Hiking with Tech: Making the Most of a Smartphone in the Backcountry, Part 2

Update, December 26, 2016: Android Authority is reporting that, in addition to the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus, several devices from the Chinese manufacturer Huawei are now functioning with Galileo. There has also been a list of future supported devices published, on which is one of the featured devices from this article, the LG G5. Note that future supported means absolutely nothing until firmware support is released from the manufacturer – which may never happen.

A five part series on fully utilizing technology while hiking.

The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.
The Sony Z3 and Z5. Generations apart, but very similar.

Part 1: Intro
Part 2: Device and Service Selection
– Lowering Your Monthly Rate
– Non-Subsidized Considerations
– Device Selection
– Comparison Chart

Part 3: Navigation, Apps & Prep
Part 4: Photography, Shooting & Editing
Part 5: Power Management

When it comes to lightweight backpacking, the multi-use functionality of a modern smartphone is practically unmatched by any other single piece of equipment. A carefully selected device can do many things… and do it well:

  • GPS / Map / Fitness Tracker
  • Still / Video Camera
  • MP3 Player / Radio
  • eBook Reader
  • Voice Memo Recorder / Notebook
Could new satellite technology mark the beginning of the end for dedicated PLB devices?

A smartphone can even be used as communication device if you so choose. 🙂

With the rapid development of technology and high level of competition in the market, the utility of a smartphone for backpacking will only increase. Devices such as the BQ Aquaris X5 Plus are already taking advantage of the new capabilities of the advanced European Galileo Satellite System, which offers higher accuracy, redundancy to traditional GPS and two-way communication. The bi-directional capability of Galileo is particularly interesting – if made widely accessible, it could allow future generations of cell phones to replace yet another piece of gear – the emergency PLB (Personal Locator Beacons, such as those offered by Spot or InReach).

In terms of suitability for use while hiking however, not all smartphones are created equal. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at which hardware features make a model best suited to backcountry use.

But first…

Lowering Your Monthly Rate – How to Get the Best Price for Service.

When you begin to consider your cell phone as a useful piece of backpacking equipment that is carefully hand-picked, it’s also a good idea to view your relationship with the carrier from a different perspective. When the carrier is viewed simply as a service provider – nothing more than a data connection to the tower – the consumer is freed from the shackle of selecting from the few handsets they currently have on offer. This opens the possibility of owning any one of the many globally available devices – limited only by the specific technical requirements of your selected carrier’s cellular towers. With the recent entry of Chinese manufactures into the market – bringing high quality, innovative, low cost hardware that is further driving innovation and value throughout the industry – it’s a particularly good time to think of severing the traditional user / carrier relationship.

The LG G5 (left) and G4 (right). A great family of devices that have it all, except IP Ratings.

Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for cellular service despite attempts by the state to correct the situation. In contrast to the US where competition is fierce and pricing is consumer driven – with companies like T-Mobile disrupting the status quo by providing clear value – the Canadian market as a whole still provides little value to consumers. The Canadian carriers devote tremendous effort to assessing pricing in the market, with a strategy to develop a structure that makes it difficult to comparison shop. It’s not uncommon for a user to realize upon careful examination that the “free upgrade” offered by their carrier is nothing more than an attempt to switch them to new, higher pricing.

As a result, purchasing a device outright – independent of the carrier – is becoming a popular consumer response to the slow, ever increasing cost associated with the two year service agreement cycle. The last couple of years have even seen a rise in small third party operations that specialize in switching customers who already own their device to special Bring Your Own Device pricing schemes from more competitive markets like Saskatchewan. When combining this technique of getting the best service rate with doing in-depth research for the handset that best fits their needs, the consumer is able to have an abundance of monthly usage, on a hand-picked device that was selected from a dazzling array of options – all for less than they’d pay by walking into a carrier store, picking from half-a-dozen options, and arranging a traditional two year service agreement with a subsidized device.

If the decision is made to consider non-carrier-offered handsets in your search, it’s still optional to pursue good value for service. Using an approximation for similar service options, you should expect to save anywhere from $600 to $1200 over a two year period on a BYOD plan, with the exact amount depending largely on which handset you elect to buy.

Read more about these BYOD pricing options at CBC.ca.

Consumers turn to booming black market for cheap cellphone deals.

CBC News, May 31, 2016
Black market dealers reveal secret to super cheap cellphone plans.

CBC News, Sept 23, 2016

Non-Subsidized Considerations – Steps to Take if You Own Your Device.

If you’re considering a non-subsidized device that’s not offered by your carrier, you basically need concern yourself with only two additional issues…

Band Compatibility
In the past, determining Band Compatability involved a confusing process of spec hunting and cross checking. Recently, sites like Will My Phone Work.net have simplified the process immensely. Plug in the model name of the device you’re considering, add the carrier you are using, and presto… you get a clear answer as to whether the device will work.

Carrier SIM Lock
These software restrictions are placed on subsidized devices by carriers to ensure it will work only on their network. Devices bought outright though non-carrier sources should not have a SIM lock, and this will be proudly displayed in the name. Carrier-bought devices can have the lock removed by the carrier, or it can be removed by the user with a code purchased for a small fee from a third party provider.

The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Waterproofing, hardware FM Radio... all at $240 less than the iPhone.
The Sony Xperia Z5 and the Apple iPhone 6S Plus. The Sony adds Expandable Storage, IP68 Dust / Water Resistance and Hardware FM Radio… all at $240 less than the iPhone.

As long as the device is Band Compatible, you’ll be up and running when inserting your SIM. If you don’t immediately get service, reboot the device with your SIM installed – a locked device will give you a “No Service” message upon boot. If you’re considering a previously owned device, it’s best to buy in-person. Confirm that your SIM will fit the device (there are a few different sizes) and test it in the phone before purchasing – if you have a data connection and can make a call, you’re good to go.

Device Selection – Picking the Features You Need.

This is a big subject, and to make it manageable in this article we will compare devices based solely on features that make it best suited for extended active outdoor use. I would suggest that due to fierce competition in the industry, other important specifications that are often considered (processor speed, camera quality, screen quality, compass accuracy) are very near equal in high end smartphones. As such, while we will compare phones based solely on the main features listed below, some importance should also be placed on the specifications of each device as a whole.

Removable Battery;
This allows the user to swap to a new fully charged internal battery in the field. More importantly, extended internal batteries with double capacity can often be found online – giving the phone battery life that rivals most dedicated GPS devices.

Expandable Storage (MicroSD);
A good option for practically unlimited storage space for your GPS Mapping / Navigation app – allowing you to take a tonne of data for your hike. With this MicroSD Card Slot you’ll have abundant storage space to download multiple Map Layers, such as those from NRCan and satellite imagery from Google. Beyond the caching of map data, this feature allows for virtually unlimited shooting of photos and video, as well as storage of ebooks.

Micro SD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of space.
MicroSD cards are small, light, cheap and plentiful. Take a spare on longer hikes and never worry about running out of storage space.

A Barometric Sensor is used in combination with satellite data to obtain a better altitude fix. Apps will work fine without this sensor, but the data will be far less accurate.

IP Rating;
Ingress Protection Ratings define the level of sealing effectiveness for electronic enclosures. The first number indicates how effective the device is protected from dust, and the second number from liquid ingress. For example, Sony phones have generally high ratings in this area with IP68; 6 = resistance to dust & dirt, while 8 indicates liquid / water resistance. Higher numbers are better; for example, the IP57 rated HTC 10 Evo would be slightly less resistant to dust with a 5 rating than a Sony, and also slightly more likely to fail when exposed to water with a 7.

FM Radio;
Hardware – not a streaming app – that allows the device to receive a traditional FM over-the-air radio signal, often using the earbud cable as an antenna. This feature can be hard to find due to carrier pressure (it uses no data – they don’t like that), but it’s sometimes a useful feature to have while hiking in the backcountry, to get a weather report or to check the news (provided a signal can be found).

Retail Price;
An outright purchase, non-subsidized price. This is the amount you pay to own the device from day one, with carrier locks removed.

Comparison Chart – 5 to 6″ Screen Flagships Spec Summary.

It’s also worth saying that it will be difficult – if not impossible – to find a device perfectly suited within these specifications. Some features are in fact diametrically opposed – for example, the main difference between LG and Sony devices for several generations have been Removable Batteries vs. IP Rated Enclosures – take your pick – it’s hard to design both of those particular options into one handset. In this respect the table below tells a story in design limitation.

These are all flagship smartphones that have been released in the last few years. Note that a “previous model year” version has also been included for comparison for some of the brands deemed better suited to backcountry use. These older devices are often as feature-packed as the new models, but are available at significant discounts, either from the major carrier’s value banner (Telus’ value banner is Koodo, for example) or previously owned sources (sometimes even at half the retail price).

The slightly older designs are a good thing to keep in mind while looking for value – although older, they are always a better option than new non-flagship value devices. Companies like Motorola and LG cut features and costs on their value offerings to cover all price points and compete with the army of Chinese manufacturers, and in the process they drop features like MicroSD Card Slots and Barometric Sensors. Previous year flagships are a particularly good option for anyone wanting to take advantage of the black market BYOD plans. When combined with this pricing the combination will become more cost effective than a traditional plan often in less than a year, and becomes even more attractive when theoretically amortized over two or three years.

In terms of features, all these devices are roughly comparable – device size / weight, screen size, battery size – but as can be seen in the table, from the perspective of someone who is interested in active outdoor use, there are some important differences in each manufacturer’s offering.