Off the Charts: The Latest in Hand-Held GPS & Two-Way Radios

The latest hand-held GPS receivers have improved chipsets, which allow them to act as compasses, determine your altitude, and store audio, maps and video. A few models even pick up signals from Russia’s satellite system, which provides better accuracy and faster determination of your location.

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If you’re planning a hike in the wilderness and you believe that you can rely on just the GPS mobile application that’s on your smartphone to chart your location, you should think again.

The proliferation in the past 4 years of inexpensive GPS apps might make you conclude that there’s little point to paying $100–$700 for a dedicated hand-held GPS receiver. But your smartphone doesn’t have enough electronics to allow it to receive GPS satellite signals directly from space, like a real GPS receiver does. Smartphones use assisted GPS (A-GPS) systems, which are a ground-based wireless infrastructure, to determine your location. In other words, smartphones are excellent at pinpointing your location on roads or in cities where you can get cellular reception. But if you venture into the vast stretches of North America where no cellular coverage exists, your smartphone will have as much GPS capability as a block of wood.

That isn’t to say that the latest hand-held GPS receivers are foolproof, of course. However, besides their superior reception, today’s hand-held GPS receivers also have dramatically improved chipsets, which increased the functionality of the device—including, believe it or not, cameras in a few premium models. Although additional functions and bigger screens typically mean shorter battery life, improvements in battery technology and other energy-saving measures make it so today’s hand-held GPS receivers have up to 50 percent more battery life than comparable models did 4 years ago.

What’s best of all, despite all of the improvements to hand-held GPS receivers, prices have stayed roughly the same over the past 4 years.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE? Most of us are old enough to remember the days in which satellites from the Soviet Union were a source of paranoia. Well, times have changed. In 2011, the Russian government restored the full orbiting capability of its 24-satellite Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS), which was built in the 1980s for military purposes. Now, GLONASS works with the U.S. GPS system to form a web of 48 location-finding satellites in space.

Why is this good? GPS satellites fly in middle Earth orbit (about 12,000 miles up) and are on the move constantly, so your GPS receiver uses as many as it can “see” to calculate your position. Your position will be pinpointed more quickly and more accurately when your GPS receiver sees more satellites at once. But only a few satellites are visible at any given time, so having more satellites that are available to be found helps quite a bit.

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We found that adding GLONASS reception allows a device to pinpoint location 20 percent faster than is typical. That means that it shaves about 12 seconds off the time that it takes to establish your location if it typically takes 60 seconds, says Larry Van Horn, who is a columnist, blogger and recognized expert on GPS-related topics. In addition, if you’re in an area where you don’t have a clear view of the sky, such as under a tree canopy or surrounded by skyscrapers, Van Horn says, a GLONASS-equipped hand-held GPS receiver can cut through the clutter more quickly because of its access to more satellites.

Garmin was the first to tap into GLONASS in the past year, but so far, Garmin includes GLONASS reception only in its eTrex Series of three models, which range in price from $120 to $300. Because GLONASS operates on different frequencies than what U.S. GPS satellites use, hand-held GPS receivers require two different built-in receivers to access both. DeLorme, Lowrance and Magellan tell Consumers Digest that they’re investigating the feature and debating whether to add it in future product lines, and we expect that we’ll see more GLONASS models in the next 3 years.

UNLOCKING THE LIMITS. Electronic chipsets, which are the brains behind hand-held GPS receivers, expanded dramatically during the past 4 years, and they now allow today’s models to do more things and store more information than earlier models could.

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