Thursday, April 1, 2010

Just say "GPS," and some of us are hooked

Dual Electronics' XGPS300 cradle for Apple's iPod Touch

As a long time PDA user, I've recently been immersed in the gadget fascination that is the iPod Touch.  For some background,  I've used various Palm brand handheld devices, and still have a lot of respect for my wi-fi and Bluetooth enabled Palm Tx that now sits in my dresser drawer. (to keep my Palm apps handy, I use a Palm Centro cell phone--alas, no wifi...but I can use an unlocked sim card, unlike the iPhone.)

I loaded tons of applications onto my Palm devices. One of the things I've used the Palm Tx for is GPS mapping, routing, and tracking. This was done by pairing the handheld with a very small Bluetooth GPS receiver. (the Freedom Keychain GPS.) It worked pretty well, and there were car navigation apps, topo maps, workout tracking apps and the like to make it useful. 

Along came the ipods, and for me that has meant the Shuffle, then a 2nd generation Nano-- and finally, the thin and sleek iPod Touch. This last has put me back into application heaven, with a nice clear screen and it is so much more than a music player.  Reminded me of my old Tx, where I'd been using Pocket Tunes for music and hours of fun and utility through the thousands of applications available. Now, I'm experiencing the smooth touch screen swiping, pinching, etc. of the Touch interface.

I'd been looking for a way to use GPS with my new 32 GB, "3rd generation" iPod Touch. This was accelerated by seeing well designed GPS applications in Apple's App Store, some specifically for geocaching.  One, "Geosphere," is so well designed that if you delve into it, even without a GPS receiver in use, a cacher can be totally organized out in the field using it in tandem with a Garmin or other GPS device.  The sticking point for stand-alone use is that unlike the iPhone, the Touch lacks a GPS chip. (even the iPhone is said to have some issues with it's internal GPS, though.)  Unless one 'jailbreaks' their iPod Touch, the use of an external GPS receiver isn't an option--it's not supported by Apple and I'm guessing there's a good reason. Someday this feature may be enabled, but I didn't want to wait. (I'm already hooked on a few geocaching and other map-aware applications.)

So, in the spring of 2010 here comes Dual Electronics, with the announcement that they've built a cradle for the Touch that packs in all the GPS you could want. The XGPS300 cradle is not marketed at anything other than the iPod Touch. It's not cheap, costing $200--but that's still less than a Garmin GPS, that would have only some of the features the iPod+cradle can provide, and you also get NavAtlas software that is probably on a par with other software costing $70 to $100 dollars on it's own. The Touch slides into the cradle, and off you go. Your map-aware applications take on new life, and GPS specific apps finally make sense to download.  After a short delay in its release, I joined other eager GPS fans and got one.

It bears pointing out that this cradle can be used outside of your car. This is a key advantage of this product. The GPS electronics are inside the form-fitting pocketable sled that the Touch slides into. You can hike, run, bike etc. With most other Touch gps solutions, you're tied to your car by the bulky suction holder since the works are inside that, and power via DC must be connected.  Dual's cradle has its own battery, and won't borrow power from your iPod. But generously, it will let your iPod sip on it's battery (if you're not currently using the GPS mode.)

The windshield mount (see picture at left, minus it's suction cup portion) for Dual's XGPS300 is there to provide a car holder, plus DC power for charging with a car lighter plug, and an audio out. It does not contain the GPS unit.

The actual sled-like cradle, which does have the GPS electronics, has a rechargeable battery, it's very own audio out for headphones,
                                                                             a speaker,

a microphone,

              a test button  for checking state of charge,

 and mini USB for syncing, and limited charging capability. (Can't charge both iPod and cradle if just using USB.*) USB-only power input seems to be just to charge the cradle itself; I imagine it's main use is to boost the cradle's battery during iPod syncing, which it will do--you don't need an Apple connector if you have the iPod in the cradle, and connect that to your computer with USB cable--I haven't tried syncing this way yet.)
The windshield holder and its DC lighter cord are the best way to charge up both the  iPod and cradle all at the same time to get ready for action. Then you can venture out of the car on battery power alone. The Dual windshield holder "knows" if the cradle is inserted, and it will charge both devices simultaneously. In the house, I'm using an aftermarket "lighter socket" that plugs into an AC outlet, and I plug the XGPS' lighter cord into that for charging both cradle &  ipod overnight by my desk.
The cradle itself appears well made and is smoothly rounded on its corners. It does not weigh much at all. It slides into a pocket nicely, not too much bigger than an iPhone, though certainly it adds size to your slim Touch. (note that this cradle will definitely NOT work with an iPhone, there is no way it would fit.) The iPod is securely held within the accurately molded cradle. There are two thin wings on either side that barely interrupt the visual or tactile lines of the Touch's bezel. No screen real estate is covered up. Dual says that the cradle works with every Touch version made, but you do need the current software, or I think at least version 3 and up? I'm using software version 3.1.3. There was/is a typo on Apple's storefront that says "2G" Touch devices only; that is wrong according to Dual, and proven wrong by users.
The fit is so good, I have to say that removing the Touch takes a bit of pulling. I find myself gripping the sides of the iPod on its upper half, and that means I usually am pressing on the volume switch of my 3rd gen Touch. (see photo.)  I wonder if constant squeezing of the volume button is a good idea over the long haul. If  I instead squeeze below the wings on the lower part of the iPod, there isn't as much purchase on the iPod before my thumb and finger hit the bottom of the wings. 
This removal effort is my only gripe to date about the design. So much of the XGPS300's design is excellent, and this I don't consider a show-stopper. I might like to see some kind of "release" lever or button on later cradle revisions. Meanwhile, you don't have to fear the iPod falling out of the cradle, and that's good.  If you have a thinner 1st gen iPod, there's a rubber spacer for the cradle-though I think the owner's manual may have this backwards, as it says to  "remove rubber spacer." The spacer in my package was not attached, but came in a plastic bag. I can't imagine it is for use with the 3rd gen Touch which is plenty snug without it, and there are two long tactile strips in the cradle as it is.   (I did slide a 1st gen Touch into the cradle without the rubber square, and it also seemed snug enough; --if you have a 1st gen, ask Dual about this pad.)
Using the XGPS300,  first impressions

Software included with the cradle is by NavAtlas,  (it says "NavTeq" on the splash screen.)  A pretty good solution for driving. I've been doing more off road and geocaching with the cradle, using Topo and Geosphere, but the couple of times I've lit up the NavAtlas it seems very accurate and the graphics look fine to me. 
You need to go fetch the software as an App from the App Store, there is no CD in the box. This is fine considering the AppStore is the gateway in general for software for Touch users. If you want to, you can buy other road navigation solutions from the app store, such as Tom Tom or Navigon, but I don't see the need until I go outside of the US or Canada, those both being covered already. (see Dual's blog at for a list of compatible apps. ) Among NavAtlas' features is the option to select between "car" or "truck" for route planning, choose "fastest" v.s. "shortest" route, select to avoid:  Ferry route, unpaved route, carpool lane, and more.  Pretty standard but  helpful settings. For the Main screen there are 4 large icons: Where to, View Map, Route, and Options. If you select "Where to," there's a list of bold options, including Favorites, Recently Found, Contacts, POI, Address, Zip Code, a few other choices including Coordinate which lets you then search the  map.  There's  Emergency, showing Hospital, Fuel, Police, Auto which opens to a list of dealers, service, road assist, rental, and more.
Contacts in particular  is nicely integrated already with your ipod's contacts; I didn't have to do anything other than tap Contacts in NavAtlas and there they were.  If you have physical addresses filled in for your contacts, you can route to them, merely tap on the pane showing the street address. (This is motivation to always fill in addresses for your contacts.) I used to have a Mio in-car device, and the NavAtlas software is so much better and more in tune with what you expect when you try to drill down through the options and menus.
I've been out about 3 times so far since receiving the XGPS300. During geocaching forays, the accuracy is about as good as my very good Garmin Vista Hcx, based on the general feel for the hunt. It got me very close to ground zero. In one case it  said 4 ft away, and I was standing in reach of the camouflaged container. ( I didn't take my Garmin with me for a back-to-back comparison.)
In town using NavAtlas my position on the maps seems pretty true--only when starting up does the blue dot denoting "me" wander, until satellites are fully acquired. I don't know anything about the "ublox" GPS chip said to be in the XGPS, but it seems to work as well as my Sirfstar II devices. (Need to research the chip.) Others have said to turn off the iPod's wi-fi for fastest initial lock, this seems to be true.  Turning wi-fi back on after good lock doesn't hurt accuracy, but it may slow down drawing of cached map tiles.
 About cached maps: some software besides NavAtlas (which stores all map tiles on iPod) wants to look for maps on the (non-existant in the field) network before showing map tiles cached from prior online browsing. You'll see a message that map load failed at such times. Just wait, & more importantly, zoom out to to a higher level to see cached tiles in  Geosphere or Geocaching apps.
 Unlike the iphone, the Touch can't use 3G to fetch maps out in the field. If you get other location or navigation based apps to use with this cradle, be aware that some rely on network maps.  As a work-around, browsing and scrolling around areas of interest before going out, while connected to a wifi network, will "park", or cache, those particular viewed maps tiles in the iPod's storage. There are cases where map tile caches get cleared, and I've ended up map-less in such situations with network-based apps. For certain apps, I plan to use Verizon's Mifi device as back-up, which gives the Touch wifi access anywhere. (but consumes phone plan data.) Remember that NavAtlas and others like it store maps on the iPod, you won't ever be caught without maps with them. I have also used MapCandy to load up state and regional maps in various levels of detail. I have 32 GB of storage, though. Those with an 8GB Touch will do well to browse and  "cache" map tiles, before heading out with Geosphere & other non-resident map apps.
What are you waiting for?

I guess I would say that the one thing that could hold you back may be budget issues because of the $200 price. But I don't think it is over priced; it's built well and provides good GPS data. It includes battery back-up of 1100mAH for your Touch that you'd otherwise pay $100 to purchase in a similar, non-GPS enabled battery sled. You can use it for Skype with it's mic and speaker. It is nicely tailored to the sleek iPod Touch. If you're wondering how existing users like it, count me as one who is glad to have the XGPS300 cradle.
I'm not associated with Dual in any way, and in the early going I may have got some details wrong. If you think so, write a comment.    (all photos are by the author. )
*You could charge just the cradle at home, without the  windshield holder, with an aftermarket AC/ USB adaptor, or by using your computer's ports. If you put a USB adapter from Belkin or Rocketfish into your car's cigarette lighter, you technically don't have to use the windshield holder to charge the cradle, but--and this should matter to you--a plain USB charging set-up won't charge the iPod and cradle at the same time. I'm still figuring this out, it seems that the iPod while in just the cradle does not charge at all if USB is plugged in, even if cradle's Power switch is set on "Battery." Only when I unplug the USB and set cradle to Battery, does the Touch's charging symbol wake up. And for the cradle to charge, I begin to suspect it matters what the switch is set to.   I'll have to test that by running cradle down (say to where only 1 out of 4 blue charge indicators light when tested) and then try charging via USB. If I do this routine separately for each of the 3 Power button positions, (GPS/Off/Battery) I will be able to confirm if position matters.


  1. Just making a small update to this 'review.' Note that since Apple's 4.0 update to the Touch, the included mapping software by NavAtlas has a problem. It can't 'find' the cradle. They are working on the issue, I think, though i must say it has been since July. Meanwhile they are providing a workaround for customers: a way to obtain other mapping software.
    The fact that all of my other gps-aware apps still work means I'm not terribly troubled. I especially like Accu-terra, and Topo for the adventures I do. Also Motion GPS. I think Dual must be having to work with Apple to resolve the glitch.

  2. Note about some new competitors (fall 2010) to the Dual cradle: I may not have time right away to do reviews of two new gps devices for the iPod Touch, but I am testing the "G-Fi" device, and will soon try the "Bad Elf" device. The G- Fi is a square object about 3"x3"x3/4" (75mm x 75mm x 8mm approx) and it is a satellite receiver that connects to ipod Touch, iPad, and iPhone utilizing the wifi band. Does not require jailbreaking. The wifi element is only to make a connection between device and Apple product. There is no network activity, in fact wifi to network is disabled when you connect. Purely a means to connect, I guess selected since Apple doesn't enable Bluetooth gps connect ability. Anyway this means your iPod etc is unencumbered by a cradle or wires, can remain in your favorite case. G-fi charges by mini USB. A little slow to acquire but worked well on recent trip to Boston once connected. Software: seems as if device is happiest (recognized best) when using proprietary Nav-mii software, which for US is state by state and costs ~$13.00 per state. The software is pretty nice in appearance and function. Many European countries are completely covered at a similar price. See app store for available areas. Cradle-free and wire-free = good. Loss of wifi band for network access during use, not so good. Inability for most of my other gps aware software to recognize unusual connection to gps data is also an issue. They just hang up trying to connect. (Topo, XGPS, etc.) I have used it with an iPad. It connects under settings okay with the device, have not tested it with any software yet.

    As for the Bad Elf device, it connects to the 30 pin interface standard with Apple products. Claimed to be Apple approved. Claimed to work with nearly all gps software on app store except must remember as always that some software is dependent on network access for maps which the Touch doesn't have without a MiFi or similar wifi modem. XGPS lets you download maps to memory, some others do as well. I prefer on device to caches maps as the cache gets cleared sometimes at most inconvenient times. Bad Elf is very small, not much bigger than the white Apple Camera dongles. Looking forward to trying it next week.