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I upgraded my cell phone and now have a Droid X2 without cell service that I'm not using for anything. Can I utilize my old Droid X2 phone (or any android phone without a cell phone plan) as a basic cycle computer, GPS Router Tracker, or Navigation tool? How will the capabilities stack up against a dedicated cycling GPS such as a Garmin 800?

I would be using this on the road completely data free. However, I think the GPS functionality should still be functional, even without data service. I should be able to access an internet connection at home to upload or download data to the phone as well as install apps.

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I don't want to flag this since it's a good question and on topic, but you might get better answers at Android SE or perhaps GIS SE. Cross posting on SE sites is frowned upon though, so it's really up to you whether or not you want to migrate it. android.stackexchange.com gis.stackexchange.com meta.stackexchange.com/questions/64068/… –  jimirings Apr 11 '13 at 16:16
    
Certainly you can do it. But note that the map functions on phones generally rely on being able to dynamically download new maps, something you will not be able to do. I have no idea what the relative accuracy is. –  Daniel R Hicks Apr 11 '13 at 16:16
    
The big issue will be battery life. A Garmin will give you a dozen or more hours riding, any smartphone I've ever owned would probably only last a couple of hours if the GPS/screen were in constant use. –  PeteH Apr 11 '13 at 19:31
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Maybe this question also helps you: Are there advantages of dedicated bike computer instead of smartphone apps? –  Uooo Apr 12 '13 at 4:31
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I stand corrected. There are good answers here. :) –  jimirings Apr 12 '13 at 14:20
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6 Answers 6

I have a background in developing consumer GPS systems...... There is no doubt that a Garmin is a much better device for the job. On cell phones, GPS and associated functionality is the side dish - as in "would you like fries with your burger", on a Garmin, is the Raison d'être.

Hardware wise, its a no brainier.

First, as already mentioned in @armb answer, is battery life - Cell phones start small with the smallest battery they can get away with, ever seen a Cellphone with battery life specified - with GPS turned on - there is a reason for that.

Robustness - cell phone - robust not... There are few slightly rugged ones (I have a Motorola Defy) - but they don't match a Garmin. My defy is supposed to be water proof (IP66, 1/2 hour 1 meter under water). I don't worry about rain, but sure as anything ain't going to put it under water - it has one tiny O ring to seal it, I bet an IP66 Garmin has 2 decent sized ones.

Another issue to think about is that phones have tiny GPS antennas (Remember the fries). Cell phones use assisted start - where the cell network provide key information on start up, allowing them to find the satellites easier. Its easy for a GPS to track where you are once it knows where (and when) you are. If it doesn't know where you are, it doesn't know where to "look" for the satellites, and needs to search for them. Think of looking for a buoy on the water. If you get told, "Find the buoy" it can take forever to find it. With training and binoculars, it's easier, but if I say "The buoy is over there, keep watching it" - anyone can see it (that assisted start). With no data connection, no assisted start - think minutes to get a fix every time you turn it on, even in perfect conditions, and never in marginal conditions vs Garmin taking a few seconds and nearly always. Research "GPS TTFF" (Time to First Fix). A Garmin with its better GPS front end, will hold the fix much more reliably, if you ride "urban canyons", forests and such like its important.

Software - I mostly use my Defy when on the bike these days - there is a range of Android software probably as good as Garmin has, but you need to find the right one from the hundreds of most rubbish available, install it, jump though hoops with your right pinky finger in you left ear...... Garmin will work out the box.

Sim Card - most cells need a sim card to get past the startup screen.......

Summary - a Cell phone will probably work - with a bit of shagging around, you might even find it acceptable. Garmin will work out the box....

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While these are all important things to consider, I have been using an old Droid for this exact purpose for over a year without issue, so it is definitely a fine use for an old smart phone, so long as you recognize the limitations. In fact, I've been working on an application and hardware circuit to control my custom lighting system as well as provide GPS, a music source, and serve as a speedometer and odometer. Show me a Garmin that can do all of that. –  Kurt E. Clothier Apr 13 '13 at 6:57
    
There are ways around the battery life issue for e.g. multi-day touring when even a dedicated GPS might not last, if necessary: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/13144/… bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/9155/… But a GPS with better battery life might be cheaper than getting a setup like that for a phone. On the other hand, many people only do rides that a phone will last for. –  armb Apr 14 '13 at 16:47
    
Another option for power for phones is an external battery pack (or battery pack cases) that can extend the battery life by a significant amount. If I was planning to use this full time while touring, I'd consider a USB charger attached to a hub dynamo. –  Benzo Apr 15 '13 at 1:27
    
External battery packs make it harder to fit it neatly in a waterproof case though, or force you to take it out while you connect it to recharge the internal battery. That might not matter though, depending on where/when you ride. (On the other hand if you get something like a Satmap 10, the ability to run on standard AA cells as an option can be useful.) –  armb Apr 15 '13 at 9:02
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Mobile is the way to go. Forget cycling computer.

  • Cycling computer can't connect to computer wirelessly, your mobile can. I've stopped logging my rides on my mac, my mobile do this for me automatically and I can access the logs from anywhere.
  • You get maps for free on your mobile from the internet and you don't have to update your map.
  • You don't need cellular connection if you have wifi at home to upload ride log.
  • Mobiles use wifi to for positioning. When starting a ride, my mobile can lock its position faster because it listens to wifi stations in the neighborhood. My gps can't do that.
  • Main issue with mobile is mounting. I find them expensive, although in reality i still save money compared to upgrading my gps.
  • You can get ANT attachment for some mobiles.
  • If weather is an issue, just cling wrap your mobile.
  • There are many apps on mobile, they only get better.
  • Battery life could be an issue because you get bigger display. I think it's easier to just plug a mobile to charge than connecting gps to computer to download data.
  • You will be more social with mobile, easier to share ride with friends.
  • The only thing a cycling computer really wins is when it has barometric altimeter, nice if you like climbing.
  • Generally, cycling computer is easier to read under sunlight.
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There are plenty of phones with pressure sensors now so with the right app like IpBike to take advantage of them the dedicated cyceling computer no longer even has that advantage. –  Ifor Apr 13 '13 at 8:25
    
+1 Very nice considerations. I cannot help but say, though, that along with all these extremely nice features comes the "price" of dependency. In some circumstances, when magic stops happening, and there is not a lo-tech backup alternative (offline, paper-based, etc.) this can be an issue. It applies mostly to navigation/localization, but may apply to monitoring and logging too. Well, just a thought. –  heltonbiker Apr 16 '13 at 13:33
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I would have to go against this a lot. In many cases, cycling computers and other dedicated GPS units can connect to your computer. Also, because the primary function of a GPS is a GPS, they tend to get, and hold, a signal much better than a phone would. My current cell phone takes a while to get a GPS signal, if it can get one at all. Cycle computers also feature ANT attachments for tracking heart rate, and cadence. They are often waterproof, which means you don't have to wrap them in cling warp. Also, the screen on a GPS is much easier to read in the sunlight. No so for cell phones. –  Kibbee Apr 16 '13 at 16:01
    
See for example the maps with traces on bicycles.stackexchange.com/a/6143/1158. Now that's one particular phone compared with one particular dedicated GPS unit on one particular route, but I suspect that sort of difference is common. However, the question isn't "which is better", it's "I already have a phone, is it going to be good enough, or should I pay for a dedicated GPS as well". –  armb Apr 17 '13 at 12:34
    
The other big difference is that with a dedicated GPS you basically have to use the firmware and maps the manufacturer provides, your choice is take it or leave it. With a phone you have a choice of hundreds of apps for mapping, tracking your performance, sharing your rides socially, whatever. Of course if you don't want to spend time digging through hundreds of apps doing roughly what you want, reading reviews, trying out trial versions etc., to find the one that really works well for you, that's not much of a plus.... –  armb Apr 17 '13 at 12:41
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The Garmin is waterproof, and has a resistive touchscreen that works with gloves. It has an ANT+ receiver for use with cadence sensors etc., and most phones don't. Battery life will be better than most phones. I suspect the Garmin will be easier to load maps onto than a phone with no plan, but many mapping apps do allow you to load data for later use without a connection.

You might need a SIM with some sort of basic pay-as-you-go plan just to get your phone to work at all, even if you don't have a data plan and use wi-fi to loads new maps and apps. Sometimes only 999/911/your local equivalent calls work with no SIM at all. That might be provider/network specific as well as phone specific.

Also see this question: Are there advantages of dedicated bike computer instead of smartphone apps?

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Just a small point, in my experience the Garmin doesn't work well with gloves. I'm speaking for the 800. –  PeteH Apr 11 '13 at 19:34
    
Thanks. I don't have direct experience of the Garmin screen. The resistive screen PDA with GPS I had before my smartphone worked even inside a waterproof case or with gloves, but not very well. Better than a capacitive screen though. –  armb Apr 14 '13 at 16:06
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There is one use case I think will suit you greatly if you get your phone to work AND get some app that saves GPX files (I think most GPS-oriented apps do that):

  • When you go out for a ride, you turn the phone on, get a GPS position, throw it in your back pocket and forget it.
  • When you get back home, you transfer the GPX file to some service (Strava and RideWithGps are my favorite sites) or application, and analyze it (I find it very very entertaining).

Now if you want on-the-fly use of orientation, routing, navigation, I think it would only be possible if your App has map caching (from openstreetmaps, for example), since the app should just display the cached image centered on your current position. I believe some nerdy fellow riders around must have done something like this, but it's just a hypothesis.

Eric's additional though on this post:

Or turn this around another way: go without the GPS just have a map in the phone. That's enough for me to find my way. Surly you can find a map app that can cache today's route?

I'm looking at putting maps into my Kobo E-reader. The advantage of that is that it's battery life is measured in weeks instead of hours. So far, I have to convert each map to PDF format.

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I've helped many people use an old iPhone to use the Strava app to record a ride. The key (with Strava app) is wifi connection at the beginning and end of the ride. The GPS does work without cellular data, but many apps require a connection either for maps or uploading to a website. Meaning, you won't get updated maps while riding, so you can use it for recording a ride, but not as a navigation tool.

One friend even got his iPod (without GPS) to work using wifi Location Services, which seemed to only work for him while in a city (more densely populated with many wifi's along his commute).

I have the Edge 500 and it records my rides, never used the map, but it is not really a map, but a line showing where you went, the next models up Edge 800 and 810 do have street maps that you can purchase from Garmin, but all cost more than your old cell phone.

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Did you need the wifi to even start recording with strava, or could you just record the ride and then upload it when you got home, hours after the ride? –  Benzo Apr 11 '13 at 17:05
    
It has been a couple co-workers and my understanding was that they needed a wifi connection (not just riding past a wifi that broadcasts location services) at home and then again once at work. The one guy I talked mostly with about this had problems if he tried to start the Strava app midway without an internet connection. My only experience is with Strava and these co-workers and iPhones. I personally have used the Strava app but never without cellular data. –  Glenn Gervais Apr 11 '13 at 18:58
    
I started off with a 500 and the breadcrumb map was fine where I had a rough idea where I was going, but not good for new routes. I upgraded to an 800 prior to a holiday for this reason only. Note though that I carry most of Europe on my 800, OSM mapping which is totally free. –  PeteH Apr 12 '13 at 12:52
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You have nothing to loose by trying out your old redundent phone as a bike computer. The only slightly tricky bit is sorting out a mounting solution. You may find it acceptable for your needs you may not.

With the right phone and the right app I belive you can have a cyceling computer solution equiverlent to the top of the line bike computers at a significant discount in terms of cost.

Phone wise an Xperia Active is still the best bet with built in ANT support plus pressure sensor all in a rugged waterproof case. Alternatives also with pressure sensor include the popular S3. The new Sony Z looks interesting as well also having the pressure sensor and being waterproof but you loose the built in ANT. You can get ANT support using a USB dongle on a modern phone and Google may eventulay sort out BTLE support opening up another option for sensors.

App wise for Android there are two styles of apps. Those from the big website players e.g. Strava, MapMyFittness, Endomondo, etc. These in my opinion have being a cyceling app as a second priority although they are getting better. There are then more dedicated cyceling apps lots of simple gps only apps with just simple online only map support which want be any use with no sim. There are a number of apps with off-line mapping support though which is what you want to look at with no sim. If you want pressure sensor support or full ANT sensor support then the picking are getting thin but there are a number of more sophisticated apps with these features.

This is an area where things are changing quickly app and phone capability wise. Modern phone gps solutions are a lot better than they used to be. GOLLANSS support improving bad reception sensrio accuracy on modern phones. The battery consumption compared with 2 or 3 years ago has also come on leaps and bounds. The apps are constantly evolving feature wise with far easier update capabilities than a standard bike computer and the possibility of features that just are not possible with a stand alone computer like direct upload to your favorite website.

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