You know the story: smartphones became mini-computers with a wireless connection to several networks, GPS among them and this is when things got interesting for outdoor route finding. Smartphones became a valid alternative to the dedicated GPS devices.

This is evolution

To summarize how they fared:

Smartphone pros:

  • You probably own one already.
  • It packs lots of functionality.
  • Possible synergies between functions: you can download apps, maps & tracks over the GSM network or the internet, often for free and use the GPS connection with them.
  • Dynamic market scene: Smartphones get more powerful all the time, quick.

Smartphone cons:

  • Dynamic market scene: Smartphones get obsolete quick. Newer models may be worse overall for serious outdoor use as they may get heavier/bulkier/more fragile.
  • Intensive or very committed use may conflict with everyday, urban use: battery performance degradation, risk of damage before a trip. You may start considering using a dedicated device for the outdoors, somewhat negating the “already own one” argument.
  • Serious backcountry use is a side-effect. Smartphones are not built for ruggedness, extended autonomy or ease of use in difficult conditions. They’re urban tools designed for the urban environment where a plug is always handy and you go under cover if it’s raining.

The smartphone is an interesting tool with lots of potential for outdoor use. Part of the realization of that potential would be about designing a device specific for outdoor use, somehow blurring the line between urban smartphones and dedicated outdoor GPS receivers, aiming for the best of both worlds.

I recently started using an outdoor specific smartphone and I find it interesting to put it against the one I had been using so far.

Use case

The target use case for the discussion that follows is long distance, backcountry backpacking with a layered approach to route finding:

  1. Direct observation and awareness
  2. Map
  3. Compass
  4. GPS set

Where I’d go down one level at a time and only when one set level wouldn’t solve the current route finding problem.

Outdoor. Backpacking

There’s been smartphones built with outdoor quality standards before but they were not necessarily good for backpacking. Backpacking has some particular requirements:

  • Long battery life

This is essentially about using a larger battery. This has an obvious weight/volume limitation. I guess the design (both hardware and software) could be optimized to help saving battery in normal operation but I don’t know if there’s any move in that direction, particularly in outdoor oriented use.

  • Water resistance

Sooner or later it’s gonna be wet and it’s bound to be then that you need the smartphone the most.

  • Easy handling

You’ll need to work with wet hands, with gloves on or with wet gloves on. It’s gonna be windy, rainy, cold or just plain doom and it’s then that you’ll need the smartphone the most.

  • Good GPS reception

Step up from nice-to-have to essential.

  • Lightweight

So far so good, your target smartphone turned out nice but heavy. Go back to square one and repeat the process in a weight conscious mindset.

By the time you get to a good Outdoor Smartphone design, you may have gone full circle and reinvented the dedicated GPS set.

A practical case

I use GPS as a backup to everything else. When it’s needed it’s usually because conditions are somehow tough for route finding, which most likely means they’ll be tough for instruments too. I didn’t feel too comfortable about relying on my everyday smartphone and I’d see the place for a dedicated one built for the task. I got a Crosscall.

I had no references for the brand other than it was advertised as outdoor specific: rugged build, long battery life, water resistant, workable in wet conditions, one more physical button than usually found on smartphones.

Faced to the lineup, I chose model entirely over specs, trying to strike the best balance between battery life and weight. I got a Trekker M1 Core. It’s got a 4.5” screen, 147 x 77 x 14.8 mm dimensions and it weights 224 gr.

I was aware it’d be bulkier and heavier than my current phone but It looked reasonable from the specs and the website pics. On the Crosscall website, all the pics are of the item on its own. This is to be expected but it takes the device out of perspective. My first impression when I got it was that it was a brick: massive and heavy. This is it, paired to my old Samsung:

Smartphones getting bigger

The Trekker is true to specs. The website pics just lacked perspective.

Compared to modern, standard smartphones, the Crosscall Trekker M1 Core is just a bit longer/wider but considerably thicker and quite heavier. Nothing wrong with the device itself but it makes me wonder about its usability and convenience for the intended use case.

The most dramatic difference is on the third dimension

I now have two devices to choose from and they’re as far from each other as smartphones can get. The comparison that follows is quite specific to them both but it’s probably representative of those two different flavors of smartphone for backcountry use:

Weight

The Trekker M1 Core is 80 gr heavier than my old smartphone. It may look like not a big deal but that’s 60% heavier. For a backup item.

Edge: urban.

Ruggedness

Anything with a big glass face feels fragile to me and I can see big potential for major damage. I will not test-drop the Crosscall to find out how it fares though. I have (accidentally) dropped and broken the glass face of the Samsung once when it landed on a hard surface with no rubber protection on.

The Crosscall device certainly feels less fragile with a rubber-like plastic casing that looks like it’d absorb some impact. It also has a slot for inserting a safety strap so you don’t need to rely solely on your hand-hold.

The Crosscall looks like a clear winner here but the comparison job is not so simple. The Samsung can use a rubber case and/or a waterproof cover equipped with a safety strap, narrowing both the weight and the robustness gap.

Edge: outdoor.

Water resistance

The Crosscall device is supposed to be fairly water resistant as well as workable in a wet environment. I haven’t tested these features yet.

Once again, it’d appear as a clear winner but it’s debatable whether a waterproof cover wouldn’t make the Samsung come close while still being lighter.

Edge: outdoor.

Battery access

The Crosscall device battery is not accessible. This is a limitation as you can’t carry a spare battery. I don’t know if this is somehow justified from the design or a programmed obsolescence strategy. I don’t know either how feasible it’d be to change the battery when its performance goes down with age and use.

On my old Samsung, the battery is easy and quick to access and change. For outdoor use, I’d carry a spare battery which only weights 30 gr. In theory I could carry as many spare batteries as needed to match the Crosscall device battery life and I’d still be lighter.

Edge: urban.

Battery life

The Trekker M1 Core battery life is certainly in a different league. I’ve tested it in a normal urban environment, rather moderate use. I charged it to 100% and used it until 20% or just below. It lasted for 4 ½ days if I left it on non-stop (that is, 4 ½ days and 4 nights) or 5 ½ days if I switched it off during the night for about 8 hours every night. Battery drain while inactive is surprisingly small.

It takes about 4 hours to recharge from below 20% to fully charged.

In the same use scheme, my old smartphone would just make it through one full day of use. An aging battery was only part of the limitation, I got a new battery for it that would last for up to 2 days if switched off during the night.

As stated above, the Samsung device battery is easy to replace and spare batteries are not particularly expensive. It’d be easy to carry as many as needed to match the battery life of the Crosscall. It wouldn’t be as convenient but it’d still be lighter!

Edge: unclear.

Effect of cold

One extremely annoying issue with the old Samsung and its original battery is the dramatic effect of cold on battery drain. I’d switch the device off at night with 70% of the charge left and it’d appear almost depleted when I tried to switch it back on in the morning. Then it would recover to maybe 30 or 40%. I could limit the initial shock by warming up the device before switching it on but it would never show up back to where it was the night before. Keeping it warm during the night would surely help but I don’t find the phone a good bed mate. Sleeping with just the battery would be more comfortable.

The same phone is dramatically better when using a new battery: no noticeable drain.

The Crosscall is fine too. I haven’t yet had the chance to take it out in real field cold conditions but I’ve left it on the fridge for a couple of nights with no significant battery drain.

Edge: draw.

Performance

The Crosscall device is infinitely quicker at everything it does given the same GSM or IP connection. I’d have expected that a smartphone’s bottleneck should be in the connection pipe but this is clearly not the case. This makes the Crosscall very attractive for everyday use in urban life to the point that it’d be hard to go back to the old Samsung. In the outdoors, however, the difference in performance is negligible if all I use is the GPS and a mapping application with local storage. I found the Crosscall GPS quicker getting a fix but nothing dramatic. Once fixed, navigation appears to work quite the same. Accuracy feels similar too. It’d be interesting to test both in conditions that make GPS reception difficult.

According to this criteria, It turns out that the best compromise would be to use the Crosscall in town and the Samsung on the trail!

Edge: draw.

Summary

If I stick to the cold evaluation criteria and put them in front of my requirements, both devices come to a near draw. The old smartphone with a rubber protective case, a waterproof case, a new battery and an equally new spare would offer similar performance to the Crosscall for 210 gr against 224 for the Crosscall.

For upcoming trips I’ll probably go with the Crosscall because it works on its own, it’d be easier to handle and its built-in water resistance alone is probably more reliable than a waterproof case for a device that’s not waterproof. Water eventually finds its way given the time.

Then there’s the issue of using one only device for both daily life and backpacking trips or having a dedicated smartphone for backcountry use. I think the latter makes better sense if you’re serious about the backpacking part. I don’t feel comfortable relying on an item used daily for a trip that will typically require a big commitment from my part. It’s actually quite similar to my strategy about many other gear items: I spare some for the big trips while other versions are used for the daily stuff where performance is not so critical. It’s a way to make sure the gear will be fine when it’s needed most and to extend the usable life and peak performance of a sometimes expensive item.

Smartphones are particularly tricky in this last sense: using them kills their batteries (a key aspect of outdoor performance), not using them may render them obsolete before you’ve even scratched the glass.

Another aspect of sticking to one only phone or going outdoor dedicated is bloatware. We often hold ridiculous amounts of crap, both apps and data in a daily use smartphone. It may be a good idea to keep an outdoor dedicated device that we can keep somewhat cleaner. It might have an effect on performance and/or battery life but I don’t know how much.

Conclusions

Given my stated use case, my ideal outdoor smartphone would be dedicated, built for the outdoors, smaller and lighter than the Crosscall and with an accessible battery. It’d fall somewhere in between the two devices I own.

Other users with different requirements would probably get to a different result. The variables are endless and it can get complex if you get really serious about dialing it in. The whole picture involves interactions with other gear items (paper maps, other electronics and their charging means, external battery packs) and it’s subject for a different feature.

By choosing a dedicated, outdoor worthy smartphone device, I may have come full circle back to where it all began: the dedicated GPS device. I couldn’t think of a less glamorous way to end the discussion.