GPS Trials (In more senses than one)

Well after dithering for pretty much an entire year, I’ve gone and bought a GPS “solution”.  Of a sort.

At one point I was very close to buying a basic Garmin 96.  The only reason I didn’t was an inbuilt reluctance to spend about 5 hours worth of flying money on something I’d only really want to use a few times a year.  A lot of my flying is local or to relatively simple and/or familiar destinations, and I’ve always managed to borrow a GPS for longer trips.

The thought then occurred that a PDA, or Pocket PC might be an option.  I could use it for plenty of other things when not flying, and stick one or other of the available types of GPS navigation software on it, for when I was.

For one reason and another finding an entry level PDA proved incredibly more complicated than simply plumping for the cheapest dedicated GPS…

The Kit

 I’m a reasonably technical person and work with computers for  living, but had never used a PDA before and had no idea whatsoever what specifications were good, bad or indifferent. 

I had in hand the minimum specs for the software, which stated Pocket PC 2000.  Simple enough one might think, except that all the adverts referred to Windows Mobile 5.0 and 6  (I’m also inherently suspicious of anything with “point zero” in the name so was suspicious of that in any case!). 

Cue much head scratching and muttering along the lines of, ” Pocket PC?  I thought that was the kit not the OS.  Is Windows Mobile earlier or later software or something different altogether?  And what’s this Windows CE some of these ads are on about?  And while I’m at it what’s SD and mini-SD and SDIO are they the same different/related?  Does it matter?”

I wanted a basic entry level model, preferably with wifi as the idea of being able to easily grab weather and NOTAMs and keep up on email while away from home was alluring.

Eventually I picked out the cheapest adequate iPaq I could find, based on nothing more than the fact that I’d at least heard  of HP, and was reasonably confident they’d still exist in six months time when I broke the thing and needed technical support.

Sadly however, despite my chosen online shop (Handtec — I’ll name and shame!) accepting my order it turned out that the model had been discontinued.  Swearing now, I looked in vain for an equivalent.  The next one up was twice the price and didn’t have GPS built in, which would mean faffing with BlueTooth, something else I hadn’t had occasion to learn anything about yet.

Back to the drawing board, and time to rope in some work colleagues with more time and persistence than me (I was ready to buy the first thing at the top of the list by now)

Two more options presented themselves, an Asus MyPal 696 and a Fujitsu Siemens LOOX N560.  A friend had the LOOX and spoke highly of it, and it was a slightly faster processor as well.

Unfortunately, hardly anywhere stocked it and Fujitsu-Siemens had just brought out another similar but newer model.  Was this one about to vanish into the discontinued heap as well?  Fingers crossed, I ordered it anyway and a few days later it did duly arrive.

So far I’ve managed to crash it three times and break ActiveSync once.  This doesn’t concern me much as I like to potch and hammer things early on.  Specifically, I want to find out what it takes to break it, before I’ve loaded up any software and data which would make me hesitate to simply bash “Factory Reset” when I knacker it up.

To be fair, it did only fall over when quite severely provoked and I’m impressed in lots of other ways.

The picture and even video quality is knockout for a start.  The screen can be portrait or landscape and is surprisingly readable, although I’m still looking for a decent PDF reader to get some ebooks on there.  None of the ones I’ve tried yet do everything I want.  Adobe does reflow but the text comes out very granulated and PocketXpdf has an excellent “text only option” for readability but is very slow.

Google Maps Mobile with GPS and aerial photo views is a little miracle which made all my mates want one, and the handwriting recognition is slowly improving as it “gets used to me.”

The ActiveSync cable will also take a USB device such as a memory stick which is brill for transferring stuff from the PC, or especially PCs other than mine, without any special software.  Although with SD cards at 6 quid for 2GB I’m not exactly short of space anyway.

A mobile version of Word and Excel are present and correct and work well enough.  I also use Google Docs but haven’t made that work yet, I suspect there’s some scripting that the mobile version of IE doesn’t “get”.

I splurged my “software points” on a “brain trainer” type game after enjoying same on a PSP belonging to my brother’s finaceé, but spent the rest on a handy set of “tweak” utilities, mostly because I wanted a better battery monitor.  The built-in one just gives you a percentage with no clue how long that is in time.  I’ve yet to run it flat from fully charged so am waiting to see how accurate that is.

I needed one patch to fix a known issue with the WLAN function, and found Fujitsu’s website and documentation are quite comprehensive, though lapse into “dreadful translation” gobblydegook every so often.  “At this time the red “x” at the Wifi-Icon do should (right bottom) disappear very short and then appear again…”

The web

The wifi seems a bit flaky to be at the moment and I’ve downloaded some techy toys (vxUtil and vxIPConfig) to try and monitor what’s going on.  I’m not ready to damn the device yet — in my experience wireless is just flaky…

Most of the websites I’m likely to want to use work moderately well on the titchy screen, and a surprising number have a mobile-accessible version.  I’d like to get Flash and Java working in the browser which I hear is do-able but a cludge.  Logins on some sites are causing problems and the lovely weather maps of which I’m so fond on XCWeather don’t load at present.

The Met Office site is close to flawless, although I needed to download the GIFs of the 214/215 charts and view them in an image editor to get a decent level of zoom.  The 60Hour animation also doesn’t work (yet — might be Flash or Java), but the satellite pictures are fine and so is the rainfall radar.

AIS seems to lose most of the menus somewhere in the shuffle, but I can at least get NOTAMs by using the “Briefing Handbook”

Another favourite, Fly.Dsc works well on the basics but the dynamic mapping (probably unsurprisingly) does not.  Here too, I’m having issues with PDFs. I have to download and save them, they won’t open automatically.  I might have to potch with file associations or it may be a browser issue.  What also looks useful from that site is the AIP collected PDF files.  Bung those on the PDA and I’ve got a massive ringbinder of airfields in my pocket!  Must try that out soon.

My webmail and RSS reader (Google Reader) work without any drama.

All in all I think it’ll do the “Handy to have away from home” bit excellently.

The software

Here I’m afraid I just plumped fr the cheapest option with international coverage PocketFMS (MemoryMap was close in price but only has UK charts, and the whole point is that I only want GPS for longer trips!). 

It’s a yearly subscription so I’ll doubtless spend more over the years than an all-in package, but that’s part of being the skint end of flying — I can afford £100 now and another hundred quid in a years time and another hundred quid the year after that.  I can’t afford £200 now.  Long view means I spend more, short term means it’s affordable at all…

I didn’t actually like PocketFMS much the first time I tried it, it seemed cluttered and “busy” and complicated to use.  I’ve since gone through a very through manual and the excellent video tutorials and become converted.

It’s beaten the PDA so far — I’ve only managed to crash it once…

As advertised, the onscreen buttons are easily usable with a poke from a finger rather than needing the stylus, and the “optimise flightplan” function, which automatically suggests a route avoiding controlled airspace, high ground or a couple of other things you can specify, seems to work without too many weird anomalies.

As it turned out, the very first place I want to take it (Badminton) isn’t in the database, but adding a new waypoint based on latitude and longitude was easy enough, and I was even able to mark it as an airfield and store runway details and radio frequency which I thought was a bit clever.

It’s not blisteringly fast on the PDA, but once it’s loaded and just tracking the route it seems fine.  I’ve used it with the downloadable simulated software and sat in the garden to get a GPS signal, both of which were successful so I’m looking forward to trying it in the air.

More GPS Twiddling

Playing with Breadcrumbs


10 thoughts on “GPS Trials (In more senses than one)

  1. David

    I flogged a few bits and pieces to raise the dosh for the Garmin 96c last winter. I’m beginning to wish I’d used the money for flying. The unit’s great but there’s been a dearth of flying. I did consider the PDA setup but I’m generally not a big fan of multi-tools though anyone that has gone down the PDA route seems to be satisfied.

    I know what you mean about long view spending thought. I’m thinking of getting Navbox but I’m between two minds about the quick version or the pro version. I don’t really need it over here but I’m hoping fly to the UK this year and I think it might be a useful tool for planning my way around your more complex airspace. (Running it on the rather groovy Asus EEE PC would be neat but that would cost still more AVGAS)

    You must let us know how you get on with the PDA in the air – a piccie or two of the screen would be cool.

    Happy Flying

  2. Andy Hawkins

    I’ve also gone the PDA route, but haven’t used it in anger yet. I have both MemoryMap (I was originally downloading tracks from my mobile phone for post flight analysis, so had it anyway) and will probably use PocketFMS once I get the PPL and actually start going places.

    Please keep us up to date with how you get on actually flying with PocketFMS.


  3. leiafee Post author

    I will certainly be doing an update on how I get on with it. I’ll try a nd get some pics but the contrast and colour on my camera is not great and probably won’t give a fair reflection of the thing.

    I did fancy the EEE PC too! wonder if I can make a convincing case for work to get one….

    Andy, I was wondering what you had been using for these GPS tracks.

  4. Andy Hawkins

    I’m using my mobile phone (an Orange SPV E650), with a 20 quid bluetooth GPS receiver. Some free software on the phone just logs the tracks, then I import them into MemoryMap on my PC.

    Shame they always seem to get cut off half way through my flight. Not sure if that’s a software issue or some sort of interference around Brize.


  5. leiafee Post author

    Interesting to look at afterwards though. I gather PocketFMS has a “breadcrumbs” file that can be exported and viewed in other software, so that’s something else to try out.

  6. Andy Hawkins

    Yeah, the hope is that I can combine the two functions once I get my license sorted and actually start going places for real. I might try to avoid using the GPS for the majority of flights, and perhaps stick with the software on my mobile phone initially (the mobile phone version of MemoryMap can plot your position on a CAA chart but not much else, but it’d be useful as a backup ‘Oh my god where am I’!)

    Still, I’ve been ‘3 or 4 flights away from my skills test’ for about 2 months now. Damn weather!

  7. Craig Turner

    My phone is a PDA with built in GPS, (TyTyn II) and I have an older HP PDA with blue tooth.

    I went for Pocket FMS. I use a blue tooth GPS, works fine, and a yoke mount with the older PDA.

    I have the flight plan loaded to both PDA’s in case the battery etc fails in one. I’ve found it to be pretty good. Pocket FMS takes some learning. Best way to learn it is if you have Microsoft Flight Sim. It will send a GPS signal out through bluetooth. The PDA thinks it is connected to a real GPS, and you can fly around in Flight Sim, practicing all sorts of functions of Pocket FMS.

    The only problem I have at this stage is glare on the PDA, particularly with sun glasses on.

    I still print out the Plog from Pocket FMS, although the format of the Plog isn’t the best.

    Also, the breadcrumbs is useful for replaying your flight after the flight, you certainly pick up how good or bad your circuits are!


  8. leiafee Post author

    Andy, I went for it as much as for the “comfort blanket” of “Oh god where am I!” as anything…

    Haven’t played with the breadcrumbs yet, next on the list.

    Craig, there was some glare. I wonder if the screen protector, (which I’m thinking of getting anyway) come in a filter type.

  9. Craig Turner

    There are some screen protectors that reduce glare, or so they say on the Pocket FMS site. However, in some ways the glare stops me spending too much time looking at the screen and playing with it.

  10. Leia

    The “deterent” to gazing at the thing is the reason I haven’t switched off the “auto-dim” of the backlight, actually.


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