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Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos
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Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 03:14:53 MDT Print View

Right now I only carry a Nokia N95 cell phone that I use as a phone, MP3 player/radio and camera. Depending on the trail I sometimes add a stand-alone GPS for navigation.
My old Nokia N95 is so battered now that I have to replace it. My biggest problem with the N95 is that I can only make lousy photos with it, especially due to the lack of an optical zoom.

My research came up with new cell phones with optical zooms:
Unfortunately, all these announcements date back to fall last year and neither of the cameras has come out yet.

Meanwhile friends suggested a totally different approach and advised me to buy a new cell phone that could substitute to GPS AND buy a stand alone high quality camera on top. If I go this way there are various outdoor cell phones with good GPS functions to choose from like the Motorala Defy. And of course there is a huge range of lightweight cameras.

So now I have to choose two combos:
- stand alone GPS AND camera/cell phone combo
- stand alone camera AND cell phone with GPS function.

What are your thoughts on that?
Would you trust a cell phone alone for navigation?
Any thoughts on the new camera phones? Please keep in mind that I am not an ambitious photographer. I do not need a state of the art high tech camera - I just need a camera to take shots for recording purposes - although an decent zoom has become a prerequisite for me for wildlife photos.

And generally what will be the way for the future:
Will stand alone GPS become obsolete because cell phones will take over for navigation? Is there a future for real camera phones?

Any thoughts and input are welcome. I will have to make quite a substantial invest no matter which way I go and would like to get as much info as possible.


Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Cell Phone on 03/20/2011 06:32:18 MDT Print View

I just use my cell phone(Android Incredible) for phone, text, email, gps, camera, book reader, games, ...
I did replace the battery with a much larger heavier battery, but it is still way lighter than than the other options.

I used to sometimes carry reading material, a camera, cell phone, ...

I can go several days on one charge if I am careful to run in "airplane" mode when not needed. I also carry a very small light wall and car charger. That way I can easily charge in towns, a lone gas station, restaurant, or in a car when that is the only thing available.

I run the app "nobars" to automatically disable cell/wireless when out of range in case I forget.

Being able to read when stuck in a storm, bus station, plane layover, ... is nice.

I would never trust electronics alone for navigation.
I always carry maps and compass.
GPS does have it's advantages, but is no replacement for navigation skills.

Edited by brooklynkayak on 03/20/2011 06:36:18 MDT.

Chris Benson
(roguenode) - F

Locale: Boulder
Phone + camera on 03/20/2011 07:43:45 MDT Print View

I'd go with a seperate phone and camera. I do have a standalone gps, but I use it mostly for times I want the best accuracy for marking points or tracks that I'll be passing to others to use. These days, I go with printed maps, compass and phone gps most of the time.

When hiking, I usually have my map and camera easy to access and the phone is stored away in case I need help with position or for when I'm at camp and want other droid features. Phone cameras are getting better, but most are terrible in low light and lack a decent zoom.

As a former iPhone user, I'd stay clear. Not trying to start a phone war, this is just my opinion. I like that I can now buy really cheap, small replaceable phone batteries for longer trips/power backup, not to mention having excellent control over what apps and services are running and draining power.

Besides, a standalone camera *may* be more useful to you outside of hiking than having a standalone gps.

>> Bender <<
(Bender) - MLife

Locale: NEO
Re: Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 07:47:41 MDT Print View

The advanced search at is a great tool for finding the right phone. There are a number of phones with 8+ MP cameras and GPS. I have a phone that does everything I need but I carry a better camera or better GPS when needed. The main drawback of a phone is battery life especially when using GPS.

Ryan Linn

Locale: Maine!
Re: Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 07:49:44 MDT Print View

Good question, Christine. I usually bring only a camera and headlamp as my electronics on hikes, with the cell phone if it's going to be a long (week or more) trip. I'm starting to hike with a GPS as well in order to make tracks of where I've been, in case I want to do the same hike in the winter.

I guess the answer to your question depends on what sort of hikes you're planning on doing. If you're on well established trails, I find the GPS to be extraneous unless you have a specific purpose for it. If it's just to keep a log of where you've gone, or for occasionally checking where on the map you are, a cell-phone GPS would probably be plenty.

Which function do you think you'll use the most and which the least? I prefer a stand alone camera because I like to take pictures frequently. I use the cell phone only for emergencies or for getting rides into town. The GPS, I might use that a bunch if I'm in a place where navigation is difficult, but otherwise probably not much.

So I would say go ahead and use the phone with GPS and camera if you don't plan on using any of those options much more than the other, and none of them would leave you in an emergency if the battery died. If you plan to use one function a lot more than the others, maybe get something dedicated for that purpose.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
weight on 03/20/2011 09:11:49 MDT Print View

some of the decision making will probably come down to weight-my GPS (Foretrex 401) weighs 2.8 oz w/ batteries, a lot of my hikes are off trail (or poor trails) and the GPS has come in pretty handy at times; cell phone coverage is non-existent where I hike so it stays in the vehicle; my camera is pretty light @ 4.3 oz, but takes pretty decent pics- combining everything into one "gadget" is appealing

I am looking at a Isatphone Pro, satellite phone that has GPS capabilities that may negate the need for a standalone GPS

the newer smart phones are definitely intriguing and has been posted, several that take some incredible photos- curious what knid of weight are these new gen smart phones?

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Re: Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 09:20:30 MDT Print View

Wish Apple would add GPS to the Touch.

I leave the phone in the car.

Need sat-phone costs to come down. $600+ seems excessive for a single function electronic device.

The Cossack
(thecossack) - F

Locale: sedona
map and compass on 03/20/2011 09:22:03 MDT Print View

i'd go with a map and compass and your own sharp wits

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Lots of factors to consider ... on 03/20/2011 10:12:22 MDT Print View

One factor is whether you care what kind of cell phone reception you might get in the backcountry. In general, Verizon seems the best, so when I decided to upgrade from my older smartphone (also used as a multi-function trail device), I opted for a Motorola Droid X. One catch with this was that after I bought an unlocked phone --- intending to put it on their pre-paid daily plan --- I found that they don't allow that phone to be used on that plan (for no reason I can think of that's at all customer-friendly ...). Pretty annoying, as I rarely use a cell phone when I'm around home.

But it has a 5 Megapixel camera with nice panorama stitching software on it, so I'm fine with it as my only camera. It has a built-in GPS that I haven't used much yet but I expect will work fine with something like Gaiagps for topo maps.

It's challenging to get a read on what's "best" because we each prioritize different factors differently. On a long distance trip my phone is used primarily as a camera and a journaling device (I carry a folding bluetooth keyboard), and on occasion to get a weather report via internet when I have reception, plus of course to upload journal entries and photos. On occasion I'll use a voice recorder app to remember things I think of while walking, and of course once in a great while I even use it as a phone! :-)

A couple of years ago I wrote up some factors to consider for folks thinking of getting a smartphone for long distance backpacking; I think that a lot of what's there is still relevant:

The biggest things that have changed since then are that smartphone cameras are a bit better (but of course still limited), and storage memory is much less of a constraint, unless you're wanting to record a lot of video or something really memory-intensive like that.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 11:24:47 MDT Print View

Hi Christine,

Answering while in the middle of the "transition" period is like navigating in a blizzard. You're left to make decisions based on what's observable two feet from your nose--everything else is noise.

Speculation hat on and cinched: smartypants phones will largely replace entry level compact digicams (sales of which are tanking). The best now get decent results and allow instant sharing and uploading. I don't find them very good...yet and the lack of gen-you-wine flash and decent zoom range remain a big limitations. They'll eventually figure it out, but I'd rather have a camera-camera today.

Phone GPS performance likewise is decent but not yet on par, at least partly because of the lack of a good antenna compared to typical consumer GPS. Smartphone displays, however, are MUCH better than anybody's GPS display and it's not a stretch to foresee this technology being a GPS killer.

But oy, battery life. The more stuff they load into phones the more power they seem to drain. Add the Apple insistence on no battery swapping and you're running away from what a backpacker needs. The HTCs I've seen do have swappable batteries, but I don't know how readily available they might be.

It's rare for me to get reception where I hike, so a phone represents dead weight 90% of the time. For somebody hiking where reception is decent, if they only want snapshot-quality photos a phone makes a logical camera substitute. As a GPS, it's a reasonable option if you're not hiking where GPS reception is challenging (dense woods, etc.).

Happy shopping,


James Wyse
(Ravelyn) - M

Locale: The Crossroads of the Revolution
Re: Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 11:42:13 MDT Print View

I can see you feel a need for electronic items, so this may not help you. But I just use a map and compass for navigation. Never had a problem with that. And I don't need to call anyone when I'm out in the woods--in fact, that's one of the things I'm getting away from.

I do sometimes carry a PLB for safety's sake. At least they're getting a little smaller and lighter.

As far as cameras go, I don't have a specific recommendation, but if you're into photos, I'd spend your weight allowance on camera quality and leave the phone and GPS at home. But, those are just my old fashioned priorities.

Matthew Marasco
(BabyMatty) - F

Locale: Western/Central PA, Adirondacks
e: on 03/20/2011 12:02:30 MDT Print View

FWIW,I have a Droid X and generic batteries can be found on ebay for ~$5. I bring 3 extras on a weekend hike and it is enough juice to run Backcountry Navigator WITH GPS on the entire time and listening to music occasionally. I also have a solar charger ($11, ebay), weighs maybe 1.5 oz, and will charge my battery fully but I usually don't bring it because the batteries suffice. If I was going on anything longer than a 3 day hike, I would probably bring it.

Christine Thuermer
(chgeth1) - F
Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 15:40:56 MDT Print View

Thanks for the input so far - and I realise I have to be more specific.

First of all I want to clarify that I would always carry some sort of a map and compass in addition to a GPS or cell phone with GPS function. My question was more about whether cell phones with GPS functions are as reliable as stand alone GPS.

What do I use most? I use my cell phone mainly as a MP3 player - up to 5 hours per day I am listening to books on tape. But almost any cell phone now doubles as an MP3 player. Equally important is the camera - but I want to mention again that I am not a very ambitious photographer. Average quality and hopefully an optical zoom is enough for me - I don't need a high tech camera. I use the phone very rarely and only in towns - I would never rely on the cell phone in an emergency.

Where do I hike? I have been hiking and cycling continuously for the last 3 years - therefore the outdoors is my life and I don't need all those electronic gadgets for any other "urban" purpose. I have hiked in the US, Australia and now in Europe and I generally follow marked trails. I hardly ever carry a stand alone GPS, because where I hike navigation is mostly not a big problem and I don't log my tracks. But I want to move away from carrying a lot of maps/guidebooks to more using the GPS, because I am usually hiking very long continuous trails and I don't want to carry the weight of a lot of maps/guidebooks or dealing with the logistics of mailing them.


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 16:04:12 MDT Print View

"My question was more about whether cell phones with GPS functions are as reliable as stand alone GPS."

Sort of, not quite. It depends. You have to define your terms. As a general rule, cell phones and smart phones can have a lot of stuff going on, and GPS location is only one item. (A stand alone GPS receiver has no such distractions.) Some smart phones have GPS applications running to do that positioning, and some have some downloaded map images. However, smart phones have a finite number of machine cycles, so things can get very sluggish very quickly.

As a general rule, a stand alone GPS receiver has a much better GPS antenna. This is especially true for the ones that appear to have an antenna sticking out of the top. The teeny tiny GPS receivers may have a tiny antenna that is about the same as what is in a smart phone. In a good location where you have a good view of the sky, the antenna doesn't matter that much. In a bad location, the antenna can help a lot. External antennas tend to be better yet, but they draw some power and cost some money. I doubt that there are many external GPS antennas made for a smart phone.

Smart phones tend to have a limited number of channels to receive on (the maximum number of GPS satellites to be received simultaneously). Again, in a good location, that is no big deal. As you get into difficult places, a stand alone 12-channel receiver can be quite handy, especially if you need maximum accuracy and fastest update.

Every smart phone and every stand alone GPS receiver must have an internal clock (oscillator). When the phone gets a connection to the network, the network clock can "tweak" the internal clock, and the internal clock is important in the early stages of trying to acquire satellite signals. However, if you are out in the boonies somewhere with no network signal, or if you have turned off the phone service, then you no longer get the benefit of clock tweaking. A stand alone GPS receiver tends to have a slightly better internal clock until it gets signal lock, and then the GPS satellite signals help it along, but it is quicker.

Along the lines of the network clock, there are accuracy differences from one carrier to another. Some carriers manage that very closely, and some let it slide slightly toward the outer edges of their network. That might show up as your displayed position jumping around more when you are standing still.

A stand alone GPS receiver will typically have performance statistics on that position error, so you can know when you can "take it to the bank" for accuracy.

Some non-techies do not want to fool around with all of the details.

So, it depends.


Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 16:36:20 MDT Print View

To me, that a dedicated gadget may be more powerful or more accurate or better suited for the purpose than a multi-use gadget is beside the point. Putting electronics aside, we all know that the best saw, blade, whatever tools are the dedicated pieces. Does that mean a Swiss Army knife / multitool has no place?

Methinks the better analysis is whether the multitool in question (electronic or otherwise) is good and reliable "enough". Maybe OP needs to look at the places where she hikes (or plans to hike) and see if the cell phone in question can pull in enough GPS signal to work reliably? Say Location X is the remotest place OP plans to hike. Asking whether cell phones work well in Location X (for those who've been there done that) will probably generate more useful answers. And if affirmative, and if OP is happy enough with her cell phone's reception and photo shots -- then hey, why not?

Edited by ben2world on 03/20/2011 17:00:14 MDT.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 16:58:40 MDT Print View

"Maybe OP needs to look at the places where he hikes (or plans to hike) and see if the cell phone in question can pull in enough GPS signal to work reliably?"

Obviously I am not the original poster, but in my opinion, if I could be reached on a cell phone, then I am not hiking deep enough into the wilderness. I thought that was one reason WHY we went into the wilderness.

I was communicating with a network company senior engineer once about three years ago. He was busy trying to troubleshoot a big fixed-station GPS receiver with external antenna since he didn't seem to see any signal coming down the antenna cable. So, he whipped out his cell phone and held it next to the external antenna (which was mounted inside the building!). The cell phone told him a position, and he used that to assume that there should be decent signal going into the external antenna and therefore the big GPS receiver should work. What he missed was that his cell phone _appeared_ to be giving him a GPS position fix, but it was based on terrestrial cell tower positioning, which is not GPS at all. Once I pointed that out to him, it was "nevermind."

My point is that cell phones and smart phones can tell you all kinds of things, but you have to be smart enough to know what it really means.


Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Re: Re: Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 17:01:54 MDT Print View

"[B]ut in my opinion, if I could be reached on a cell phone, then I am not hiking deep enough into the wilderness. I thought that was one reason WHY we went into the wilderness."

No, Bob. That was one reason why YOU went into the wilderness. YMMV, remember? :)

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 17:04:20 MDT Print View

I recognize you now, Benjamin. You were on the team that was busy trying to construct a new cell phone tower inside Sequoia National Park. I was on the team that was tearing it down.


Chris Benson
(roguenode) - F

Locale: Boulder
gps not cell on 03/20/2011 17:20:41 MDT Print View

I think the idea here is if a phone's gps signal will work for the OP, not a phone's cell signal.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/20/2011 17:30:34 MDT Print View

Well, Robert Gross, I will have you know that I was actually the last holdout on cell phone usage. I bought my very first cell phone less than a year ago!! It's a 2G Nokia something. I am still AMAZED at all the things it can do besides making calls -- 2 MB camera, date and time functions, texting, ... :)