Since April I’ve been testing out a new GPS unit from a small company called Bad Elf, their Pro GPS, which has given me great hope for the future of GPS units. My Garmin eTrex has been trusty and reliable for years, but Garmin’s customer service is crap, and their GPS units aren’t nearly as fun to use as the Bad Elf. The Bad Elf isn’t quite perfect yet, I expect that in a year or two I’ll be able to retire my Garmin and never look back.
Bad Elf PRO in the palm of the hand.
The Pro is very different from Bad Elf’s original GPS unit, which plugged into your iPhone or Android device. The Pro doesn’t plug into your phone, but can connect with it through Bluetooth. This allows you to use the Pro for two different primary functions– either you can keep it the unit connected to your device by Bluetooth while using a GPS app, or you can use the unit as a standalone GPS track logger.
When using the Pro connected with your phone or tablet, you can leave your phone in Airplane Mode with Bluetooth on, which overrides a major failing of the iPhone, in that the iPhone can’t run its GPS without also trying to get a cell signal. The iPhone GPS will function without a cell signal, but it will eat the battery of your phone much faster, and its GPS is less accurate than it is with the aid of cell-tower-triangulation. Using the iPhone in Airplane Mode, connected to the Bad Elf Pro by Bluetooth, you can use apps like Gaia GPS or my own guides without draining the iPhone battery nearly as quickly as you would using its internal GPS.
I’ve been using the Pro as a standalone GPS for the most part, and comparing it to my Garmin eTrex for use in mapping for my apps. Here are the primary areas that I use to compare it.
Size comparison with the Garmin eTrex Vista HCx
The Bad Elf Pro weighs 3.2 ounces. The Garmin eTrex Vista HCx with lithium AA batteries weighs 5.0 ounces. That’s not the full story, though. The Bad Elf’s USB cord weighs 1 ounce, and a standard block charger is about 0.8 ounce. An Anker Astro 6000 mAh battery (which can charge the phone and the Bad Elf) with its USB cord weighs 5.3 ounces. A pair of Lithium AA batteries (for the Garmin) weighs 1.0 ounce. You can do the math yourself, but I’ve found that the weight is very much a function of how often you need to use the GPS, and how often you’ll be near a wall outlet.
I’ve used the Garmin for several years with the lithium batteries, mainly just as a track logger. I don’t have WAAS enabled, and I’ve regularly had 30 to 40 hours of run time before the batteries die. With the Bad Elf, the only difference in use is that I keep WAAS enabled, and I’ve also had 30 to 40 hours of run time from its internal battery. The Garmin’s battery monitor does seem a little more accurate, though, which gives it a slight edge.
Waterproofing (Garmin wins)
The Garmin is fully waterproof, and I’ve submerged it several times while in use. I’ve walked days in heavy rain with no problems. The Bad Elf claims IPx4 water resistance, but I haven’t had much luck with it in the rain, which gets behind the screen and causes errors with the buttons. Keeping the GPS somewhere waterproof takes care of the problem, though.
Accuracy (Garmin wins mostly)
The most important comparison, of course, is GPS accuracy. With the Garmin and the Bad Elf side by side in the top pocket of my backpack last month, the two produced almost exactly the same tracks about 90% of the time. At some sharp turns and in many deep valleys, the Bad Elf lost the track for short lengths and read about 100 feet off. I check the tracks against National Park Service records for the AT, so I can see that the Garmin’s track is about 99.5% accurate. The Bad Elf loses in this case, but for most people, it’s accurate enough.
Nearly perfect track accuracy when the Bad Elf is on top of the pack (blue is Bad Elf, red is official NPS track)
A bigger problem arises with the Bad Elf when I put it on the side of my pack, either in my shoulder pockets or in any of the side pockets. I don’t know why this should be a problem, but the GPS track is inaccurate about 40% of the time, with variation of up to half a mile. This is unacceptable for me as far as using the GPS for work, but since keeping the unit in the top of my pack seems to work well, I’ll just leave it in the top of my pack for general use.
A typical track error when the Pro was on the side of the pack.
User Friendliness (Bad Elf wins)
Garmin’s GPS has many, many features, but after three years of using it I still haven’t bothered with most of them. The instruction manual for it is almost useless, but trying to figure out how to use the GPS without instruction is impossible. Thank goodness for the Internet. The Bad Elf Pro, on the other hand, has an incredibly simple user interface, and is basically invisible if you use it in conjunction with a GPS app on your phone. If you just want to get track data from the Pro, you just download a free app from Bad Elf that allows you to change the GPS’s settings, download the GPS’s data to your phone with a few simple (and well-labeled) button clicks. Once the data is in your phone, you can upload it to Dropbox, send it by email, open it in Gaia GPS, or use it in any other GPS app. Not only is it simpler to use than the Garmin, but you can back up your tracks to the web, send them to friends, and look at them on any kind of map you like.
Conclusion: Garmin for now, Bad Elf for the future
The Garmin wins in terms of two important distinctions, accuracy and water resistance, but I’m willing to give Bad Elf the edge for now. In my dealings with Garmin over the last few years, I’ve found their customer service to be some of the worst I’ve experienced– it seems they are focusing more on their car navigation GPS units than their handheld units. Bad Elf, a tiny company of less than a dozen people, is innovative and young, which gives me hope that the quality of their GPS units will surpass Garmin’s in no time. In the meantime, I’ll just hope my eTrex holds together as it ages.
Disclosure: Bad Elf gave me a discount on the Pro GPS unit as an app developer, but didn’t solicit this review. Garmin gave me no incentives to write this review.