Geotagging – the technique of adding GPS location data to your digital photos – has been around for quite a few years now, but due to various factors hasn’t hit the mainstream.
For one thing, until very recently, GPS units have been relatively expensive and not readily available. However, within the past few years GPS’s have simply exploded on the marketplace, and at quite attractive price points. You can now get decent GPS receivers for well under $100. One such unit, specifically designed for geotagging, is the Amod AGL3080, which I will be reviewing today.
Also, the software necessary to take that GPS data, correlate it to your photos, and (most importantly) share and organize your photos based on their location, has not been commonly available. This has all changed with the recent releases of Google Picasa (available for both Windows and Mac) and iPhoto ‘09, part of iLife ‘09 (available for Mac only). Both programs now support integrated geotagging support, but iPhoto’s implementation is (IMHO) by far the slickest, with a new “Places” view that easily lets you view all of your photos by location, either showing them on a map of the world, or letting you drill down (in iTunes Browser view style) by continent, country, city, and locale.
I should note at this point that we are in fact starting to see the logical next step to this technology: cameras with built-in GPS functionality. Currently, there are two cameras on the market with built-in GPS: the Nikon Coolpix P6000 (about $380) and the GE E1050TW (about $160). Also, if you have a high-end Nikon or Fuji DSLR, you can add a GPS unit that sits on the camera’s “hot shoe” and plugs into its data port; two examples include the Wolverine GEO-35 and the Geometr Gps Receiver (both about $150 each). Also, several camera phones, including the iPhone, various Blackberrys, and some of the Motorola handsets can geotag photos taken with them, although you will usually have to enable this feature explicitly (look in the options screen of your unit’s camera application), although your mileage may vary with these devices. I have a Blackberry Curve and have never been able to get the geotag feature to work; even if I am standing out in the middle of nowhere, with a clear view of the sky, I haven’t been able to get any of my photos geotagged. However, my previous phone, a Motorola RAZR model VE20, perfectly geotagged my photos, including many that were taken indoors, where GPS reception is usually spotty to nonexistent.
Anyway, back to the Amod GPS unit. It’s very small and light – about the size and weight of a typical pocket pager — and can be stuffed into almost any camera bag with ease. It also comes with a carabiner-like strap that lets you hang it from, say, your camera bag or camera’s strap; however, I found that if I used this method, the GPS unit would swing around wildly while I was walking or running, and would get in the way. I opted instead to stuff the GPS unit in one of the outer pockets of my LowePro Slingshot camera bag.
The unit is powered by 3 AAA batteries, and has an advertised operating time of 15 hours max per set of batteries. This is a great battery life for this class of unit, and I’ve found that it’s generally pretty accurate; as long as you use fresh, high-quality, name-brand alkaline batteries, you will get the advertised battery life.
This long battery life is important, because the way this unit works is that you switch it on when you go out to shoot photos, and you leave it on until you are done shooting photos for the day. I’ve found that it’s best to leave the unit on even if you stop taking photos in the middle of the day, say to have lunch or do some shopping or whatnot. Even so, 15 hours of battery life is more than enough time for even the longest photowalks, even if you take multiple breaks during your picture-taking excursion.
Be sure to check your camera’s clock before heading out on your picture-taking expedition! Geotagging works by matching up the timestamp present in the GPS signal with the timestamp that your camera writes every time you take a picture; in order for your geotagging software to properly match up a photo with the location it was taken at, your camera’s clock must be accurate.
The unit is extremely simple to operate, with only two buttons and three status lights. The power button, located on the left side of the unit, turns it on or off. You have to hold it down for 2-3 seconds in order to power on or off, which makes it impossible to accidentally turn the unit on or off if it’s, say, rattling around inside your backpack or purse.
Once the unit powers on, the three status lights will briefly illuminate (to let you know that they are working properly), and will all go out except for the green GPS Status light. This light stays solid green until the unit acquires a GPS satellite fix; once it acquires a position fix, the GPS light blinks green to let you know that the unit is actively tracking and storing your location. If for some reason you lose sight of the GPS satellites (for example, you walk inside a building or drive through a tunnel or subterranean parking garage), the GPS light will turn on solid green to let you know of this condition.
The other two lights consist of a memory access light, which flashes while the unit is accessing its built-in memory (this will happen periodically as it writes out your GPS track log), and a battery light, which normally stays off, and turns on only when your battery is low.
I mentioned earlier that there are two buttons on this unit. One is for power; the other is a “mark location” button. By its name, you might think that you would have to press this button when you want to mark a particular location (say, when you are taking a photo). But the unit is always tracking your location while it’s turned on, so I’m not entirely sure why you would need a button to specifically mark a location.
When you first turn the unit on, it will require about 2-3 minutes to acquire a satellite fix. This occurs every time you switch the unit off, then switch it back on; which is why I recommended earlier that you leave the unit on all day. It is best to be outdoors while acquiring this initial fix; you don’t need to be standing still, however. For example I was able to acquire an initial fix while riding in a moving car at freeway speeds.
GPS signals are only guaranteed to be reliably received while outdoors under clear, unobstructed skies. Everything I’ve read says that you are not guaranteed to receive signals in dense cityscapes or in foliage (trees, forests, etc.), and you definitely won’t receive signals while indoors. However, in my testing, I was surprised in that I was able to get some signals while indoors. My condo is on the first floor of a 2-story complex, and the unit directly above us is indentical in layout to ours; I found that the unit can maintain a GPS fix (but NOT acquire the initial fix) while in my living room, but can neither acquire nor maintain a fix in my office, which is just one room away from the living room. Also, surprisingly, I was able to maintain a GPS fix while in the basement level of a local department store, as well as a parking structure. So your mileage may vary. This surprising behavior is perhaps due to the fact that this unit uses the reportedly highly-sensitive SiRFstar III GPS receiver chip.
The unit has 128 MB of built-in memory which is used to save the GPS log files. This may seem like not a lot of memory, but GPS log files are actually pretty small in size. In a recent test, I went out on a 6-hour trip driving around the county. I had the GPS on all throughout this trip, and the file it generated was only 6 MB in size.
Once you get back home and are ready to geotag your photos, simply plug the Amod GPS unit into your computer. It has a standard “mini B” type USB plug on it, hidden behind a little plastic access panel. This access panel does feel a bit flimsy but probably won’t come off under normal use. The GPS unit’s internal 128 MB of memory then mounts as a drive letter or drive icon, just like any other USB thumb drive. This means that the device can be used under any operating system — Windows, Mac, Linux, anything — with no special drivers required. Once mounted, the GPS track log files appear as standard text files, which can be copied, read, and manipulated easily.
The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, merging the GPS track data with the photos that you took — and it is here that this device displays its sole weakness. Like most other consumer devices, the software that comes with the Amod GPS unit is… serviceable. Just that. It comes with JetPhoto for both Windows and Macintosh, which is an “okay” photo editor and organizing program. It supports the GPS log files created by the Amod GPS, so it can properly geotag your photos. JetPhoto includes basic facilities for storing, organizing and sharing your photos by print or web. This is good enough for casual users; however, enthusiasts and professionals will most likely wish to use some other photo organizing system, such as iPhoto, Aperture, Picasa, or Adobe Lightroom. In particular, JetPhoto only supports JPEG files, leaving you RAW shooters out in the cold. I do commend Amod for including Mac software with their package; however, considering that iPhoto, an excellent photo software, already comes with Macs, this seems a bit redundant. This is especially so with the new iPhoto ‘09, which (as mentioned earlier) includes excellent support for geotagging.
However, iPhoto ‘09 does not support reading GPS data from external units such as the Amod; for that, I recommend the excellent $30 HoudahGeo package. Below you will find a screencast where I demonstrate how I use iPhoto ‘09, HoudahGeo, and the Amod GPS, and how they all work together. You should also check out the screencasts found on the HoudahGeo website. These screencasts, produced by Don McAlister of ScreenCasts Online, show more of HoudahGeo’s features, including how to use it to create cool “flying tours” of your photos using Google Earth.
Download the higher-quality H.264 version
One oddity with the unit is that the manual (which comes as a PDF on the included CD-ROM) describes a procedure to erase the contents of the GPS’s built-in memory; I was never able to get this procedure to work. Instead, I just moved the GPS track files to the Trash and emptied the trash once I was done with them. (About that CD, it is one of those small 9-centimeter disks; these disks do NOT read at all in any slot-load CD drive, and any attempt to use these disks in slot-load drives will damage the drive! However they do work with tray-load drives. Most PC desktops and laptops still use tray-load drives; however, of the currently-available Macs, only the Mac Pro (their high-end desktop) still uses tray-load drives; the consumer-level iMac and Mac mini, as well as ALL of the Apple laptops, both consumer and professional, use slot-load drives.)
I am extremely impressed with the Amod GPS. It offers enough features and performance for even the most demanding professional (when paired with the appropriate image cataloging and geotagging software), yet at a price that even a hobbyist can easily afford. It’s the perfect device to get if you’d like to get started in the exciting world of geotagging.
Bottom line: A reasonably priced, no-frills geotagger suitable for both novice and pro photographers alike.
Pros: Small and lightweight; inexpensive; works well in all visibility conditions, including sometimes indoors; writes standard log file format; long battery life.
Cons: Weak bundled software for Mac users; documented “erase memory” procedure does not appear to work (though easily worked around).
Purchase the Amod AGL3080 from Amazon.com now!