GPSPilot Technical Review

By: Dale DePriest - all rights reserved

This review covers several products from GPSPilot.com. These include their products called, compass, atlas, tracker, and fly and is based on their 5.05i release. In addition the pc based support products cartographer and topographer will be mentioned as needed. The first time I looked at their products they were on Version 1.0 and they have certainly made many improvements since those early versions. Note that this is an independent review but I have supplied an early version as a courtesy to GPSPilot. They were very helpful and both corrected some of my errors and committed to fix some of problems found in the review. I will indicate commitments with the statement 'to be corrected' as part of my review.

Here are some quick links to the various portions of the review

The products compass, atlas, and tracker (or fly) can be considered an upgrade family. Each product adds functionality to the previous product while providing most of the functions of the previous product. Compass provides a basic compass screen and limited support for waypoints, Atlas completes the waypoint support, adds mapping support and real time tracking, while tracker provides all of this and adds tracklog support and the ability to do limited navigation. Unfortunately the Tracker (and fly) product is missing some map maintenance functions (to be corrected). The GPSPilot Fly product replaces the tracklog support of the tracker product with routing support and adds some flight planning data. Each product will be described in its own section below but the user should remember the incremental nature of the tools so that the review of the compass functions in the compass product and the mapping functions in atlas are equally applicable to those functions on the other products.

Before reviewing the individual products there are some general comments on the entire line. As originally released 5.05i only included installation instructions requiring that you have a copy of Microsoft Word or a compatible application in order to read them. If you have one of the early zip files you can retrieve a new version that provides this data as an html document. You can follow their instructions or just use my very abbreviated instructions below:

  1. unzip the file.
  2. hotsync the .prc file - compass, atlas ...
  3. hotsync mathlib.prc if you don't have one already.
  4. hotsync the database. GP_points.pdb
  5. hotsync one of the sample maps if provided.
  6. Try out your new program.

The readme file also contains a small amount of getting started instructions but there is no manual included. You are expected to read the manual on-line at the web site. My suggestion for obtaining a manual is to go to each page of the manual and do a "save as" to save the document to your hard disk. Then go to each picture that you want to have in your copy and use the right mouse key to save the Gif image to your hard disk. Finally make a directory called "images" on your hard disk and move all of the Gif files (*.gif) into the images directory. Then you can use your browser to read the manual offline. I have requested that they include the documentation with the product. The documentation leaves something to be desired but it is a start. Now, on to my reviews of the products.

Compass

Compass is a simple application with one main display screen. As a standalone application its main use is for folks who have gps devices that do not have a builtin display. When used in Atlas, Tracker, or Fly it provides a ready access to gps data when needed or when you leave an area covered by a map. This is also where you set up the gps receiver you intend to use.

The main part of the screen is the edge view of a simulated compass which is where the application gets its name. It shows your compass heading (when moving) in graphic and numeric form. To the right of the this display is the Time display. It shows your current time, you offset for GMT and the date. Note that a small clock appears if you have a gps hooked up and running and your local palm time is more than a minute off from gps corrected time. This application can be used to correct the palm clock so long as it is within 15 minutes of the correct time for your time zone. This is a nice feature.

The bottom half of the of the screen shows your current position and altitude as well as the magnetic compass Variation for your location (if this information is supplied by the gps.) Note that this application and all GPSPilot applications report all bearings and courses as a compass would which means they are not aligned with true north. Your current speed as reported by the gps is also shown here.

If you don't have a current fix you will see an "init" box located next to the Position. This can be used to select a location close to your current location (within about 200 miles) to aid some gps receivers in getting their initial fix. Note that most receivers cannot use this information but it can be useful on Magellan gps companion, Rand McNally unit, Delorme Earthmates, Tripmates, and Handy GPS (I didn't test this). Units using NMEA mode do not support this initialization but usually provide a method independent of this Compass application. The initialization data comes from a database of waypoints that was loaded when you first installed the software. It is possible to add waypoints to this database for use if you can't find one close to where you are. (more information on this is in the discussion of the Atlas application.)

At the bottom of the screen there is a selection for the gps device you intend to use. Choices include NMEA, Earthmate, Companion, Handy GPS, no GPS, and Simulation. Simulation mode can be used just to get an idea of how the application works but is not useful otherwise. No GPS can be used to make the init button appear permitting you access to the init database. NMEA mode should be used for most gps receivers you intend to use and will work with the GPS companion product as well except that initialization is not supported in NMEA mode. Earthmate is specific to units that need the Rockwell binary protocol, Companion is for Rand McNally and Magellan add on units, while Handy GPS is specific to that model for Visor. Tripmates are detected and initialized in NMEA mode.

There is an option menu that shows Preference, Database (Not of much use in this application), Set Connection, Help, and About. Preferences permits changing the speed and altitude display from Metric to Statute or Nautical. You can also toggle a "Stay on" button here to keep your palm from turning itself off while you are using for gps navigation. There are other settings here but they are not useful for the compass application. Preferences are not shared between the various GPS Pilot applications. The Set Connection option permits you to determine how the gps is physically connected to the unit. Most gps devices use the serial port which is the default so you won't need to mess with this setting unless you have an unusual device (such as one that uses the HandEra CF slot). I only tested the serial port devices. The Help menu choice (also reachable from the Info icon on the main compass page) provides some limited help. It even tells you that you can initialize the compass application from a map but this is not the case unless you are using one of the applications that support maps.

If it has trouble hooking to a gps on the serial port try unplugging the unit and reselect the device and then plug it in again. This will usually let the program find it. Reselecting the same entry or toggling from no-gps to the desired entry can force a retry.

The about screen is used to input the registration code. Highlight the word "demo" and then enter the code. The Compass application seems to be fully functional except for nag screens in demo mode. Other applications in the suite cover a portion of the map display making it difficult to use unless you register the product.

I found the Compass product trivially easy to use but very limited in functionality. It does provide an interface to the gps unit itself and it does work. However, GPSPilot applications in general have a problem with the GPS Companion product from Magellan and will simply quit receiving data after a while. It can be restarted by reselecting the gps setting. For this reason I cannot recommend any of their products for use with this GPS until this is fixed. (I have communicated this to the company and they are testing a fix.) I also did some testing on the Set connection page and found that it can be messed up so that NMEA mode won't work even after resetting it. I had to reload the application to fix this.

Atlas

The Atlas application provides raster (bitmap) mapping support for Palm units and may optionally be used with a gps receiver. Raster maps are the kind you view on the web or create using a scanner and a paper map. These maps are really just pictures and contain no ability for the application to understand the contents which is merely displayed on the screen. They could even be aerial photographs, satellite images, or digital pictures of maps. There are some supplied maps as samples but you will likely want to make your own. Making your own maps require the use of the cartographer companion software with maps that you supply or downloading maps from the GPS Pilot supplied sources using some form of palm web access. Note that many of the maps that can be download are already calibrated for you. For now lets assume that you have created your maps and have one or more maps you intend to use.

The screen opens by showing a map. Pressing the 2nd button from your left will reveal the gps compass screen shown above. Here you can do all of the things mentioned in the Compass review. Pressing it again will return you to the map page. Toggling this button is an easy way to restart the gps tracking if it has been suspended. If the gps is enabled a line appears at the bottom of the map showing gps data as can be seen in the figure shown above. However this application is useful even if you don't have a gps device.

Pressing the up/down keys allows zooming the map. Note that zooming a raster map is accomplished using pixel replication which means the graphics just gets bigger and the graphics resolution lower. Zoom levels include 2X, 4X, and 8X. I found the 2X mode to be particularly useful and permits starting with pretty crowded maps since zooming reduces the clutter. In addition to zooming the current map these keys will also select a more detailed map if one is present. This provides an almost seamless functionality similar to that found with Vector maps. Zooming in always works well but zooming out only works with the current file. If you zoom out beyond the 1X map level you will need to continue zooming out until a different file is reached. You can then zoom back in to the level you wish. The program seems to cache zoom levels but needs the 1X view to be loaded first.

The third button (just to the right of the up/down keys can be used to select between predefined maps views. The button selects from view 1, view 2, or the standard zoom mode described above. Once a view is selected (as indicated on the screen in the lower right corner) you can use the up/down buttons to select the map you wish and the zoom you wish. The magnifying glass works a little different in that it will always select from the most detailed map available. You can then return to this setting with this hard coded button. Views can also be selected with the stylus by clicking on the number or magnifying glass. Up/down arrow buttons will appear to the right of this view setting if separate maps exist for your location and the scale can be used at the bottom to bring up a menu of of maps that are loaded on the unit. By the way, the map scale represents the distance across half the screen height. The 1 and 2 selections are nice in that they hold the zoom level which may be desirable but they do not pan from map to map which is a problem. I think adjacent maps should be found automatically even in the 1 and 2 settings if they are within 10% of the same scale. (Exactly the same scale is very difficult with scanned maps.)

The final button is used to create a new waypoint. These can be used for whatever purpose you like to mark a location. Once you press the button the waypoint is made. There is no cancel (to be corrected). If you make a mistake you must ok the waypoint and then select it again and then delete it (or you can clear the names and label field). It is easy to get multiple points on the same spot. A feature of these waypoints is that they can include quite a few notes and even a graphic drawing area which makes them useful for field data gathering. Each point has both a long name and a short name or label (8 characters max but often is truncated to 5 characters by other parts of the program). Waypoints can be generated based on your current gps position or simply the current map location which makes them usable even without a gps. They can also be moved or updated easily by clicking on a button on the description page. If the button has the gps compass icon inside it then the move will be to the current gps location but if it has a + inside it then the move will be to the current map location. It is also possible to edit the lat/lon numbers directly to move the location or to create a new waypoint, which can be useful when transferring data from a paper topo map. Each waypoint has an icon associated with it based on the waypoint category it has been assigned to. Each category is a different database and you can have up to 4, Landmarks, Airports, Cities, and Navaids (sometimes called radio beacon). The demo database is special in that it supports more than one category in the same database. To create a new category go to the options menu and select database. Now select and existing database (not very intuitive) and then click new. A form will appear allowing you to name the database and select from the 4 choices for categories. Once you have the new database you can add waypoints to it or even move waypoints from one database to another using the category selection. Another way to get a new category database is to download one of the specialized databases from the web site. These already include many of the places you want, particularly if you are a pilot. The preferences menu allow you to select the display of waypoints by category. You can click on icons, names, or both (both doesn't work well since the name covers up the icon).

While creating a new waypoint is easy, working with them can be tricky. If you see one on the screen you can select it with your stylus and you will be offered a menu with two choices on it. Selecting the name of the waypoint will bring up the waypoint details screen while selecting 'center' will move the waypoint to the center of the screen. However if it is already in the center selecting center will bring up the list of waypoints. As a matter of fact clicking the center of the display and selecting center is the only way to bring up this list as it is not available on the menus. Once you have the list on the screen you can, cancel, make a new entry at your current location, or select one of the entries from the list. The up/down buttons will scroll through the list. Selecting an entry recenters the map on that entry at the point showing the most detailed map you have for that location. If you accidently create more than one waypoint on a single point it is nearly impossible to remove the extras without using topographer unless you simply remove them one at a time in the order they are encountered (to be fixed). A work around is to temporarily move the one you select or put it in a different category where you can find it to select it and then delete it. (This means if the one you want to keep is on top you are in trouble you will need to go through some extra work.)

Maps are managed a little better than waypoints. You can have several maps in the unit and they will be organized into map sets. Each map set can have one or more maps and are created using the cartographer application. Maps can be scrolled by holding the stylus down on a point on the map and dragging it in the direction you want to go. If you have the gps on it will be suspended so that panning will work. (Otherwise the gps would try and recenter the map display.) When dragging a map in this way a new map may be selected if it is in the same map set and is more detailed than the one you were using. Sometimes this does not seem to work if the new map is a lot more smaller scale likely because there is not enough resolution on the upper map to find the lower one, i.e. it may be less that one pixel big. Note that none of this kind of data is in the sparse documentation. You can select the map you want from the map menu. Bring up the list, select the map set from the category and then select the map you wish to view. It is also possible to select the map by clicking on the map scale in the lower right corner of the screen but you will only have a choice of maps in the area where you are. You can also view details from the map menu and change the category (map set a map belongs to). Details tells you the name of the map (which can be changed) and the size.

You can use the map menu to access the web and pull down new maps if your palm setup is configured to do this. (Don't try it if you are not configured as you can crash your palm.) Maps can also be beamed or deleted individually from this menu or as a full set from the options menu. An important feature of the map menu is the ability to calibrate a map directly on the palm. When this menu item is selected you can scroll the map and find a point on the map for calibration. You can then pick a waypoint that defines that point or select new and enter the coordinates based on your knowledge or the gps position. If you choose to calibrate the map you will need 2 points, one near the upper left and one near the lower right corner of the map. Unfortunately you can't use this function to simply "tune" or improve one of the coordinates since you must always enter both. This function is very important if you download your maps directly into the palm and they do not have coordinate data. There is also a details menu selection that will tell you the size of the map and let you rename it. Note that if the map is split it will appear multiple times in the list but can only have one name.

Map databases seem to be written to by the application. This means that they cannot be loaded in expansion rom and, if they are large, the palm sync time will be increased since they have to be backed up each time.

The online documentation includes extra information about the tracker application but does provide some useful but sparse tips on using atlas.

Tracker

The tracker application adds the ability to record tracklogs and some rudimentary navigation capability. The left most key on the palm has been programmed to provide turn the tracklog on and off. A new menu entry for Tracks is added to the menu banner. The menu provides the ability to list the tracklogs (and start a new one), to toggle tracklogs on and off, to pause and resume the tracklog (similar to button 1), to view the details of the current log, and to delete the current log. The use of the tracklog is indicated on the lower left corner of the screen. An '>' means the log is running, an '||' indicates a pause, while an 'o' indicates that it is stopped. You can have multiple logs but only one can be active and will be shown on the screen. There is no direct control over the resolution of the tracklog but it is tied to your zoom level so if you zoom out it will collect less points.

Using the track list screen is confusing at first since there is only a new button on the form and no help or info button. You must either select one of the existing tracks or the new button to leave this screen. It is possible to have multiple tracks with the same name, so to provide unique names you need to select the track you wish and then use the details menu item to change the name. The details item shows the name and category which can be changed and the possibly several entries identifying trips that are recorded in the log along with the number of log entries for the trip. This information cannot be edited or deleted without deleting the whole log. A new log is not attached to a map and can extend past the map boundaries. Sometimes the log can be difficult to see because the map interferes. A trick is to zoom out to a point where there is no map and the tracklog will be very visible.

The map menu item still appears on the main menu. It is missing the map list function (to be corrected) but adds a new Best Fit function that shows the map scale that best fits the tracklog with regard to any particular map scale.

One question you might ask is, What can I do with a tracklog anyway? Actually it can be pretty valuable to automatically record a trip, to extend or correct a map, and even to build a map. You can use it to guide you back to a location or even to find your way home but visually following the new map you just created. Unfortunately you can't view it on except inside the application (expect a new program one of these days from GPSPILOT to add this capability)and it is not included in the databases you can beam to your friends (although some separate palm utilities can solve this). However it can be used afterwards to generate a set of waypoints that can be used in 'Fly' as a route. You simply scroll the map and press the right button at the point of the turns to define the route.

In addition to tracklog support the tracker application provides simple goto navigation. You can select any of the database items as a destination and the gps feature will help guide you to the destination. The 'set to:' destination feature is available as a menu choice if you click on a waypoint or if you click on a magic spot up near the top left corner of the map screen. While navigating an arrow will appear in the upper left corner and a course bearing and distance will be shown. The idea is make the arrow that represents your current direction and the arrow that represents the desired direction agree. It even estimates how long it will take you to arrive but only if you are able to travel in the direction it says, otherwise it is very optimistic.

Fly

Fly adds the ability to do some limited flight planning and the ability to have routes to the atlas application. It does not have the ability to record tracklogs. The left most button on the palm is used to bring up the planning/route page or to return to the map page. While this application is build as a tool for aviation use it is quite usable for cars, boats and even hiking use.

The planning page lets you define your 'vehicle' capabilities. This is the only application that uses the volume preference item and it is used to define the capacity of your gas tank. Unfortunately there is nothing in the program that actually uses this data which is one reason I suggest that you can only do limited flight planning. You can do as many vehicles as you want. I have one for my car at highway speeds and one at street speeds to easily estimate trip times. In addition to defining the vehicle you can define the prevailing winds. (In a marine application it would be useful for currents if if had settings other than pure directions but may still be somewhat useful if the river is fairly straight.)

Once your vehicle is defined you can set up the route using existing waypoints to define the path. The program will then estimate the trip time based on the distances and speed you defined and report leg distances and overall distances for the trip. If you click on one of the legs of the trip and have a gps running it will also give you a dynamic update as to your progress toward the leg destination. Unfortunately it isn't smart enough to realize when you complete the leg and won't switch to the next leg automatically. I haven't quite figured out how it estimates your arrival time if you drift from the route but it does try to factor in some correction. Clicking on the dynamic update table will turn it off again, or clicking on the gps symbol or destination name will bring up those screens.

There is a menu on the planning screen that will let you switch to the route list, switch to the map screen, reverse the Routes or delete it. The main map page includes a menu that has a "best fit" selection on the map options to pick a map suitable for the selected route however no other map selection option exists (to be corrected) except to click on the scale to bring up a list of maps for you current location.

The progress is also displayed on the map page at the top of the screen. If you don't see it you can click in the upper left corner and a menu will appear to let you view the data. Leg target, bearing, distance, and estimated time are shown as well as a visual direction arrow. Leg target is the same as is displayed on the planning screen.

Using the web based interface to aeroplanner it is possible to download a full set of maps for the planned trip based on data on the planning page but I have not tried this yet.

Cartographer

The Cartographer application runs on the pc and is needed to convert maps to a form that can be read by the gpspilot apps. While other apps have been updated this one seems to be pretty primitive, but it does do the job it was designed for. It has no built in help at all. It can convert from Windows bitmaps, Gif images or Jpeg images. It can convert to black and white maps, 4 level gray scale, 16 level gray scale or 256 color depending on what you need. It can also compress maps if you wish but you must do it at the time of conversion. You cannot convert them later. You must use the ADD button to import the maps as the open command is only used to read existing palm database files. Maps are built as a set and the full set is then uploaded to the unit. Large maps are automatically split as needed which is primarily needed if you don't compress the maps. Each split file is named the same.

Calibration is done by specifying the upper left corner and the lower right corner using decimal degrees or degrees, minutes, and seconds. Note the map is assumed to have true north at the top. You cannot view any of the maps so you must calibrate them by remembering the correct values or use a separate application to view them. The values are remembered as part of the database and the database can be reloaded into the application and modified later to improve the settings, however any changes must be done in decimal degrees. You can elect to import the map to your palm with some default calibration and then fix it on the palm itself.

There is quite a bit of information on the mechanics of getting maps from various sources on the web site but no data on how to ensure map accuracy which can be a real problem for this product since there are only two calibration points. Note that this application is not required if you can download maps directly using the web map feature of the products.

There are several bugs in this application. For example if you add a file and the file name is longer than 11 characters it will be silently truncated to 11 characters giving you two files in the database with the same name. If you are adding files and make an error in typing the name of the directory the application will crash. If you import Gif files it will make bmp files and leave them behind in your source directory. If you add files to an existing database it still makes you chose the color depth and compression even though you would probably never want them to be different in the same database.

The application needs some map management functions. A nice addition would be to be able to see the scale for the map you chose. In addition it would be nice to be able to merge files from two databases, add compression to files later, and even view the boundaries of the maps so that you could see where the holes were in the map set. Some consistency checking would also be nice. Currently the product will let you make a square map with wildly different dimensions in the two directions. There seems to be little or no error checking.

Topographer

The topographer application lets you manage your gpspilot waypoints on a pc. You can import waypoints from a text file, look at them and modify values. The registered version will also permit you to export waypoints as text files to be used by other pc based applications.

While you can save points under a different file name the applications always call this GP_points so there is only one point database editable by Topographer. If you install one of the modified databases saved under a different name it will overwrite the one on the palm which means it is easy to lose the default waypoint collection. You can have other databases in your palm that are created using the options->database menu but they cannot be managed with topographer. There is no ability to merge databases from different files or copy one entry from one to the other. This really limits the usefulness of this tool. However, you may need it to clean up your database from time to time or to view it on the pc.

Data entry and editing can be performed on your database but there is no preferences so altitude must be in meters and lat/lon in degrees, minutes, seconds.

Final Thoughts

GPS Pilot is an impressive suite of applications that provide sophisticated bitmap (raster images) mapping support for the Palm. The atlas application could be used with or without a gps device but the other applications do not add much value without a gps. While the product is at version 5.05 which you might expect would represent a polished version there is still room for improvement. Here are a few items, in no particular order, I think should be improved.

Would I recommend this program? Yes! It is a good tool and provides one of the best if not the best raster based mapping programs available on the palm.

Back to main palm page

Revisions

01/07/02 initial release

Expect revisions to this review as I am able to explore it more, particularly in the area of getting and installing maps. My visor is not supported by the web mocha ppp tool so I will have to drag out my old palm III to test this feature.

Dale DePriest