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hacksugar: Putting iPod touch GPS to the test with roqyBluetooth

A few weeks ago, I wrote lovingly about GPS. For me, at least, GPS on the iPhone OS family is often more about the social features that location unlocks than about simple positioning. With GPS, you can track your trips to share with friends and family, see what people have been Yelp-ing about, and find what's happening right now, right near you.

When I heard about GPS for iPod touches, I got excited. For a while, I've been reading about roqyBluetooth (aka roqyBT). It's a system hack that allows you to connect an iPod or an early model iPhone to an external GPS receiver over Bluetooth. Yesterday, I finally got a chance to put RoqyBT to the test.

Retailing for 8 Euros (about $11), roqyBluetooth is a jailbreak application sold through Cydia and the Rock Store. Its Bluetooth stack implementation hooks into the iPod's Core Location system services. In use, any application that normally queries for Core Location data gains access to the Bluetooth-originated GPS data (including location, elevation, and so forth) just as it would normally receive WiFi positioning or, in the case of the iPhone, cell tower positioning.

It works. I bought a simple Bluetooth GPS unit from Semsons.com for about $20. After installing roqyBluetooth and pairing it with my BT GPS, I was able to run Trailguru and track my progress through several trips as I walked and drove to various locations. The Trailguru results were similar to the trails I recorded simultaneously on an iPhone 3GS using the same software. All in all, success.

So what were the ups and downs of the process?
There are some definite negatives to this approach, despite the overall win. First of all, purchasing and registering the roqyBT software is cumbersome. Even using a free license provided by the developer reinforced how e-commerce in the jailbreak world is far more of a burden than the smooth App Store process.

Jailbreak software purchases really lack a consistent process. Admittedly, jailbreak commerce is relatively new and unformed but it definitely could be improved. To purchase a roqyBluetooth license, you must install the application, retrieve a complex serial number and register that number with the site, which then magically communicates back to the app that you're good to go.

Once installed, you really need to read the product FAQ and follow the instructions exactly. Make sure to disable the standard built-in Bluetooth and enable CoreLocation in settings. Only then should you run the application and pair your device. Once paired, you can quit the app and run any CoreLocation application, which will now use the paired GPS device for positioning.

Then, there's another negative. The GPS unit I bought has the battery half life of an anxious Mayfly, which is to say that it only made it about halfway through my walk yesterday. I suspect that's typical for the breed. Inexpensive GPS is really meant to be used in the car (it ships with a free car adapter), not in your pocket.

Once the GPS unit died, Trailguru kept crashing -- I suspect from some sort of issue with CoreLocation and roqyBT. It was not happy with whatever it was receiving from the iPod system calls. Normally, Trailguru is pretty solid. With the GPS unit out of commission, each Trailguru launch ended in failure until I switched off roqyBT.

Why Trailguru? Why not some GPS-specific application? The bottom line there is that those apps are generally submitted to the App Store for sale and installation only to GPS-enabled iPhone devices. Trailguru is platform-agnostic, so it was running on my iPod already and could take advantage of the improved CoreLocation data. Higher-end apps are not as easily installed. Keep that in mind should you consider going for the whole jailbreak-iPod-Bluetooth GPS solution.

I normally have to use an external battery when using Trailguru (it's a battery hog). Its clear that the GPS system could use an external booster as well. That means that for walking around, the roqyBT solution involves a lot of extra devices -- probably more of a burden than you're willing to put up with.

Everything worked far better in the car, however. I already have an iPod power cable hooked up. It was easy to add a GPS power cable as well. With a steady source of power for both units, Trailguru performed flawlessly as it tracked the car over a number of trips.

In the end, I came away very impressed with roqyBT. It did what it said it would do and seems, at least so far, to be doing that job pretty well. In the near future, I'd like to see what kind of navigation apps I might be able to test with the roqyBT system on the iPod touch, if I can find them. (Please feel free to suggest some alternatives to Trailguru in the comments.) And, of course, I can't wait to test it out on a jailbroken WiFi-only iPad. But that's going to have to wait for a while.

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