I recently bought a new big-size camera, bucking the trend of simply using one's iPhone for photographs. That's not to say I don't use my iPhone; it is my main picture taking device. But I wanted a camera that could capture native retina iMac images (at least 5120x2880), and the iPhone can't do that.
After much looking and sweating over the costs, I chose a Nikon D5500, mainly because I already had a Nikon and didn't really want to replace all my lenses. While this is an excellent camera, it was a bit of a budget compromise—it didn't have all the features I really wanted. In particular, it lacks a built-in GPS to geocode all the pictures I take.
As a workaround, I decided to buy a GPS data logger, which is just a small GPS receiver that records GPS coordinates at some interval. Toss the logger in your pocket (make sure it's on and receiving the GPS signals first!), then go take pictures as you normally do. When you return, you can use an app like HoudahGeo to sync the recorded GPS track with the timestamps on each photo. (I'll have more to say about this whole sync process in a future post.) Presto, instant geocoded images!
Yes, you can do this with any number of iPhone apps, too. But the logger frees me from taking the iPhone if I don't want to, and remembering to start (and stop—GPS logging can really suck up the iPhone's battery) the app before taking pictures. Typical loggers will have at least 20 hours of battery life, meaning you can just turn it on and go, and not think about it again.
I've had a GPS data logger before—a Qstarz BT-Q1300ST—but its interface was so cumbersome (one button, no display!) that I rarely used it, because I couldn't ever figure out if it was working or not. I wanted to find a reasonably inexpensive logger with some form of visible interface.
So many choices
A quick search on Amazon will turn up dozens of matches for GPS data loggers, at price points ranging from really cheap to really expensive. How do you know what you need, and how much you should spend?
Only you can answer that question, but I knew I wanted a logger with a display. I also didn't care about Bluetooth connectivity, because I wasn't intending on pairing the logger with anything. I just wanted it to record tracks, be usable with the Mac (not all are), and be very small and light.
After some digging, I decided to try the Canmore GP-102+ data logger.
It was relatively inexpensive (I paid $53), and though thicker than my old Qstarz, it weighs nearly the same, and is actually a bit narrower (with the same height). The device mounts as a USB drive, making it easy to grab its data files, which it writes in .fit (Garmin activity file) format. Those .fit files can be read directly by HoudahGeo, or you can convert them to Google Earth path files using GPSBabelFE.
I took the Canmore with me on a recent trip to Germany and the UK, and used it not just for geocoding, but during runs, hikes, train rides…pretty much any time we went out, I slipped it in my pocket. The results were great: I was able to easily geocode my photos, and the ability to see the paths in Google Earth was geeky-cool. Here's a hike we took in the Black Forest area of Germany, for instance:
I never took the GP-102+ out of my pocket, and as seen by the path track, it was able to get a signal sufficient for plotting our hike.
The Canmore has a very basic screen, along with two buttons. Each button supports short and long taps; short taps are used for navigating between icons, and long taps for selecting a task or canceling. After powering on the device, you select an activity to start logging—you can pick from running, cycling, walking, hiking, and driving. The manual is unclear, but my guess is that the different activities have different GPS sample rates—driving would need quicker updates than would walking.
The screen is tiny, and can be hard to read in direct sunlight, but it's still miles better than no screen at all. And having two buttons makes navigating much simpler, and the functions are logical. Unlike with my Qstarz, I never had any question as to whether the device was tracking or not.
Once you've started an activity, you need to wait for the GPS signals to lock on before you can really start tracking. Depending on where you are, this may take a few minutes. Clear outdoor sky with no obstructions works best; indoors, and you may never get a sync. The Canmore display shows you exactly how it's doing during the satellite lock process:
On the left is the GPS lock display, as seen just after power on. On the right, the unit has found nine satellites, and locked on to signals from five of them. The height of the bars indicates the relative strength of the signals—they're low here because I moved inside to take the photo.
Once locked, the Canmore did an admirable job of holding onto the satellite signal. If it lost it, it was also quite quick to reacquire. For instance, we were on a train to the Black Forest in Germany, and there are several tunnels on the route. The Canmore would lose the signal in the tunnel, but then reacquire it very quickly once we exited:
The straight line entering mid-upper-frame is from when the train was within the tunnel (lower left). But within a few seconds of exiting the tunnel, the Canmore re-locked the satellites, and was back to tracking the train accurately again.
When you're done with your activity, a long press on the right button brings up a menu with a "Stop log" option. Once stopped, you can transfer the .fit files directly to your Mac by connecting the Canmore via a UPS cable. If all you want is geotagging, that's all you need to do—you then sync the data files to your camera's clock using HoudahGeo (or similar), and the program does the rest.
While plugged in, the battery would recharge—and it's pretty quick about it, too. But if I didn't get to recharge on a given day, I didn't worry too much, as there's enough power there to get through a couple days of recording.
I also used GPSBabelFE to convert the .fit files into Google Earth's .kml format, so I could put the paths in Google Earth. As seen in the hiking map above, this worked quite well; if you use the Show Elevation Profile, you'll also get the graph showing elevation (and speed, which I had disabled for the screenshot) below the track.
Wrapping it all up
In short, for just over $50, the Canmore was well worth its cost. It let me easily geotag nearly all my trip photos (excluding those taken from airplanes!), and worked very well as a trip recorder so I could see our various tours again in Google Earth. The screen eases interaction with the device, and file transfer was quick and easy. If you're in the market for a GPS logger, the Canmore G-PORTER GP-102+ is worth a look (even if it does have a ridiculous name).