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Is this the end of motorcycle GPS?

TopoCharger GPS
TopoCharger turns you phone into an off-road GPS

I haven’t switched on my GPS in ages and may never again, after TopoCharger launches in March.

TopoCharger is a lightweight iPhone protective case that includes a 1460mAh lithium polymer battery that doubles battery life, but more importantly includes topographical maps. At the moment TopoCharger ($US149) only has maps for the USA. Cory Lowe from Backbone Media which represents Trimble Outdoors says they hope to make the TopoCharger available in other countries over time, especially if the North American launch is successful. “But as of right now, we don’t have a concrete roadmap and dates for other countries,” he says.

Bike GPS
I haven’t turned on my Strike motorcycle GPS in ages

Why only topo maps? Because your phone has plenty of maps already, but it doesn’t have topo maps for when you’re “off the grid”. This iPhone accessory will take you beyond phone coverage areas by using the phone’s in-built GPS chip and never leave you on a “blank” map screen. There is also a built-in app, Trimble Outdoors Navigator, that allows you to save routes, set waypoints and even take photos to go with your routes. The slim unit only adds 85g (8oz) to the weight of your iPhone 4/4S and 5/5S.  The other advantage is that if you get off your bike and want to go bushwalking (as if!), you don’t need to take your GPS, just your phone.

While I won’t be throwing away my GPS anytime soon, I don’t know that I will ever update it. I always take my phone with me everywhere I go, I use it to take photos, listen to music, check the weather, update my FB status, check emails … oh, and make and receive calls! So why would I want to carry another unit that doesn’t do anywhere near as much?

The maps are high-quality state-based MyTopo maps that come on a small interchangeable chip costing $69 per state, so you will have to buy another chip if you ride interstate. These maps work exclusively with Trimble’s lineup of mobile apps such as Navigator and GPS Hunt.

There are a few of drawbacks that I can see. One is mounting the iPhone on your bike. You’ll need something that is secure, yet also has an easy clip-off mechanism so you can take your phone with you every time you get off the bike; even when you go to pay for fuel. While I’ve never heard of someone having their GPS snatched from their bike, I’m sure it happens. But an iPhone sitting on a bike would be a much more tempting prize for an opportunistic thief.

Another problem is heat. I’ve had an iPhone stop because it got too hot mounted on my bike. This only happens in extreme heat, but it is a problem if you are crossing the Simpson Desert and relying on your phone. Most of the time I keep my phone in my pocket out of the direct sun and listen to the turn-by-turn directions on Google Maps which are pretty clear. I’ve never needed to actually see the screen, but then I’ve never used it on lesser paths out in the bush.

Thumb Dogs GPS
Thumb Dogs work on phone touchscreens

The third problem is the touchscreen which won’t work with gloved hands. However, there are now several products that get around this. There are special gloves you can buy with a touchscreen-sensitive fingertip, but that means you’d have to throw out all your gloves and start again – one set for winter, one for summer, one for rain, etc. Now you can buy attachments to put over the finger of your gloves so you can change them from glove to glove without the expense of buying new gloves.

In Australia, Adventure Moto sells one called Thumb Dogs. They have a special conductive material on the tips so you can use the touchscreen. To keep them in place without cutting off the circulation to your fingertip, they have a friction coating on the inside and a velcro-strapped leash around the outside. They retail for $19.95 for a pack of two, plus shipping and handling.

Together, these products could spell the end for the conventional motorcycle GPS.