Technology in the Field: Smartphones

Once upon a time (back in 2011) I wrote an article on the accuracy of smartphones in the field compared to dedicated GPS units (click here to read it). Coming back from the field has reminded me that nothing’s changed — I’d still rather use my phone than wait for the GPS unit to power up and figure out where I am.

There’s plenty more GPS apps for smartphones now than there was 5 years ago, but I still find myself consistently going back to Maverick (Play Store). It’s simple, lets me drop my waypoint, take a georeferenced picture, add in descriptions, and makes me happy. Used to use OruxMap (Play Store). It has great features, but for some reason I just click on Maverick for fast fieldwork.

It’s nice to see people getting on board with smartphones as GPS, from geography field trips (article) to research investigations (article). Not nearly the backlash when I presented at conferences oh so many years ago (*gasp*! How DARE you say some PHONE is as good as a $2000 Trimble?!??).

The dedicated GPS? Let’s just not go there on the lackings I still find in that tool. Ok, over a smartphone the dedicated GPS’s battery life wins hands down (especially if you can just pop new batteries in). But otherwise? Bleh. I try. I dutifully take the point. Then I pull out my phone, drop a waypoint, and use that forever going forward.

So what’s the best smartphone to use? Probably the one you already have. With a good case. And I do mean a good case. And don’t rely on those glass screen protectors to save you — had a phone where a piece of sand must have worked in during fieldwork. The screen shattered, the glass protector was unscathed *sigh*. Oh, and if you’re in the field a lot, something that covers your plugs. I’ve seen and heard of phones rendered useless because the plugs got so jacked up they could no longer be charged. Keep that in mind.

I’m still partial to my Galaxy S5. Old technology, sure, but you will pry my replaceable SD card, ability to root *whistles innocently*, and option to extend the battery (not that I do) out of my dead hands (grrr phone manufacturers who keep trying to take expandable memory away. Here’s a thought, make it EASIER to access, not that I have to remove the friggin battery. Where was I?). I haven’t tested the waterproofness thoroughly (living in a desert and all) but I have no complaints about using it in the rain. It fits my hand. It takes decent pictures and video. Could I upgrade? Maybe when I save up some money after living on a grad student stipend for so long. But I don’t really see the need to.

(Oh, and phones are fast enough to get out of your pocket to capture moments like this — a baby “stampede” of yearling cows coming to check out our paleoenvironmental coring site, and my advisor decides to give them a lecture about the project like he’s teaching class. Too bad the video can’t pick up his lecture over our laughter!)


So what do you think? Do you use your phone out in the field? What GPS or fieldwork apps do you like best? What issues have you encountered? What stories are to be told? Leave it in the comments below

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