GPS image WikimediaGPS: honey I shrunk the worldBy Chris Drage
First, let’s get one thing straight. There is no such thing as the perfect GPS receiver. It’s all about what you are going to use it for, how and where. After that, it is about choosing the system that suits your purposes, offers the best compromise of device, mapping and usefulness.

But the selection process can be quite daunting. There are so many GPS units available, from established suppliers such as Garmin to new companies like SatMap Systems, that it is almost as difficult as choosing the right computer system for school.

Should you forget about a dedicated GPS receiver altogether and go for a PDA, vehicle SatNav unit or mapping software for your mobile phone? Choosing the right device comes down to answering five key questions:

  1. How do you plan to navigate?
  2. How organised are you?
  3. Where are you going?
  4. How much do you want to spend?
  5. How do you want to look?

These considerations were not dreamed up by me but are those offered by the experts at Walking World and GPS Training, and I would urge anyone remotely interested in purchasing a GPS receiver to view the latter organisation’s excellent "Choosing the right GPS" video. Try Walking World's YouTube version below:

I do not propose to reiterate here all the points that they make so superbly, however, schools may wish to start at a much simpler level than jumping in the deep end with a high-end GPS device. Again it comes down to the first question above (how do you plan to navigate?), although one low cost option for primary schools may be to purchase a GPS tracking device instead.

Usually, a subscription is needed for GPS tracking devices for company vehicles, vulnerable children and the elderly because they come with emergency implications. However, a number of bespoke devices are available which are ideally suited to education users – geography departments and primary schools in particular.

A GPS Tracking device will allow you to capture your route while out walking, driving or riding, and store it. Just turn it on when you start out, and then off when you get to the the journey end/ On return to the classroom the GPS data can be downloaded – usually by bespoke software – so that you can see a plot of it on an application like Google Earth.

To get an idea of what they are and how they work, check out our review of the popular Data Harvest device, the i-gotU  GT120 GPS Travel Logger, which must be the smallest of these devices, weighing in at just 21 grammes and measuring a diminutive 44.5mm x 28.5mm x 13mm. This low cost device works quite well but is neither as reliable nor as accurate as more upmarket devices like Trackstick and Trackstick Mini.  Here though, like so much ICT hardware, you only get what you are prepared to pay for.  At £199 the Trackstick Mini looks to be the most useful device (we hope to bring you a detailed review of one shortly).

'Many who get a GPS receiver expect to see an OS map on its screen – and are very disappointed'

It has a detachable, weatherproof and shock resistant case, magnetic mount, and its diminutive size makes the Trackstick Mini ideal for use in harsh conditions. It will continuously record its exact route, stop times, speed, direction and altitude which can all be downloaded and viewed on a computer. And the integrated temperature recorder ensures that this aspect of the environment is being monitored as well. So you do get quite a lot of features for your money.

The thought of spending £200 on a tracking device might just convince you to go a step further and purchase a GPS receiver with screen, mapping facility and many more features. However, purchasing the GPS receiver (like purchasing a colour printer) is only part of the full cost of ownership. With the former you have to purchase OS maps as well and many folk who purchase a GPS receiver expect to see an OS map on its screen and are very disappointed to find that comes with little more than a base map. The big question here is: “Can I get OS maps into a GPS receiver and how do I transfer my routes and trails to the unit?”

PDAs and Smartphones are the most cost effective means of obtaining digital Ordnance Survey mapping on to a GPS device providing it is running under a Microsoft operating system. If you are a user of digital mapping software like Quo2 (see other two Geography@BETT articles, contacts below), the PDA/Smartphone application and ability to transfer mapping to your device is included.

Several PDAs come with built-in GPS receivers already built in so you are able to combine several functions – your PDA can be your vehicle navigation system, contact book, notebook and GPS, all in one unit, costing less than a dedicated GPS receiver with a colour screen. This is quite appealing as the PDA option offers so many opportunities for downloading free maps from the web. Using the calibration functions in many PC mapping applications you can import a map and see your position on it anywhere in the world. However, expect to spend some time mastering the art of screen calibration.

Similarly, mapping software for Smartphones is also becoming very popular. Many newer phones have a GPS built in and you may be able to get one free with your ordinary mobile phone tariff. Again, on the face of it, the attraction of having a number of features in one handheld device is very attractive.

Be warned though. There are shortcomings to the PDA/ Smartphone option. These units are nowhere near as rugged and waterproof as a dedicated GPS receiver and, in most cases, it will be left to you to buy a waterproof cover for them. In addition, their screens are not particularly bright, making the devices quite difficult to read in sunlight, and especially so if they are in a waterproof bag! Drop a Smartphone while your group is out on the hills in worsening weather and you may have lost both your digital compass and your only means of communication!

I would recommend any school or group undertaking hill walking to bite the bullet and opt for a dedicated handheld GPS receiver. These offer the widest choice of GPS features, are easy to use and allow you to easily transfer waypoints, routes and tracks to and from a PC using digital mapping software like Anquet, Memory-Map and Quo2.

Garmin, an established GPS market leader offers two new ranges of colour touch-screen, handheld, GPS receivers – the Oregon and Dakota, both of which are compatible with Garmin's OS Discoverer range of full OS maps. The maps are offered on plug-and-play SD cards at both Landranger and Explorer scales but are not compatible with the company’s older eTrex or GPS 60 GPS receivers.

Garmin DakotaGarmin DakotaThe Garmin Oregon and the smaller Dakota come with either a worldwide base-map or European Topo and an SD card slot. The software for the Oregon and Dakota enables you to add standard OS mapping to Garmin’s existing topographical mapping. When you zoom in you see your position on a proper OS map; as you zoom out it will change to the less detailed topographical mapping. Very nice!

The touch-screen has large menu items so you can operate it even when wearing gloves. As Garmin have a long standing involvement in the SatNav business it includes turn-by-turn routing with the mapping bundle on their handheld GPS ranges (Topo GB and OS Discoverer maps) so this extends the functionality of their units to become voiceless, vehicle SatNavs.  Although Oregon the (200,300, 400) model has a larger screen area, it does not possess the Dakota’s much improved screen illumination which makes the latter unit far easier to use in sunshine.

Incidentally, I would recommend the top-of-the-range Oregan 550 (with its bright screen and camera) for anyone interested in paperless geocaching as the camera enables you to geo-tag your cache locations allowing you to share your geocaching stories and photos online.

Enter the home-grown Satmap Active 10 and Active 10 Plus. The SatMap GPS offers a fully waterproofed unit using a standard Microsoft Pocket PC operating system which has been designed especially for the outdoors.  It offers full OS mapping at both the 1:50,000 Landranger and 1:25,000 Explorer scales, with the maps supplied on SD cards which you simply slip into the GPS.

Although this means you can't have them on your PC for route planning, Satmap Systems UK (sponsors of the Playful Learning feature at BETT 2010) provides the Active 10 Plus with access to an online route planning and sharing feature which (at last!) offers a first step towards solving the issue of having to buy your maps twice. I would strongly recommend opting for the more costly Active 10 Plus as this comes with all the chargers you will ever require and includes the much better rechargeable battery pack.

It costs around £309 (shop around) and you will need to budget in the cost of digital mapping, taking the total price to more than £400 if you choose to get a reasonable area of OS 1:50,000 Landranger mapping. It is chunky, reliable, easy to use and versatile - you can use it for paperless geo-caching and also as an in-car navigation aid too (NB not with automatic, turn-by-turn routing).

If the UK GPS user craves anything, it would be to have a GPS receiver that would allow us to have a full OS map on-screen and then be able to see any routes or trails overlaid on that map. The Satmap Active 10 goes a good way to achieving this Holy Grail.


BETT 2010 logo

BETT 2010
January 13-16, Olympia, London
You can find stand and contact details below for all the companies featured here, but it's also worth running a 'geography' search on the show website:


Data Harvest - Stand Q40

Ordnance Survey - Stand E56

Also check out Geography@BETT 1 and Geography BETT 2 on this website


Chris DrageChris Drage is a CISCO Regional Academy Manager and an adviser and trainer with Central Brent Education Improvement Partnership. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.