With GPS devices being all the rage these days, most people don’t know that some GPS devices can do more than tell you how many feet you need to drive before making a turn. In fact, some GPS units simply do no more than record where you are and where you’ve been. While the function of these screen-less devices doesn’t sound terribly enticing, they’re pretty handy for people who want to track where they’ve been trekking and use GoogleMaps to see (and play back) not just their tracks, but their speed, altitude, time, etc. Imagine seeing your last trail hike, bike ride or even plane flight played back in GoogleMap’s satellite view. Pretty slick, I say. What does that have to do with photography? Glad you asked: These little units usually include software to geotag your photos, allowing your computer to place each of your photos on a zoom-able map, accurate to 15 feet! Pretty nifty way to review your latest trip to Europe, eh?
My goal was to get a GPS data logger for geotagging my photos when taking 1-2 week long trips. After comparing GPS data loggers for weeks, I finally settled on the Qstarz BT-Q1000x for several reasons:
- High latitude/longitude accuracy due to the MTKII chip.
- Long battery life (rated for over 40 hrs of continuous use, depending on which mode you use).
- User-replaceable battery (Uses a standard Nokia cell phone battery, readily available for less than $5 online). This is critical when you’re out and about and don’t have time to slow down.
- Locks on to satellites quickly. My old Garmin eTrex would take several minutes when sitting under the open sky. Under ideal conditions, this unit can lock on in less than a minute even while *indoors*.
Form & Function
At less than 2.5″ on the long side, this unit is smaller than my Sony Ericsson cellphone. The included soft plastic holder allows you to wear it on your belt like a cellphone, and a rubber strip on the unit’s back allows it to sit conveniently on my dash without slipping. But thanks to its sensitivity, it needn’t rest on my dash: it operates just fine in my car’s cup holder or in the recesses of my camera bag.
By default, it records its location every 15 seconds. The timing intervals for the logging can only be changed by software on the PC. It can record by frequency (once per second or slower) or by distance (eg: once every 30 meters), or both (eg: every 15 seconds and/or 30 meters). It should be noted that while the unit can *track* 5 times per second (5Hz) and pass this on to your computer, it will not *LOG* 5Hz to its internal memory. So if you’re wanting a unit that will log your skydive or roller coaster ride, this is not your unit. (But as a practical matter, unless you’re doing high-speed movement that you want to track carefully (like a roller coaster or a skydive), there’s no point in recording at 5Hz.)
You charge the unit’s battery by plugging the BT-Q1000X into your computer’s USB socket. Charging is done in less than 2 hours, and the battery life is rated for more than 40 hours. I haven’t personally tested it beyond about 30 hours.
To transfer data from the unit to your computer, you have two options: USB cable or bluetooth. Naturally, battery life is consumed a tad faster if you use bluetooth connectivity. There are two reasons to connect your GPS to your computer: transfer logged data to your computer (so you can view the trek and waypoints on a map, see where each photo was taken, etc); tether your GPS to your laptop (or PDA) so you can see where you are while driving (via MS Streets & Trips or any other GPS-compliant software).
The BT-Q1000X has a switch on the side that enables it to operate in one of two tracking modes: logging and bluetooth+logging.
- The logging feature simply records to its internal memory the lat/long and elevation at specified intervals. If the USB cable is used, it will feed this information to your computer in real time.
- Bluetooth+logging allows your bluetooth PC (or PDA) to connect to the unit and use it as the GPS for your mapping/navigation software while it logs your trek to its internal memory. I bought a $3 bluetooth USB dongle from eBay and had no problem getting the Q1000x to connect to my Microsoft Streets & Trips via bluetooth and show me exactly where my PC was located. The bluetooth transfers data significantly slower than the USB cable.
Turning the unit on and tossing it into the glovebox lets me track my car’s location as I drive around. Doing the glovebox test was important to me as I want a unit that can track where my tour bus might take me when touring foreign countries. If the unit needed to be sitting on the dash in order to get an open view of the sky (like my old Garmin eTrex), it would be of little use to me. The BT-Q1000X would occasionally take a minute or so to get its first fix, but so far, I’ve not noticed any issues with losing fix.
Pushing the unit’s single button records a waymark (time, lat, long) that shows up as a dot on the map. This is handy for noting the location of an event worth remembering.
There’s lots to mention here, but the main thing that I liked is that I point the software to a directory of photos, and it searches that directory and all directories under it to find photos with the appropriate time stamp in the EXIF. It then plots out my trip on a scaleable map (Google Maps, Google Earth, etc), with the photos in place. It even gives me a “play” button that plays a cursor along the trip line. It also allows me to export the trip, with photos, in a set of HTML files so I can upload the whole trip to my website. Pretty slick.
The software also exports the GPS logs into one of several different industry-standard formats, and I had no problems getting MS Streets & Trips to read a CSV file and show all the ~5,000 points that the GPS logged for that session. (MS Streets and Trips is NOT the program to use for this kind of thing. GoogleEarth is much better!)
The cons are aimed only at QStarz Travel Recorder v5, the software that shipped with my unit. Overall, the software is somewhat sluggish and crashed a few times. For the features it offers, this wasn’t a show-stopper for me. I had to restart the software a few times when working on a large set of photos over a ten-day trip, but overall, the pluses were worth the pain.
The software had no problems with my Sony DSC-H2’s files and my Nikon D90’s JPG files, but it wouldn’t correctly read the date and time of my Nikon’s RAW files, and when I tried to time-shift the RAW files, it mishandled that as well. Quite frustrating. I have no idea if this affected other Nikon products.
QStarz just released QTravel v1.2 to replace Travel Recorder v5, so hopefully that’s been addressed.
[Edit, June 2011 – it hasn’t been addressed. I’m looking to see if is GeoSetter or Microsoft Pro Photo Tools will fit the bill. Both programs are free. Judging by what I’m reading, I think I’ll end up with GeoSetter. Pro Photo Tools sounds too quirky.]
Overall, I definitely give this unit a good thumbs up. The feature list are at the top of the line for data logging. If you want anything better, you’ll need a Garmin (and get a screen and better build quality ..but at 2-3x the price) or a unit that does 5Hz logging (which I don’t need). For details on features and operations, download the manual off www.QStarz.com because there is a lot of info available for this plain-looking unit. All in all, it goes well beyond my expectations and is well worth the $105 I spent for it.
I understand the iBlue 747+ is an identical unit, but doesn’t include the software. For me, the software is well worth the extra $20. If the GeoSetter does what I need, however, the iBlue 747+ will be the better deal.