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Microsoft's new u-Blox 5 USB GPS Stick and others...
Ken in Regina
This is a note to share my first impressions of the new Microsoft u-Blox 5 USB GPS Stick in contrast to some other GPS receivers I have.

First, the test conditions. I live in a small city of 200,000 on the Canadian Prairies. We don't have deep canyons of tall concrete and steel buildings, narrow mountain canyons or dense forests of tall trees. That's a complicated way of saying that we have pretty much perfect GPS reception conditions no matter where we drive. So reception in bad conditions isn't an issue for us. And, as a result, it's rather difficult to test. Not that I'm complaining.

So I decided to try to simulate difficult conditions by driving my laptop in my living room. There are spots where I can get decent reception and some where the reception is pretty awful.

For some additional background on the testing, although these receivers both come with Microsoft Streets&Trips, S&T is not one of my favorite programs. For this sort of testing it doesn't provide any help at all. So most of my reception testing was with Garmin's Mobile PC, Garmin's nroute and iNav's iGuidance. All of these programs provide lots of useful information about how many satellites are being received, the signal strength and the estimated accuracy of the location lock.

The u-Blox 5, which comes with Streets&Trips 2009 sold in Canada, is similar in many ways to the Pharos 500 that still comes with Streets&Trips 2009 sold in the US. It plugs into the USB port and it comes with a USB extension cable so you have a little bit of flexibility where you place it.

I found that the connector on my Pharos 500 is a little flakey so it doesn't matter whether it's plugged directly into a USB port or into its extendor cable, I have to wiggle it to get a good connection and it doesn't take much to make it lose contact. That's probably only a problem with my particular unit. By contrast, the u-Blox 5 has a solid snug fit every time, in either a USB port or its extender cable.

Both units are about equal in performance. There is too little difference in the signal strength and reported accuracy in either of them to pick any "winner" in performance.

Both have the same limitation. They need to be plugged into a USB port, either directly or with their extension cables. Having them plugged into the USB port absolutely limits their location to the side or back of you laptop PC. This is almost always a bad place for reception. Over the next few days I'll be doing some driving with them to see if the limited reception is enough to impact typical in-vehicle navigation use.

Using the extension cables give you a little flexibility to place the receiver in a more desirable location. Here there is a difference between the two. The cable on the Pharos 500 is longer, thinner and more flexible. The cable on the u-Blox 5 is a bit more of a problem to use because of its shortness and stiffness.

One other difference between the two receivers is their lighting. The Pharos 500 lights up with a soft blue light when it is powered up from the USB port. There is no other indication of how, or whether, it is functioning. The u-Blox 5 has the word "Microsoft" on the top and it is backlit. It is on solid when it is powered from the USB port and it starts to flash as soon as it has a satellite lock. I found this very useful and took some of the guesswork out of troubleshooting. But the light will be quite distracting at night. If I use it in the vehicle at night I will use some black electrical tape to cover all but the last letter or two, so I can still see how it's functioning but not be distracted by its brightness.

It has been suggested that its function is backwards; that it should blink when it's powered but doesn't have a lock and then be on steady when it has a location lock. I can't say one way or the other, but what I can say is that it's present method of operating is consistent with the standard way that Bluetooth GPS receivers work. Their GPS indicators are on steady until they get a location lock and then they start to blink.

Both units have slippery bottoms so they don't like to stay put when you use the cables to put them somewhere like your dash. This is particularly a problem with the stiff cable on the u-Blox 5. The cable on the Pharos 500 has a little suction cup on it so you can stick it to any smooth surface, like a window, if it will reach. The only thing you can count on with the u-Blox 5 on its cable is that it's almost never going to reach far enough and it's not going to stay put.

Now to contrast these two with my three other GPS receivers. I also have two Bluetooth receivers, an i.Trek M7 and a Garmin GPS10x, and a Garmin eTrex Legend HCx handheld navigation device that can also be used as a receiver on the laptop by connecting it to a USB port.

Both of the Bluetooth receivers have a little better reception than the two USB receivers, even when placed in identical locations. The i.Trek M7 is slightly better in performance than the GPS10x. It generally gets a fix a little quicker and gets a slightly stronger signal. However, there isn't enough practical difference between any of the four receivers to be the final deciding factor in a purchase decision. All are using up-to-date GPS receiver technology. That means they are quick to get a lock and will maintain it in moderately adverse conditions.

The reported accuracy is typically 4m to 10m, depending on the reception conditions; about what you would expect from a good quality consumer GPS receiver.

Both Bluetooth receivers have the distinct advantage that they do not need to be directly connected to your laptop. Because they use Bluetooth wireless radio to communicate, you can place them anywhere within about 10m - ~30ft - of the laptop. In the vehicle, that means you can easily place them up on the dash where they can get a good view of the sky and place your laptop anywhere that's convenient.

One limitation is that if your laptop doesn't have a Bluetooth radio built in, you have to buy a Bluetooth USB dongle for the laptop.

The GPS10x comes with a really handy belt clip. I used it on the golf course this week, with the Intelligolf program on my Palm TX, and I was surprised at how well it worked when clipped to my belt. It did make a difference in reception when my body was in the way of the best satellite view, but it was never enough to stop it from being useful for giving me yardages for my golf shots.

Both the i.Trek M7 and the GPS10x have non-slip material on the bottom so they are more inclined to stay put. Both have rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that are user-replacable. That means you can carry a fully charged spare if you choose. For charging, both can be connected to a standard USB cable, like the one you use for your digital camera. So you can connect them to your laptop for charging. Both come with a 12VDC adapter for charging them in a vehicle.

Finally, there is my eTrex Legend HCx handheld personal navigation device. It can be connected with a standard USB cable and will output the same standard NMEA data stream to the laptop as the others. This little sweetheart is great as a standalone unit and has all the normal sorts of navigation functions, if you load detailed road maps into it. It fits nicely in the hand and in the pocket. But if all you want is a receiver for your laptop, it's much bigger, and far more expensive, than the other receivers mentioned.

The upside is that, if you need or want a handheld personal navigation device that you can also use occasionally as a GPS receiver for your laptop, this is a great solution. It's performance as a receiver is better than any of the other four. It's quicker to get a lock and will hold one under much more difficult conditions.

To simulate really difficult reception conditions I tried all of the receivers in my basement office. It sits right underneath the cold air return (sheet metal). I think this is a fair simulation for dense forests or deep concrete canyons. Of the five receivers, this is the only one that will consistently get a good enough signal to allow a satellite lock. The other four will occasionally get a lock, but when they do, it takes them a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes. The eTrex typically takes less than two minutes to get a lock that's good enough for vehicle navigation.

As I mentioned, I have not tried side-by-side comparisons while driving. I'll do that in the next few days. I have used all of these, individually, for vehicle navigation so I know they will function nicely, especially where I live. What I'm really interested in is whether the two USB receivers will function well enough when plugged directly into the USB port of the laptop, or when placed within the limits of their extension cables, to provide consistently usable navigation in whatever conditions I can find around here.

One final note for the technical geeks. The only receiver I could get to use WAAS was the Garmin GPS10x Bluetooth receiver, and that was only when using it with Garmin's Mobile PC. Mobile PC recognized the GPS10x and all of its features and gave the option to Enable WAAS/EGNOS. Once the GPS10x found a satellite with the appropriate almanac data and downloaded it, it was able to provide a full 3D Differential lock for Mobile PC.

None of the other navigation programs I tested with seemed to know anything about WAAS. I haven't been able to establish whether any of the others can do WAAS if you have software that would make use of it. For the non-technical folks in the crowd, that's not an issue for vehicle navigation. The difference in accuracy isn't enough to make any useful difference.

...ken...
tcassidy
Great review, Ken. From quick tests here, I am inclined to think the Pharos 500 is slightly better than the u-blox. Did you try putting the u-blox upside down so the light didn't show?

Using GMPC, the iTrek M7 gets a WAAS signal consistantly here, usually 48 or 51. The difference is the 10x actually shows little Ds on all the satellites when it has WAAS lock. But that's just extra communication because the software and hardware are both Garmin. The 10x also shows an accuracy reading which non Garmin units don't.

Terry
Attached Images
gmpc-10x.jpg   gmpc-m7.jpg  
Marvin Hlavac
Great write up, Ken. One interesting note, I haven't yet seen the actual model number of the new USB GPS Stick anywhere on Microsoft's site, or on Navation's site, or on Streets & Trips box. u-Blox 5 is the name of just the GPS chipset used inside the product, and both websites seem to only refer to the unit as "GPS Locator". However, there is a sticker on the back of the unit, which does have a part number, or name, on it. It is: Navation GPS 168.
Ken in Regina
Quote:
Originally Posted by tcassidy
Great review, Ken. From quick tests here, I am inclined to think the Pharos 500 is slightly better than the u-blox.
Yes, I saw a slight difference favoring the Pharos 500 and I like the cable better. I just hope my experience with the flakey USB connector is limited to my unit. It's a real headache and it doesn't matter whether it's plugged into the cable or directly into the USB port.

Quote:
Did you try putting the u-blox upside down so the light didn't show?
No, I didn't try the u-Blox upside down. I wanted to see the light so I could tell when it had a lock or not. I found that useful to know. I'll try it upside down and see if it makes any difference in performance. Or you could do that.

Quote:
Using GMPC, the iTrek M7 gets a WAAS signal consistantly here, usually 48 or 51. The difference is the 10x actually shows little Ds on all the satellites when it has WAAS lock. But that's just extra communication because the software and hardware are both Garmin. The 10x also shows an accuracy reading which non Garmin units don't.
Ooops, I missed that on the i.trek M7. I'll have to check it again. I'm pretty much a hardcore Garmin guy so I'm so used to the "D"s on the signal strength bars and the "3D Differential" report that it never occured to me to look for one of the WAAS birds on the satellite numbers on any of the other receivers. I guess I'll have to run them all through another test to see which ones report a lock on one of the WAAS satellites.

...ken...
tcassidy
I did a quick test with the u-blox upside down last night and would suggest it is better right way up.

The extension cords are interchangable between the units. For testing in this location, I have the u-blox connected to the Pharos cord. The u-blox one will go in the truck where I need a short cord.

I have tried the u-blox, Pharos, UMPC built-in and Holux GPSlim 236. None of them show by satellite number or '3D Diff' indicator that they are WAAS aware. I know the chipsets can do it so assume the feature isn't activated. It is basically a non-issue for navigation. That it can be switched on /off by GMPC with the 10x makes me think it can cause some other issues but I haven't seen any.

Terry
Marvin Hlavac
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ken in Regina
...I found that the connector on my Pharos 500 is a little flakey so it doesn't matter whether it's plugged directly into a USB port or into its extendor cable, I have to wiggle it to get a good connection and it doesn't take much to make it lose contact. That's probably only a problem with my particular unit. By contrast, the u-Blox 5 has a solid snug fit every time, in either a USB port or its extender cable...

I've heard others saying the same about Pharos GPS-500. I have experienced the problem, too. This is not going to be an issue with the new u-Blox 5 USB GPS Stick (Navation GPS 168).
jhinman
Quote:
Originally Posted by tcassidy
I did a quick test with the u-blox upside down last night and would suggest it is better right way up.
According to the Navationtech website it uses a patch antenna. The usb stick would be built so the antenna was pointing up when the USB stick is right side up. For this type of antenna orentation it would be most senstive to signals in the direction it is pointing.
tcassidy
I am experiencing an issue with the u-blox in Vista. Occasionally, when I open the lid on my HP tablet (bring it out of Sleep mode?), I get a message about an unrecognized USB device. If I check Device Manager, the u-blox is not listed. Unplugging and restoring the USB connection resolves this.

I'll try testing with the UMPC which also uses sleep mode but is running XP to see if it is the same.

Terry
glennw
I get the same thing in Vista whenever coming out of sleep mode with the Microsoft Pharos GPS-500.

Glenn
tcassidy
Glenn,
I don't recall seeing this before with the 500. However, I have switched the 2 units between computers, so I'll watch for that also.

Terry
Ken in Regina
I don't trust Vista in any of the sleep/hibernate modes on my laptop. I have a spare unused copy of XP sitting here that I would put on it in a minute if I could find all the necessary drivers, but I can't. So Vista stays. I simply expect to reinstall devices and do battery-out restarts about 20% of the time, if I forget and close the lid or let it go to sleep on its own.

I don't even use the Start menu items for shutdown or restart. I have a gadget installed in the Sidebar that I use. It never fails. The Start menu items are not so reliable.

...ken...
tcassidy
I just woke up both my computers. HP Vista with the Pharos was fine but the UMPC/XP with the u-blox gave me the error message. I still have to check the cords but this is not looking good.

Terry
Attached Images
u-blox-xp.jpg  
tcassidy
I swapped the cords just in case this was a connector problem. Unfortunately the u-blox still gives an error message and the Pharos is fine. Reminiscent of the 20x...oh no!

Terry
tcassidy
Further testing while using the cords supplied with each unit has not led to any further problems. I am no longer receiving messages about unknown USB devices. This must have been cord related but I will check it regularly.

Terry
tcassidy
After further testing, I think I have narrowed this problem down to the cord. I have recently installed the extension that came with the u-blox in my truck for later UMPC testing. At my desk, I have discovered using the unit with the Pharos extension and a cheap retractable extension give the USB error message. I have a good quality USB extension cable around somewhere; as soon as I find it, I will test again with that.

Terry
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