Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos
Display Avatars Sort By:
Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: gps not cell on 03/20/2011 17:32:02 MDT Print View

Some users can't tell if they are getting positioning from the cell phone towers or from GPS satellite signals. If it is the former, and then you hike out of the cell service area, it is a problem. If it is the latter, then it keeps working unless you are in a difficult reception area (like, under a lot of wet tree leaves). It is in the difficult reception areas where it might make a difference between a smart phone GPS and a stand alone GPS receiver.


Chris Benson
(roguenode) - F

Locale: Boulder
RE: gps not cell on 03/20/2011 18:00:01 MDT Print View

No doubt some users don't know the source of their phone's location service. Like any tool, the user bears some responsibility in learning about its use. Thankfully, many phones make it easy to select gps and/or cell for location services.

Regarding difficult reception areas possibly seperating phones from dedicated handheld gps units, I have found my phone loses gps lock well before my handheld when under deep cover or in canyons.

If it's likely I'd want to get a position in these situations, I'd bring my standalone gps. If I only wish to check position occassionally and open sky is fairly easy to find, the phone would suffice.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Maps on 03/21/2011 03:29:55 MDT Print View

"If it's likely I'd want to get a position in these situations, I'd bring my standalone gps."

I tend to not use the GPS function on my phone as much as a map, only because it's quicker, more reliable and as stated, your never out of range with a map. Although it can sometime be hard to see features if you are deep in a canyon or forest.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Which way to go in electronic gadgets: Camera, GPS, cell phone combos on 03/22/2011 01:26:55 MDT Print View

Christine -

To answer your question as asked:

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

No -- a phone GPS is not as reliable as stand-alone GPS. Issues being poor battery life (1 day of continous operation vs 4-5 days for a handheld GPS), signal drift in tough terrain (I've done side by side comparisons with my iPhone and my handheld GPS). The biggest issue for me is that the smart phones aren't waterproof like the handheld GPS's.

All that said, a smart phone GPS might work fine for you as long as you purchase a good mapping application that allows you to download maps to the phone. Positional spot checks with a smart phone would work fine if that's all you think you need (and you can upload waypoints to a smart phone if needed).

As for a smart phone replacing a camera, you said you'd like:

"Average quality and hopefully an optical zoom"

The last two hikes I've been on I've intentionally left my camera at home and only used my iPhone (5 mega-pixel camera) to see if it could replace my camera. I've been extremely disappointed in the picture quality and very few photos were "keepers". Smart phones don't have optical zooms and it shows in the picture quality. I also normally carry a waterproof camera so the smart phone is once again lacking in that area.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
it's about expectations on 03/22/2011 09:54:11 MDT Print View

I completely agree and yet ultimately disagree with Mike W's great assessment. IMO it's all about your expectations, what you're looking for in a piece of gear (ain't it always?).

Mike cited battery issues: true. I never would expect to use my smartphone in continuous operation mode, however. Get a fix once every few days perhaps, and that's generally enough. Signal drift: at least with my previous smart phone I never saw that, I think it's about not just the built-in antenna but also the GPS chipset. I could easily believe that a stand-alone GPS can work more reliably but FWIW never noticed an issue there with my phone.

Waterproof: in wet weather I always have my smartphone in a snack-sized ziplock. Voila! Waterproof, and at least as a GPS it works just fine that way (not so as a camera, unfortunately).

Optical zoom on a smartphone: no models that I'm aware of offer this, but unlike for Mike it's not an issue with me. I rarely use a zoom in backpacking pictures. I guess I've just sort of given up on the idea of any decent wildlife photos, and with still nature shots I'm more likely to want a wide-angled lense than a photo lense (my new smartphone has really nice built-in software to do panoramas).

Of the things that Mike mentioned, the issue that hits me the most (particularly in the northwest where I live) is the fact that it's not waterproof as a camera. Thus far I've not had a problem taking it out of the ziplock temporarily to take just the infrequent "got to get this one" type of shot, and just not taking so many pictures on grey days otherwise. Not ideal, but works well enough for me.

I guess apart from expectations, it's also about particular situations. The smartphone is normally enough GPS for me, but on the CDT starting later this year I am bringing a stand-alone GPS. But I'm still also carrying the smartphone; sucker does so many things that it will still be very useful.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Expectations on 03/22/2011 10:27:15 MDT Print View

Without my cell phone gadget, I probably wouldn't carry a camera, a cell phone, reading material, gps, games, altimeter, star map, radio, mp3 player, internet device, email, notebook, etc...

None of this is important to me, but since I can carry it all on a device that weighs only a few ounces, I can justify it.
If you only turn it on when needed, you never run out of battery.

Charge it in town every now and then.

Scott Truong

Locale: Vancouver, BC
RE: Battery life and know thyself. on 03/22/2011 11:03:37 MDT Print View

Depending on the trips that you do, your style of photography, and I'd imagine electronics in general, the biggest consideration for me was battery life. Aside from the weight, extra batteries are very very expensive.

If it was me, I'd go standalone camera, cell phone w/GPS (but likely not even bother with GPS and get the lightest cheapest cell phone), and ipod shuffle (best sound according to audiophile forums). How my gear feels, accessibility etc, when I'm hiking is a big consideration for me.

Also my gear serves double purpose for overseas travel, in which I try as much as I can to combine with backpacking. I find if I don't want to worry about bringing along a charger with mulitple adapters and 4-5 extra batteries for a 10 day trip, battery life is a top consideration.

Running out of juice midway between a trip sucks.

Are you sure, you're not going to want better quality photos?

I don't consider myself much of a photographer either, but I'm often awestruck by the views and want to share/proselytize. I'm more of a landscape vs wildlife person, so a wide angle is actually more important to me.

Going off topic, I just bought a Kindle 3. Haven't received it yet, but battery life was a deciding factor. I read a lot travelling/backpacking, especially solo. Historically, I"m also a poor planner so I end up scrambling, looking at bus schedules etc. I chose the Kindle 3 primarily as a book reader, but also because it has a "useable" web-browser, and free 3G access in over 100 countries. The battery lasts anywhere from one week to a month depending on how you use the wi-fi/3G and it;s 8.7 oz vs at least 1.3 lbs.

I guess what I'm trying to say is: have a good idea of your intended use for electronics, and your proclivities, but in the meantime, you can't go wrong with using battery life as a top criteria for selection whichever way you go.

Edited by elf773 on 03/22/2011 11:44:14 MDT.

tim hower
(jeepcachr) - F

Locale: Great Lakes
smartphone on 03/22/2011 11:10:19 MDT Print View

Is a cell phone as good as any dedicated device?

Mostly no but It depends on the device. They are getting close. My current phone is better than most of my previous cameras, GPS's, MP3 players, and has a faster processor with more storage than laptops and even desktop computers that I've previously owned. It get's longer battery life and better accuracy than my first GPS did. It can take and store more pictures than most of the digital cameras I've owned. It does better video and holds more of it than any video camera I've ever owned.

It can hold thousands of books, songs, pictures, and a good amount of video. With an 8mp camera it takes nice photos and even does HD video. It has a crummy flash but realistically how many shots need a flash outdoors? I can preload more guides and maps than I will ever use. If I have a cell connection it will give me live information on nearly anything, trail data, weather, news, whatever is important to me. It even has an FM radio if I'm out cell range and want to hear the weather or listen to music.

The biggest drawback I see is battery life and ruggedness. I'll be hiking this year with just the phone. Not all of us go into the woods to be cutoff. If my family couldn't stay in contact with me and I couldn't call to talk to my girls, I wouldn't be able to go out as often.

To the guy that just got his first cell phone with a 2mp camera and is amazed at what it can do I say welcome to the year 2000. It's 2011 now, you should really look at what the current phones can do.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Camera on 03/22/2011 11:24:33 MDT Print View

One thing that keeps cell phones from comparing to dedicated cameras is the lens size.
They don't make a cell phone with the kind of lens required for decent distant photography.

So if photography is your thing, then you'll want a dedicated camera with optical zoom.

I used to bring a camera from time to time, but found taking pictures took away other aspects of backpacking so I tend to not bring a camera. But if I want to take a snapshot my cell phone will do in a pinch.

On subject of battery life, keep it turned off when not needed and the battery will last a very long time. Bring a spare battery or two and/or buy a larger sized battery.

As I stated before, you can save weight by replacing other gear with your cell phone.

Nathan Watts
(7sport) - MLife
Re: smartphone on 03/22/2011 15:04:39 MDT Print View

Another use I have for my phone is to download instruction manuals etc. in PDF format for any equipment I may be bringing with me into the field. For example my altimeter watch's user's manual is readily available on my phone wherever I might be in case I need help setting some function or other (I can never remember which buttons do what on various watches).

The phone is a great place to dump all kinds of notes and info. From food or gear lists to bus schedules or entire guide books.

It's always best to know our plans and equipment thoroughly before leaving the safety of the trailhead, but I'm willing to bet that my brain isn't the only one that needs a little memory help from time to time after a long day out in tough conditions.

Oh and the phone makes a good backup flashlight, if not already mentioned.

Nathan Watts
(7sport) - MLife
phone batteries on 03/22/2011 15:10:20 MDT Print View

I'd also like to mention my philosophy for phone batteries. I prefer a battery pack that runs off of AA batteries instead of another phone battery. this is because my headlamp and water purification run off of AA so this makes carrying fewer spares possible. Granted there is additional weight in the battery pack itself, for me it's an acceptable tradeoff

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Which way to go in electronic gadgets... on 03/22/2011 15:16:31 MDT Print View

>> One thing that keeps cell phones from comparing to dedicated cameras is the lens size" <<

That's it in a nutshell!

>> Waterproof: in wet weather I always have my smartphone in a snack-sized ziplock. <<

I used to use ziplocks as well but now I carry my non-waterprrof electronics in an Aloksak or small roll top dry bag. I fell in once and found out the hard way that ziplock sandwich bags (and snack bags) are definitely not water-tight. The Ziplocks are good for rain protection but not for immersion.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Aloksak on 03/22/2011 15:39:27 MDT Print View

I have to agree about not using ziplock bags. I've seen way to many electronics get ruined inside ziplocks.

They do work fine in normal conditions, but pressure can make them pop open.
Brush against something, a fall in creek or puddle, ... and it can get wet.

Although the Aloksaks aren't indestructible they are a far more reliable way to go.
And they don't cost much compared to the cost of the electronics your trying to protect.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Aloksak on 03/22/2011 17:45:52 MDT Print View

An Aloksak is a ziplock bag, just thicker, unless you claim a more reliable seal.

Mike W
(skopeo) - F

Locale: British Columbia
Aloksak on 03/22/2011 18:14:48 MDT Print View

>> An Aloksak is a ziplock bag <<

True... but it's a ziplock bag that is actually waterproof (to 200 feet), has a temperature range of -40F to 140F and is incredibly tough... everything that a sandwich ziplock isn't.

John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Aloksak on 03/22/2011 18:24:42 MDT Print View

Aloksak has for some strange reason a monopoly on the concept of waterproof plastic bags much like the Opsak supposedly does on odor proof bags. When you drill down in the reviews here at BPL and at Amazon I think you'll find that those "ratings" look like they were measured long ago and probably never challenged. I use them but I have a wariness about the seal and back it up with a clip it. I wouldn't trust my camera in one in any scenario involving a possible dunk. I wish it was all it claims to be but I doubt the claims and it has a definite life span. It should be tested on the Altar of Hydraulic Head asap.

James Moughan
Waterproof on 03/22/2011 19:08:52 MDT Print View

The Motorola Defy is waterproof, and light.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Opsak is Aloksak on 03/22/2011 19:10:38 MDT Print View

If I remember correctly Opsak and ALoksak are the same, made by the same company with the same patents, just marketed different.

Although they do ziplock, they are a hundred time more reliable than a ziplock. They do weigh significantly more, but that gives them a much better reliability.

Again, I think I have stated this before, I have seen many electronic devices die in ziplock bags, even double sealed.

I kayak with my cell phone in an Aloksak. Never had a leak. I do replace them when they start to get worn though.

One argument that I have heard is that water is not that much of an issue when backpacking. I think we know how wrong that thinking is:-)