Gadling gear review: Bushnell Backtrack D-Tour GPS

The Bushnell Backtrack D-TourHandheld GPS devices are a popular tool for outdoor enthusiasts who regularly hike or backpack deep into the backcountry. They can be an indispensable piece of equipment that comes in handy for navigating through remote regions, and for those who know how to use them, they can quite literally be a lifesaver. The problem is, the devices can also be quite complex to use, which is very daunting for those who would like to be able to take advantage of their basic functionality, without having to earn a degree in computer science to do so. The Backtrack D-Tour from Bushnell is designed specifically with those people in mind. The tiny little device is a perfect companion for casual hikers, runners, or other active people who are looking for an easy to use alternative to a more full functional GPS device.

Weighing in at just six ounces, the Backtrack still manages to pack in some great features. The unit functions as a digital compass, while providing such data as the current time, temperature, and altitude. It also allows users to mark up to five different locations and then navigate to those places. The Backtrack will record your path as you hike, measuring distance traveled, current speed, and average speed as well. And when you get home, you can connect the device to your computer to save your routes and share them with your friends too.

If all of that sounds like what you would expect out of a full-featured GPS, then you’d be right. Those are all features found in more expensive and complex models. But the Backtrack user interface is designed to be easy to understand and provide everything you need to know at a glance, and it does that very well. In my testing of the product, I was able to learn the basic use of the Backtrack D-Tour in a matter of minutes, and I was off and running with the device shortly there after. Along the way, I was never confused as to how the device operated or what exactly was being shown on the display at any given time.
Bushnell has built the Backtrack to be withstand the rigors of the trail, and when you hold it in your hand, it does indeed feel rugged, despite its lack of bulk. It is also weather resistant, which means it can be used in the snow and rain, although I wouldn’t recommend submersing it in water. Unlike its more sophisticated cousins, the Backtrack probably wouldn’t survive a good dousing in water.

Battery life was another strong point of the Backtrack. While many GPS devices suck through batteries very quickly, this device sips power, keeping the unit up and running for as much as 20 hours on three AAA batteries. I used my Backtrack for more than 15 hours while testing it, and it has yet to run out of juice. I also like that it uses batteries that are easy to find, so carrying a spare set isn’t a problem on longer treks either.

Of course, this simplistic approach to GPS means that we are giving up some key features that many would expect on other devices. Most notably, the Backtrack doesn’t include any kind of base maps at all and uses only arrows to indicate which direction you should be going. It also doesn’t have much memory, nor is it expandable, which limits the number of waypoints that can be set at any given time. As you would expect, there is no turn-by-turn navigation at all and forget about a database of points of interest, such as campsites or trailheads. I also found that the Backtrack was a bit slow to lock on to the satellite that provides its navigational data, although once it did connect, it held the signal well, even while under a canopy of trees.

But the lack of those options is not meant to be a limitation of this device, but a strength. As I’ve mentioned several times, this is a GPS unit for the common person, and when viewed in that context, it does its job very well. Bushnell has stayed with the “keep it simple” philosophy, and as a result, the Backtrack is a great option for runners, hiker, cyclists, and others who want to track their routes, speed, and distance. With a list price of just $119, it also is a rather inexpensive way to get the GPS features you really need, without breaking the bank or struggling to learn how to use the device.

The Backtrack would make a great holiday gift for the outdoor enthusiast on your list. Even if they already have a more fully featured GPS device, they may appreciate this one as well, as it makes a perfect companion for those outdoor excursions that don’t require more complex features. It is also a great gift for those looking to track their fitness progress as well.

National Geographic maps available on new GPS device

National Geographic maps avaialbe on the Active 10 TREK GPS deviceEarlier this week National Geographic announced that it was joining forces with Satmap to release a handheld GPS device that offers support for a range of maps from their library. The collaboration of the two organizations means that backpackers, hikers, and adventure travelers will have an electronic version of Nat Geo’s award winning Topo!, Trails Illustrated, and AdventureMaps in the palm of their hands for the first time.

The Active 10 TREK is a fully featured GPS device that has been on sale in Europe for some time, but makes its way stateside thanks to this partnership. It comes fully loaded with U.S. and World base maps, which offer a solid level of detail for the average user looking to navigate between landmarks. But the device also supports expansion through the use of SD cards, and that is where the National Geographic maps come into play.

Nat Geo has already made 14 of their Topo! map guides, which contain USGS topographic map data, available for use on the Active 10. Those maps cover Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, the Mid-Atlantic region, Montana, Nevada, New England, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The rest of the states and other regions of the U.S. will be made available in the first quarter of 2011. Additionally, three of the Trails Illustrated maps are available as well covering California’s Sierra Nevada, the Southern Appalachians and America’s “Greatest National Parks.” Entries into the AdventureMaps category, which includes international destinations, will be added in the future as well. Topographic map packs are also available for most Western European countries too.

The actual GPS device clocks in at an MSRP of $369.99 and each of the National Geographic Maps SD cards run $99.99 each. The complete line of products launched this week and is already available online. Click here for more information on the Active 10 Trek and here for a look at the various maps packs that are currently available.

This combination of the Active 10 and the Nat Geo map packs should be a great tool for adventure travelers. The National Geographic maps are packed with information and preset points of interests, which make them perfect for navigation in a variety of remote locations around the world. The device has plenty of nice options as well, including a long battery life, a bright, color screen, ruggedized construction, and a fast processor, all of which help to ease the navigation process. I know I’d certainly enjoy finding one of these under my tree this holiday season.

T-Mobile Garminfone review – is this the best GPS unit ever created?

Three weeks ago, Gadling was one of the first to post a real hands-on with the the upcoming T-Mobile Garminfone. In this full review, you’ll get a closer look at the hardware, software and additional applications of this Android powered GPS navigation device.

If you are in the market for a new (smart) phone, then your timing is good – because the Garminfone will be available on June 9th for $199 (after a $50 mail in rebate and a new 2 year agreement).
The hardware

The Garmin-Asus designed Garminfone is an Android powered smartphone – even if you never plan to use it as a GPS device, you’ll still have yourself a very competent mobile device. Under the hood is Android 1.6 – not the most recent version, but thanks to the hard work of the designers, you’d never know.

The phone itself feels more like a phone than a GPS unit – on the front are four touch sensitive buttons and a D-Pad with center button. On the left side are contacts for the charging cradle, and on the right are buttons for the camera and volume control.

The only other connector on the phone is a MiniUSB jack on the bottom – which also means the designers chose to outfit the phone without a 3.5mm headphone jack – a crime in today’s phone market if you ask me.

The battery cover slides off and provides access to an 1150mAh battery, a MicroSD slot and a SIM card slot. The memory card is “hot swappable”, so you won’t need to remove the battery to change cards. On the back of the unit is also where you’ll find the 3.2 megapixel autofocus camera, but no flash.

Photos from the camera are “OK” – certainly no replacement for a point and shoot camera, but adequate for capturing spur of the moment shots.

Inside the device, is a 600MHz Qualcomm processor, 256MB of ram and 256MB of rom. Connectivity comes from a quadband GSM/GPRS/EDGE radio, 3G HSDPA on 1700 and 2100MHz, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

The phone weighs 4.9 ounces (with battery) and measures 4.57 x .49 x 2.46 inches.

The Garminfone next to the Google Nexus One and Verizon Droid Increidble.

Included with the Garminfone is a 2GB MicroSD card (installed in the phone), a USB car charger, dash mount and active (powered) cradle. This cradle means the unit will switch to landscape mode when plugged in – and makes it very easy to install or remove the unit from your vehicle.

Audio in phone calls is very clear, and callers on the other side of my conversation never complained about the quality. The speakerphone is sufficient for a call at your desk, but I found it lacking volume when used in a noisy car.

UPDATE: The low volume is only an issue when you use the phone as a speakerphone – spoken GPS directions are very loud and clear.

Software

The interface on the Garminfone is probably one of the best designed I’ve seen in a long time. The UI designers managed to make the phone look like a regular Garmin navigation unit, while still keeping some of the look and feel of Android on the device.

Best of all – the interface is perfect for using in your car. Of course, I’d never suggest you use it while driving, but if you happen to press a few buttons when on the road, the large icons won’t distract too much.

The list of features included in the navigation portion of the Garminfone is endless – this goes way beyond what you usually get on a GPS device. Some of the navigation features include:

  • Navigate to Google search location
  • Local gas prices
  • Navigate to events
  • Panoramio local content (photo searches)
  • Store and navigate to saved parking spot

Navigation itself is also very efficient – maps move very smooth and recalculations are swift when you miss a turn.

GPS reception did become an issue when I was driving in an area with tall buildings – in downtown Chicago the unit managed to lose track of me several times – and took a while to lock on to the signal. A Gamin Nuvi next to the Garminfone did not have these issues.

Other features brought over from the regular Garmin devices include the ability to pick a vehicle picture and create your own voice recordings for navigation.

Besides the navigation portion, the Garminfone comes with a very good selection of pre-loaded apps:

  • Movie times
  • Flight status
  • Traffic incident search
  • Facebook
  • Unit converter
  • Garmin voice studio
  • Weather

And of course, you also get access to the >50,000 apps in the Google market.

Final thoughts

I’m just going to say it – this is the best GPS unit I have ever tested. Not just the best connected GPS unit – but the best, period. Yes – the reception issue was rather annoying, but it was rare enough to overlook, and something that could be fixed in the final version, or updated with software. The phone is fast, looks good and the user interface is exceptional.

The price is a little on the high side, especially when it has to go up against the new iPhone 4. Still, when you consider that a GPS unit with these features can cost over $300, the $199 (after $50 rebate) really isn’t all that bad.

To learn more about the Garminfone, or to register your interest in this new device, head on over to the T-Mobile Garminfone site.

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Garminfone by T-Mobile: First look and mini-review

Announced just yesterday, and already in our hands – the new T-Mobile Garminfone. This is the second navigation/phone from Garmin, and their first device powered by Android. In this first look, we’ll show off the basics, but you’ll need to wait till next week for a full review.

The Garminfone features a 3.5″ capacitive multi-touch display (320×480 pixels), support for quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE and dual band 3G (on WCDMA 2100 and 1700). Inside the Garminfone is 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1 and a 3 megapixel auto-focus camera.
The Garminfone really is two devices in one – a full Android smartphone with browser, mail, market and more, as well as a premium navigation device with the “real” Garmin experience. By combining the two, you get interesting features like dynamic real-time traffic, weather, gas prices, local Google searches and more.

In addition to this, the phone also comes with the Garmin Voice Studio, which allows you to record your GPS voice prompts on the device – a first for any GPS unit.

I’ve only been playing with the Garminfone for an hour – but I’m actually quite impressed. I’ll fully admit (and apologize to Garmin about this) that I did not have very high hopes – their previous gps/phone was a bit of a dud, but I really do think they have a winner this time.

The phone feels snappy, the screen is crisp and the hardware feels really good (albeit a little slippery). Obviously, I’m a little biased due to my love of the Android platform, but Android feels quite at home on a navigation system. To help make the unit more vehicle friendly, Garmin completely redesigned the interface, with a variety of larger buttons.

On my first drive with the unit, it was able to navigate perfectly, as the unit clearly uses some of the same excellent routing logic found on the regular Garmin navigation systems. Maps move very smoothly and manage to keep up with the vehicle quite nicely.

The Garminfone package comes nice and complete – inside the box is an active dash/windshield mount, car charger, headset, USB cable and a 2GB MicroSD card.

There are one or two downsides – for some unknown reason, Garmin-Asus failed to put a regular headphone jack on the phone, opting for the same kind of MiniUSB plug used on HTC devices.

Then there is the price – at $199 (with a 2 year activation) this may appear to be a reasonable deal, but it puts it in the same price range as the Google Nexus One. And while the Nexus One may not be as good at navigating, it does provide more phone for the same price.

I’ll refrain from any real conclusions today, and reserve those for the full review. You’ll be able to order your own Garminfone in June. You can register to be notified of its availability at the T-Mobile Garminfone mini-site. In the meantime, enjoy these photos showing the unit and some of the applications.

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Let your own voice tell you where to go with the Garmin GPS voice studio

Do you often get bored of the voice in your GPS unit? I’ll usually switch between the British male and female voices once a week, just to keep things interesting. If none of the standard voices interest you, how about recording your own? The new Garmin Voice Studio was announced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, and is now available to download.

It’ll work on almost any recent Garmin unit, including most nüvi series devices. Recording your own commands is pretty simple – you download and install the program, then record the 68 voice commands using a microphone. I tried it with the built in microphone in my laptop, and the results were not too bad. Once recorded, you connect your GPS device and click the “send to GPS” button. Then, you simply change the voice setting to your newly recorded version.

Of course, nothing is stopping you from asking someone with a sexier voice to do the recording for you, or you could even recruit your kids to make your GPS unit a little more human.

The program is free of charge, and is available directly from Garmin.com. It is currently Windows only, and any device with text-to-speech will still use a Garmin voice to speak the street names.