitor or cadence measuring device. All the information can be combined in the training software to assess your performance over time and on specific gradients and courses.

Town rider

Street level mapping is available on GPS units for those in an unfamiliar city. Software such as Magellan's Mapsend Topo or Navman's SmartST is excellent for this kind of thing. They'll both also enable you to plan/download a pre-planned route so you can easily follow it at street level.

By locating you on a map and allowing you to download your route from a PC beforehand, GPS units can take some of the difficulty out of map reading. A PDA unit such as the Navman will allow you to import a huge range of maps (unlike Magellan and Garmin GPS units, designed to work best with their own systems). You can even get door-to-door voice directions in the style that has become so popular in cars. You should note, however, it's still not a replacement for good map skills. The real downside with GPS for cyclists is the relative fragility of these units, combined with what's generally very poor battery life.

Not having a techno-crystal ball, it's still fair to say the big strides in GPS technology that will make it really useful for cyclists are probably just around the corner. Disappointingly, there are no cycling-specific digital maps for use with GPS units yet. Though since MemoryMap Mobile displays Landranger OS maps (which have cycle routes marked) on a PDA or smartphone, at the moment that is your best GPS cycle navigation option here. The only cycling specific product we've looked at is the Garmin Edge. But while it does have basic navigation and features, its forte is as a training aid. Combine the best of all the units here - especially the training elements of the Garmin and the navigation and mapping of Memorymap Mobile - and you have something approaching a perfect unit, if only battery life can be improved. So batteries aside, the potential is there, it just needs someone to bring it all together.

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