Thursday, February 02, 2006

GPS Tuner 4.2

I have mixed feelings about GpsTuner. GpsTuner looks quite well finished and professional, but it does things that you wouldn't see in a well-tested product, specially when you don't follow an expected behavior.

GpsTuner by Gabor Tarnok from Megalith has been around for a while. And I finally decided to share a review about it. When product releases and version numbers had some logic, most products would become mature enough around version 3. At that point major bugs had been found and worked out, and the most important features had been added and worked just fine. The trouble starts when you add a tad bit too much to an already good product.

Version 4.2 is available for PocketPC's and Windows-based Smartphones. You can try it for 30-days in its full version. You can pick among the Basic ($24, no upgrades), Standard ($34, one-year free upgrades), or Geo ($48, includes area calculation) version. The demo includes all available features without any apparent restriction.

Map Calibrator

Gps Tuner has its own map management PC-based utility called Map Calibrator (version 1.8). You can use it to open .jpg, .gif, .png and .bmp image files. You only need to set two points to have a map image calibrated. Make sure you select under Options | Datum Format the input format for your coordinates. But after trying it a couple of times I ended up calibrating map images in the PocketPC software instead.

In fact, after I calibrated an image with Map Calibrator, I couldn't adjust it with points obtained in the field. I had to clear the existing points and start from scratch. Calibrating a map creates a .gmi file with the same name as the image with the corresponding coordinates for each pixel in the map image.

Map Calibrator shows a globe icon in its toolbar, but don't think it has anything to do with Google Earth. If you click on it you be connected to the Expedia website and have a map of Paris loaded. I don't see any obvious way to set up another place besides Paris to have an image imported.

Through an Internet connection you can download aerophotographs from TerraServer and USGS Topographical maps with GpsTuner itself. GpsTuner website has a Map Share area where users can upload and download maps and their corresponding calibration files.

GpsTuner

GpsTuner main screen divides the product in three areas: Track Analysis, Map and Manager. It also shows from its main window the current location if a fix is available and the signal strength of each locked satellite, plus DOP (dillution of position) values.

You can get there also from the menus and from the corresponding toolbar icons. To have several ways to get to the same place might be a bit annoying and confusing at first. The menus could also be simplified. What about Settings | GPS... instead.

In fact, this is my main beef with GpsTuner. This product is clamoring for a simplified user interface. Tabbed dialogs instead of a menu tree 4 levels deep with 6 or more options. This would make the user experience a lot simpler and more gratifying.

Before start using GpsTuner you need to configure your GPS receiver settings as expected (GPS | Setup | GPS Settings...) Set the corresponding COM port, its Baud Rate and uncheck the "Averaging" checkbox. You can also determine under which speed it should consider that you haven't moved (up to 2.5 mph).

A track is recorded by default if you don't turn it off, but tf you want to save a text version of its NMEA log, select GPS | Manager | NMEA | Open... to have one created.

After obtaining a fix, GpsTuner will by default save each point in a track while you have it turned on. The default setting will write a "breadcrumb" after main changes in direction which might not provide the best log. You can set it to use time or distance intervals under Gps | Setup | Tracklog...

With an Internet connection available you can download a aerial photo from Microsoft's Terraserver or USGS topographic maps for your current location. First select Map | Option | Auto Select. The setup the type of map you want to download: GPS | Setup | Terraserver. Finally select Map | TerraServer to download the actual map. You can zoom in and a better resolution image will be downloaded. Notice that you will need to have a connection available to obtain images from other areas.

You can set a target and a have a digital compass showing its direction, how far it is and how long it will take for you to reach it at your average speed. You can also use a blank map in GpsTuner and add several well designed icons along a track.

GpsTuner will keep databases of waypoints that can be grouped in tracks, routes or under geocaching with the corresponding "management functions" to create, delete, find, rename points. You can associate an image to a waypoint or a .wav file. They can be exported/imported as .gpx (Ascii or Unicode) files. You can also import .loc files used in Geocaching.

Under Tools | Find Position you will find a way to pinpoint a position through several readings within an area. This provides a visual way to observe your position and can help during geocaching.

Area and Distance Calculation

The Geo version includes distance and area calculation. To calculate distance, you need to select the arrow key (instead of the hand tool), tap the initial point and select Distance Calc | Draw. Tap the point in the map you want to start calculating the distance from and move the stylus over the map. The distance will be displayed in realtime while you move it. Pretty cool.

For area calculation things are a bit more complex. The easiest way is to choose Automatic and Start/Stop while you walk around. Otherwise because no tooltips are provide for the corresponding icons you will have to follow the directions from the user manual to figure out what you are supposed to do. You can export the points from an area into a .csv file and their UTM coordinates to .shp or .dxf file formats.

Finally, registered users can share their positions through the Internet with GPS Share.

Conclusion

I like the level of control provided by some of the features of GpsTuner and its well finished design. But I could do without the complexity of its user interface and would prefer dealing with a tabbed dialog instead of a complex menu tree. If you don't mind losing yourself around the app sometimes, go for it. You can count on the user forum for help and the user's manual will be required reading.

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