I have a Garmin eTrex Venture hand-held GPS that I bought about five years ago. I used it for years mounted to my bicycle handlebars for when I would go trail riding to inject a bit of geekery into my rides. I would then download the tracks off of it and pull them into Google Earth to see where I’d been. It worked pretty well, but it had some annoying tendencies. The first was that it took nearly 10 minutes after turning it on before it really knew where it was. It wanted to get strong signals from twelve satellites before it would give you a decent reckoning of where you were on the planet, and that took a while. It was also very sensitive to cloud cover or tree cover. There were many times I’d be riding through the woods and would be in a particularly dense area and it would completely lose any idea of where we were, which is really not what you want your GPS to do.
Last Sunday I decided to get the bike out after a nearly two-year hiatus and go out to my favorite riding spot, Tribble Mill Park. Before I left, I bought an app for my iPhone 3GS from the app store called Trails. When I got to the park and got my bike out and ready, I ran Trails, created a new track entry and started it up. It almost instantly showed me where we were (just like the Google Maps app that is built-in) on the map. I then put the iPhone back into its leather holster, put that inside a canvas saddlebag that hangs under my bicycle seat, and then climbed into the saddle and started riding. I stopped several times along my route to check on it, and not once did it lose the signal. Let me say that again, in a different way: even though the iPhone was encased in leather, ensconced in a canvas bag and under a bicycle seat and my butt, it never lost the GPS signal. It mapped my route perfectly, as can be seen from this screenshot
That’s pretty darn cool, for a phone! The GPS is not the primary purpose of the device, yet it performs far better than a dedicated GPS device. Now, GPS devices in general may be a lot better now than they were five years ago when I bought mine, so this may be an unfair comparison, but it really blew me away. I had thought about getting a handlebar mount for the iPhone, but if it can do what it needs to do from the relative safety of the saddlebag, I’d much rather keep it in there.
By the way, the Trails app is quite nice and completely worth the $3.99 it cost. I like the fact that you can stop and restart it to pick up where you left off. One really nice feature is that it has a button to launch the iPhone’s camera, so you can take pictures along the way without exiting the program. That’s a nice touch. It also requires you to name each track, which are kept in separate “files” so one track doesn’t show up overlaying another on the map. If you’re into trail riding and you have an iPhone 3GS or 3G, consider buying this great app.