Thinking about a handheld GPS unit

Thursday, November 8th, 2007 at 09:52pm

Over the last few years I have periodically thought about getting a handheld GPS unit to take with me on rides. Not for navigation with maps, but to record the ride for later review.

Although Ride to Work Day didn’t get any new participants from our office this year, I did suggest a couple of routes using Bikely. While I was doing this I decided to have another look at Google Earth, in particular loading in kml files exported from Bikely.

In turn, this renewed my interest in a GPS unit.

Since I wasn’t interested in mapping, just logging, I had a look at a GPS unit designed for cycling, the Garmin Edge series of units. As the new models with maps are not yet available, I was looking at the Edge 305 which also has a wireless cadence/speed sensor so it does not rely solely on GPS for speed.

What were the positives?

  • It is designed for cycling.
  • The default behaviour is to log where, when and how fast you were going.
  • It seemed to be possible to load a route (originally drawn up in Bikely) to follow onto it.

I almost made an impluse purchase, but there were some negatives:

  • A battery life of 12 hours wouldn’t suit for day to day use as a replacement for my current bicycle computer. It has been years since I replaced the battery in that.
  • It wouldn’t be useful away from the bike.
  • The route capabilities seemed to be a hack for what I wanted to do.

Because of these I went back to looking at handheld units that are primarily designed for bushwalking or similar:

  • It wouldn’t be tied to the bike, so I wouldn’t be obliged to use it day to day.
  • There was a much wider range of options.
  • It could have the capability to load maps.
  • The maps could even be used for driving directions.

At this point I recalled that a co-worked had gotten such a unit a year ago so at the next opportunity I asked him about it. It turned out that one of the uses he has for his unit is to take it on rides with it mounted on his handlebars.

The specific unit he has is the Garmin eTrex Vista Cx that was, at the time, the top end model that Garmin has for that style of unit. It has a (relatively) high resolution colour display, mapping capability, electronic compass and a barometric altimeter.

This does seem to have all the capabilities I need. Including some that I might not. Since the Vista Cx is fairly expensive (over AU$500) a cheaper option is the Legend Cx (around AU$450) which appears to be identical except it does not have the compass or altimeter. After you add another AU$250 for Australian street maps this does start to become expensive. Considering that navigation units for cars can be had for around AU$400. But they don’t have the non-road and logging capabilities of a “proper” GPS unit.

So what are my actual requirements? My current thinking is that I would do something like:

  1. Plan the ride out in Bikely or Google Earth
  2. Export the planned route and load it into the GPS unit
  3. Go for the ride. The loaded route will show if I deviate from the plan and the unit will be logging where I actually go.
  4. Export the log from the unit and use it to more accurately show the route in Bikely or Google Earth.

Over time I would have a series of logged routes that I could view through Google Earth.

For now I will continue investigating my options. Including whether to get it from an actual store, an online store, or through eBay which is the cheapest option I have seen. But the support may not be the best…

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