Sunday, 2 October 2011

"Outdoorising" your Android smartphone

2 years ago I reviewed the Airo A25 at the time the idea of a unit that could view ordnance survey maps, send and receive emails, view word documents, and make calls seemed like a dream come true for any outdoor instructor. Technology has come a long way in 2 years, and the technology that was once available in a few elite pieces of hardware like the Airo, has now spread to smart  phones owned by many people world wide. Thing is, many outdoor enthusiasts are simply not aware of the potential the smart phone has to assist with their activities.

I recently upgraded my phone, loving technology as I do I was desperate to escape the Landrover S1 and its complete lack of features. When it came time to upgrade I chose the most up to date, feature packed, gadget full phone I could find; The HTC sensation. The sensation appealed to me for a number of reasons; 1080p video camera, high speed internet, solid aluminium construction, to name but a few. Having had the phone for a week I have been slowly getting to grips with how it works and what it can do. Through downloading a few apps, transferring data, and buying a few accessories I have turned the humble smart phone into a toughened outdoor unit, and this is how...

Toughening up the phone

One problem with Smart phones is that they are so expensive you just don't want to break them. The smooth glass screens, and delicate feeling body means you worry even putting the thing in your pocket, never mind jamming it in a rucksack for a day on the hill. After a bit of research online I settled for a "CaseMate Tough" case. This case was the most reasonably priced, and most easily available on the market, and comes with specialist versions for most phones. What I would say is that you should do some shopping round for a case that suits you. Most tough cases (Trident, Otterbox, CaseMate etc), come with 3 layers of protection. The first layer is a silicone skin that fits close to the phone, this takes the shock out of an impact should you drop it, the second layer is an ABS plastic layer that protects against damage from the impact. The 3rd layer is a screen protector that goes over the screen to prevent scratches and damage to the phones screen. Buying one of these cases will provide damage resistance to the phone from drops and impacts. It does not provide any waterproofing however. There are a number of companies that make waterproof phone cases for some models, Krussel being a key example, albeit providing expensive options. For me; I just about a small dry bag. So after a new case, and a dry bag, but phone is armoured up and waterproof, great!

"Outdoorising" the software

Getting software for your Android phone can be a potential minefield, with every Tom, Dick, and Harry trying to get a piece of an ever expanding marketplace by designing (and charging for) apps that they feel fill a gap in the market.

Fortunately I have navigated this minefield for you! Below are a few apps that will turn your phone into a lean, mean, outdoor machine!

1. OS Atlas for Android

OS Atlas for Android comes in 2 versions; a free one, and a premium one, the latter costing £1.99. From the outset I will say this app requires a data connection so is not ideal for anywhere not in range of a 3G data connection, however what I would say is that you will struggle to find any application that will provide offline OS maps (Believe me I tried!). This app provides OS mapping at 1:10000 (streetmap), 1:25000 (explorer), and 1:50000 (pathfinder) scales. It also uses the phones GPS to locate you accurately on the map. If your phone doesn't have GPS then don't waste your time and money downloading this as the accuracy can be anywhere from 10m to 40m. With this app you can zoom and pan easily with the phones touch screen, changing the scales as and when you want. There is a daily data limit on the free version, meaning you can't download infinite amounts of maps, if you pay £1.99 for the premium version however this is not present, and neither are the annoying adverts at the bottom of the page. I have downloaded various apps that do the same thing and this is my favourite and most accurate one, it also caches the maps you use making it much faster, others I have downloaded don't seem to do this. £2 well spent!

2. MM Tracker

For anyone who already has Memory Map, this is a god send. This app allows you to install your Memory Map maps onto the SD card of your phone, meaning you can navigate, track routes, download tracks, and view saved files from your PC, and the best part? It can all be done offline, meaning no data connection is required. Naturally this has the huge drawback of having to own Memory Map map files to begin with, however if you already have them (like I do) this app means you can have all the features that Memory Map pocket edition does, but on your Android phone. At present Memory Map are creating an Android version of the pocket edition (see this)however so potentially it might be worth saving the £6.99 this app will set you back, and just get the free version for the time being....Still at the moment this is the best navigation app out there, provided you already have maps!

3. iGeology

For any outdoorsy types out there that have an interest in geology, whether you are a student, mountain leader, or just have a passing interest, this is the app for you. First of all it is provided by the BGS (British Geological Survey) free of charge, and provides full UK geology coverage, at a variety of scales down to 1:50,000. Tapping an area on the map will bring up a small box detailing the type of geology shown, as well as linking to any geology reports online. The geology mapping is overlayed on OS 1:50,000 mapping, making it an amazing tool for outdoor instructors wanting an "in the field" guide to geology. You can search for places by postcode or grid reference, and using the phones GPS the app can track your current position, allowing you to check the geology as you go. The main problem (as with many mapping apps) is that it requires a data connection to download the maps you need. Outside of that this is a truly brilliant app, which provides a wealth of information on UK geology, and all for FREE! Brilliant!

4. GPS essentials
Another nice little free app, albeit with annoying adverts at the bottom. This one does what it says on the tin. It provides a number of screens which provide useful GPS tools. On the left is the most useful screen, providing data on a number of things. There are other screens the coolest of which is one that uses an augmented reality view from your camera to display you current waypoints ( It can also provide charts of speed, elevation and other data, which can be useful for analysing your route on the go. Using waypoints you can easily track a route, and get back to a location in the event of an emergency!

This really is a useful little app, and as a bonus it works offline and doesn't require a data connection. Overall it's a great app to have, it's free, and doesn't need internet! Go for it!

5. Mountaineering by SusaSoftX

This last app is pretty much just an eBook. But it's a useful one, some of the information in it isn't necessarily the most up to date or modern, but for information such as weather, avalanche testing etc, it's a useful free reference tool, and well worth a free download!

Well that is it for now, hope this has been useful! Any feedback on this would be much appreciated, Android is new to me as well, so if anyone has any hidden gems out there then please drop me a line!

Long time no post!

So I haven't posted anything for a couple of months. For me it's been a busy period, and a lot has gone on. Firstly and most significant is a change of job. I did my last day at Stanley Head on Friday, and will be starting a new teaching role on monday. I will still be doing the odd evening, weekend, and holiday work at Stanley, but for the most part I won't be around there much. I will be keeping my  DofE award officer job alongside the new one, so I won't be completely apart from the Outdoor Education scene. Being in teaching will give me a) more money and b) more holiday to work towards my MIA and winter ML. I will miss Stanley, in particular the awesome kids who come through each week, but it was time for me to move on with my career.

Anyway I'm back, so time to get some more articles this space.