By Andrew Liszewski
When I first read about the concept of tagging your photos with GPS data, I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea. I mean who takes photos and forgets where they were? That’s half the reason for taking a photo in the first place, to remember where you’ve been or what you’ve seen. I came back from CES this year with over 3,000 shots, and I can tell you where each and every one was taken. However, as photo sharing sites like Flickr became more popular, I started to warm up to the geo-tagging idea, since it meant that I could see where somebody else’s photos were taken. To me, that was its ‘killer app’.
Well the popularity of geo-tagging clearly wasn’t hindered by me not being on board, and at this point there are quite a few solutions on the market that make it easy to record and update your photos with GPS positional data. In fact, you can even buy cameras that already have GPS functionality built-in. But if your camera predates this convenience, the GPS PhotoFinder mini from ATP provides an easy way to geo-tag your photos, without a PC, thanks to a special dock that accepts SD or CF memory cards directly from your camera. So how well does it work? You can read my full review of the ATP PhotoFinder mini after the jump.
ATP GPS PhotoFinder mini
Overall the PhotoFinder mini does mostly work as promised, though it seems to be lacking the extra layer of polish you’d get with similar products from the likes of Nikon or Sony. But unlike products from those companies that might be designed to only work with Nikon or Sony cameras, the PhotoFinder mini plays well with almost every consumer/prosumer camera on the market. So let’s take a closer look.
Here’s your token unboxing shot. Nothing terribly exciting, but that’s mostly because the PhotoFinder mini isn’t exactly a complicated device.
Inside the box you’ll find the GPS receiver, the dock/card reader, a miniUSB charging cable, a DVD with software and a brief manual. While the instructions aren’t written in perfect english, they’re still easy to understand.
The receiver part of the PhotoFinder mini, which houses the actual GPS hardware, is a conveniently small device that comes tethered to a lanyard allowing you to clip it anywhere on your person while you’re out and about. Now I’m not 100% sure if it’s better to keep the receiver on the outside of your person as opposed to carrying it in your pocket or burying it in a bag (my own tests have been inconclusive) but once it’s clipped to something it’s really a set-it-and-forget-it type thing.
Now they’re kind of hard to see in this shot after being washed out by my flash, but when the receiver is powered on and actually receiving GPS signals, there’s a series of blue, red, yellow and green LEDs along one edge, just below the icons you can see in that photo. They provide various types of feedback depending on which ones are on, or which ones are flashing in different patterns. Obviously a character based LCD would have made it easier to tell what the receiver was doing without having to remember color codes or blinking patterns, but this solution is more battery life and size friendly.
On the bottom of the receiver is a rubber flap that hides a miniUSB port for charging and syncing, as well as a 128MB MMC memory card where the GPS data is stored. Now by today’s standards a 128MB flash card is not even worth carrying, but when all you’re storing is txt files full of GPS coordinate data, it goes a long way. But of course there’s nothing stopping you from throwing a bigger card in there if you want. The USB port and card slot are covered by a thin rubber flap you can see held up with a piece of tape, and quite frankly it’s a pain in the butt because it’s almost impossible to get it to stay in place. So most of the time it unfortunately just hangs open when I’m carrying it, but thankfully a spring loading mechanism manages to keep the MMC card from falling out.
The other half of the PhotoFinder mini system is the included docking cradle/card reader. This allows you to sync the GPS data to the photos on your camera’s memory card without ever having to touch a PC. On one hand the fact that the PhotoFinder mini doesn’t need a PC is kind of odd, since a geo-tagged digital photo is pretty much useless without one. But on the other hand, what it really means is that the GPS data can be synced to your photos without the need for any special software. So if you’re visiting friends or family on a trip, and don’t have a laptop with you, you won’t have to install any software on their PCs to get this functionality.
On the underside of the dock is a short USB cable that tucks away when not in use. I actually won’t buy a card reader unless it has an integrated USB cable of some sort, so I’m obviously quite happy that the PhotoFinder included one. It’s one less cable you have to worry about carrying.
On the back of the dock there’s a large cutout area with a miniUSB connector sticking out where you attach the receiver when you want to sync the GPS data to your photos.
And here’s the GPS receiver connected to the dock.
On the side of the dock you’ll find the two card slots that can accommodate the compact flash, SD, MMC or even Memory Stick cards taken directly from your camera.
Once your memory card full of photos and the GPS receiver are connected, you can use a series of 4 buttons found on the top of the dock to start the syncing process. The screen is pretty straightforward, and once again completely washed out thanks to my flash, but it’s more than adequate for navigating the menu system or keeping track of the syncing progress.
But there are three issues I have with the syncing process. The first is that you need to select your time zone every single time you use the device. Obviously this is important for making sure the GPS data properly syncs to your photos, but the dock doesn’t remember the last time zone you specified, and even worse, you only have a few seconds to make your selection before it defaults to the first zone in the list and moves onto the next option. So if you have to stop and look up what time zone you’re currently in, you’ll have already missed the option of changing it, and will have to go back to the beginning of the sync process.
The second issue is the speed at which the GPS data is written to your photos. As part of a simple test I went out a-wanderin’ with a Canon SD1100, and came back with maybe 40 random photos, and it took the dock over 5 minutes to sync the GPS coordinate data to them. I don’t know if write speed is the issue, or if the dock takes a long time to look up the GPS coordinate data from the logs on the receiver, but either way the process is simply too slow. Had I used this while at CES, the majority of my trip would have been spent waiting for the dock to sync my photos. And for the record, I also tried syncing using a high speed CF card, and the process was just as slow.
The final issue, which won’t affect most users but I feel is worth mentioning, is that he dock refused to do anything with the SD card from my Canon SD1100 because it had a CHDK firmware folder on it. For some reason the dock wasn’t willing or able to simply ignore this folder, or automatically find the correct folder full of photos, so it just sat there providing no feedback as to why it wasn’t working. However, copying the standard Canon image folder onto another blank SD card ‘solved’ the problem, though it’s hardly a viable workaround. So if you bought a cheap Canon P&S that you’ve ‘upgraded’ with the CHDK firmware, the PhotoFinder mini will basically be useless to you.
But on the plus side, I found the accuracy of the GPS receiver to actually be quite decent. To be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be as accurate as the GPS navigation devices you find in cars, but it did pretty well. Besides tagging your photos, the dock can also spit out a KML (keyhole markup language) file to your memory card that allows you to see a path of where you traveled in applications like Google Earth. In fact, here’s a Google Earth screenshot of the meandering path I took through downtown Toronto, and for the most part the red line is pretty close to where I was actually walking. There were a few times when the GPS signal was lost, not sure why, and the receiver unfortunately makes no attempt to guess where you were based on your last known location once the GPS signal was found again. So you get these occasional ‘spikes’ where your path jumps around, but overall I’m actually quite pleased with the results.
Well this is a tough one. If you’re an amateur shutterbug who grabs the occasional photo during your travels, the PhotoFinder mini is a pretty decent geo-tagging solution, particularly if you’re not carrying a laptop. But the ridiculously slow process of writing the GPS data to your photos via the dock is problematic, and if you’re the type who can easily snap hundreds of photos when you’re out with your camera, you better be prepared to spend quite a bit of time waiting for the dock to do its thing. (Or use a software-based geo-tagging solution as an alternative, which unfortunately defeats the whole purpose of the PhotoFinder’s dock.)
+ GPS receiver is extremely small and compact.
+ GPS accuracy is pretty good, though far from perfect.
+ No PC required, unless you actually want to see where your photos were taken.
+ Can be used with almost any camera.
- Writing GPS coordinate data to the photos on your memory card is a very slow process, even with a high-speed card.
- Docking cradle is not exactly travel-sized.
- Rubber flap on the bottom of the GPS receiver is hard to secure.
- Docking cradle does not remember your previous timezone settings.
- Syncing process was hindered by the CHDK firmware being on my camera’s SD card.
ATP GPS PhotoFinder mini – ~$120
If you have any questions about the PhotoFinder mini you’d like answered, please feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll try to respond to them as best I can.