It seems like all the innovation in consumer GPS units lately has been in those used in passenger vehicles. These units have color screens, have the ability to map addresses, and many can even talk to you! But what about recreational GPS units like those offered by Garmin and others?

My Garmin eTrex Vista (which is still nearly top of the line) has very basic mapping functionality and is easily confused by loss of satelite signals. I’ve been using GPS units for recreational purposes for about 6 years now and I’ve been building a mental list of the features I would like to see on a next generation recreational GPS unit:

  • Rechargeable batteries: I know many of the units have these today (in fact my Garmin Forerunner has this) but it is really annoying how fast these suckers drain AA batteries. Ideally the unit would allow you to use AA batteries in a pinch since you won’t always be in a location where recharging is an option. Speaking of batteries, a second generation unit should also have a tight battery compartment to keep the GPS from losing power when jostled as the batteries shift
  • A built in digital camera: Ok, so now this is sounding less like a GPS and more like a consumer electronics device (but what’s wrong with that, really?). I would love to be able to snap a photo and have the location of the photo digitally attached for later reference and for building digital maps. I’m guessing this feature will first appear in a digital camera rather than in a GPS device but I would personally prefer a robust GPS with camera rather than a camera with a basic GPS built in.
  • Better error correction: For some reason my Garmin Vista leaves blank spaces in my track log when it loses satelite signal and this is annoying when I import the data. Clearly I didn’t magically jump from one location to another so why not at least attempt to connect my current position to the last known position with a straight line?
  • Better graphical contrast: I don’t really need a color screen on my GPS when I’m out backpacking or bombing down a gnarley mountain bike trail but many times my track map looks like a jumbled, confused mess of thin black lines. This is especially bad when I’ve imported a saved GPS track that I want to follow. In this case where I’ve been blends in exactly with where I’m going and there’s no way to distinguish the two, especially if I veer off course. Perhaps saved tracks could use a hashed line while the current track could be solid?
  • Faster computer connection: this is another problem that I hope has been solved with the latest GPS units but I’m still skeptical about transfer speeds. Most units still use a serial connection and it is painfully slow for transferring data to a computer (10K track points takes more than 10 minutes to download). Track and waypoint data is just text and it should be blazing fast to download/upload but for some reason it isn’t. How about a USB2 connection to make transfers quick and painless?
  • Improved software: I’m still waiting for someone to create an iTunes-like software interface for GPS units that lets you easily transfer track and waypoint data from your computer to your GPS and vice versa. The program should allow you to view maps and elevation profiles plus allow you to easily edit the data as well. The program should also allow you to easily build clickable maps with markers for your photo locations and offer multiple background layers for your data (maps, satellite, topo, etc.).

That’s my partial list and I’m interested to hear what others think is missing from today’s recreational GPS units. The data collected by GPS units really is quite simple (time plus x, y, and z coordinates) but there really is no limit to the number of ways once can display and use GPS data. I know better devices are coming and I can’t wait to see what they can do!

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