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Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Sony GPS-CS3KA Image Tracker Review for Geotagging

As I posted a few weeks ago, my Eye-Fi Explore card was not really cutting it for me in terms of the geotagging capability based on WiFi networks. That initiated a search for me that ended up with me selecting the Sony GPS-CS3KA as a standalone device that could fill the void and provide the appropriate level of geotags I was looking for.

It was a careful evaluation concluding after about 4 hours of Internet research.

Other devices I considered included:
Sony GPS-CS1KASP GPS Unit for Sony Digital Cameras
GiSTEQ PhotoTrackr™ for Digital Cameras
Amod AGL3080 GPS Data Logger
ATP Photo Finder

In the end, what sold me on the Sony device were some of the reviews on the Internet, including Amazon; the relative size; the use of “AA” batteries; and the SD-Card slot which would allow me to quickly tag the photos without the need for a desktop piece of software to do all the associations. I placed the order on (you can find the Sony device here on Amazon: Sony GPS-CS3KA GPS Digital Imaging Accessory (White)) and expedited the shipping to 2 day to make sure I received it before we left for Spain.

The Sony GPS-CS3KA geotagging recorder for image tracking and geotag review

(The device also accepts a standard Sony Memory Stick as well as the SD-Card format. While this provides very little value to me since I shoot with Canon cameras, it may be appealing for those using Sony Cybershot or similar Sony camera.)

Having ordered it less than a week before our trip to Spain; I did not have much time to test out the device before heading out on our trip. I through some AA batteries, the device, and the manual in my camera bag and figure I would set it up once I arrived in Madrid, Spain.

Once I arrived in Spain and we were ready to start exploring – I found the setup of the device fairly easy. The reality is that there is not too much too it. Set the time (equal to that of your camera) and the GMT offset for the time zone you are in and you are off and running.

The first time I stepped out of our hotel in Madrid, I turned on the Sony GPS-CS3KA GPS tracker and waited for it to start up. In less than 2 minutes the device acquired the first GPS location at strength of 1 bar out of 3 – in another minute we were up to two bars out of three. I flipped the GPS tracker to hold position which locks in the current operating mode (on or off) so that it would not get accidentally shut off and dropped it into my pocket to capture our exploration of Madrid to later associate with any photos we were taking.

After returning to the hotel after about 6 hours, I checked out Sony GPS-CS3KA GPS and saw it was still capturing as expected. I dropped in the memory card from my Canon Powershot SD790 IS and it associated the initial 10 pictures that I took with the appropriate GPS locations, effectively geotagging the picture. Initially, the Sony GPS-CS3KA performed just as I expected – I was pretty happy.

On my second day of using the Sony GPS tracker, I was still feeling great about the GPS-CS3KA . After a full day of touring around Madrid, Spain and shooting another 50 pictures, the device still showed a strong battery (3 out of 3) on the single “AA” battery I started with – and here I was going on almost 20 hours of usage which was better than advertised.

I got back to the hotel on the second day and went through the same process taking the 4GB SD-Card out of my Canon Rebel XSi, inserted into the Sony GPS-CS3KA and started associating the GPS coordinates with the photos. Then about 8 pictures in, something went dreadfully wrong...the device just locked up and appeared to be shut off. I let it sit for approximately 10 minutes to see if it would recover – as the manually specifically states “Do not shut off during association or images may be permanently damaged” – after 10 minutes and no changes, I felt I had no other options.

First I tried to reset the device by using the on/off button and holding it down first for 10 seconds, and then for 60 seconds. No luck. My last resort was to open up the back case and then from there to pull the battery. After pulling the battery, I let the device sit for a couple of minutes and then reinserted the battery. The device powered on easily.

I then proceeded to attempt to associate the pictures with the appropriate GPS location coordinates again. This time, the entire picture set was processed by the device properly and it completed all 50 pictures in approximately 3 minutes – not too bad for a device powered by a single “AA” battery.

I then dropped the SD-Card into my laptop and was appalled at what I found. Approximately 20% of the pictures were corrupted beyond repair. Generally large, discolored lines ran throughout the photos of which an example of how the photos (although not actual, since I deleted them unexplainably) looked is below:

Corrupted image by Sony GPS-CS3KA during a image tracker geotag session

Major disappointment on the Sony GPS-CS3KA , at least I learned a lesson that I should backup or copy any photos before I tried to associate them with the GPS locations. Unfortunately a major drawback to the device, basically tying me to my laptop or desktop device is I needed to make a major backup of the images before I tagged them. At that point, I was really better off just using the Sony Picture Utility called the GPS Image Tracked to load the GPS logs and associate them to the pictures.

I figured that would be ok, and I would just perform them in batch. The only limitation in the GPS Image Tracker software is that it is heavily tied to Google Maps and their APIs without a significant cache. This renders it basically useless unless you have Internet connectivity which can be problematic in a number of situations – especially in Europe where hotels still want $30 a day for Internet access.

My next step was to just carry the Sony GPS-CS3KA GPS Tracker with me the next three days and capture the logs to associate the pictures later. The plan sounded good in theory and capturing the GPS logs worked pretty well. In fact, the battery life delivered better than expected results – lasting 25-30 hours per Duracell “AA” battery.

After the three days, it was time for the final test for the Sony GPS. I loaded up all of the GPS logs and attempted to associate all 300+ pictures with their GPS coordinates that I had meticulously collected. The process was about to start and upon clicking on the “Add Position Information to Files” button, a scary error message appears:

“If you add GPS log information to the media file “IMG_4042.JPG”, the file may not be displayed properly by some devices or programs. Do you want to continue?”

My first thought was, are you kidding me? I thought the whole purpose of the software was to add this kind of information to the pictures so they would show up in certain programs. Now you’re warning me it may not, or possibly corrupt them? Great.

Since I had already made a backup of the photos, I rolled the dice and let all the pictures process. Unfortunately, that led to extremely mixed results. For example, the pictures I took in Seville, Spain on 08/03/09 geotagged perfectly, but then the pictures on the other day were all over the map. Somehow the pictures taken in Madrid showed up as being in Segovia and those taken in Segovia in Avila. Perhaps it was an offset issue, but given the pictures from Seville looked accurate in both time and GPS location, I was at a loss.

Process of geotagging images with the Sony GPS-CS3KA

I figured I will mess with it when I returned home to see if I could generate better results. Still, a huge disappointment overall on the Sony GPS-CS3KA device in terms of it’s functionality, toolset, and reliability.

At this point, I am planning on returning the device to; even if it ends up geotagging the pictures properly. If I cannot rely on the built in memory card reader to tag the GPS coordinates without needing to use a bunch of software, most of the appeal of the devices and its “ease” really disappears.

It does not seem that much easier than my “poor man’s solution” that I have continued posting on (here) that combines a Blackberry, iPhone, or similar device with GPS functionality and Open Source applications to log and geotag pictures.

I may try out another device – any suggestions out there or possibly a manufacturer looking for a tester? If so, please leave a comment or send me an email. :-)

Oh, how I long for Canon DSLR add-on (perhaps as a “flash attachment”) or a GPS device embedded in a Canon camera that will make this easy. Canon, if you’re listening – I will buy the first DSLR that adds this functionality natively, if you added wireless connectivity and uploading – bonus points, but not critical since Eye-Fi solves that problem really well, maybe you could license their technology for that.


We're French said...

Made the same experience this weekend during atrip to the Smoky Mountains. Used the built-in functionality to geotag my pictures each day, but only the first day was done correctly. The following days showed the tags all over the place and certainly never at the correct location. Tonight, I will try it via the PMB software - and yes, I already backed-up the photos at a safe place ...:). For me, one of the most appealing things of this unit was the possibility to do geo tagging on the spot, without having to have a computer at hand. This seems to be out of the window right now, but if the tagging works via PMB, I'll accept this limitation.

Ken Hanscom said...

Best of luck...for me, even PMB was still all over the place. The good news is that gave me 100% refund including return shipping since the device did not meet expectations.


Pat said...

So to sum up Ken's review, I should NOT buy a gps add on or GPS camera for a Christmas present? Recipient will NOT have a computer with him when traveling.

Tobbe J said...

This is a late reply, but the older CS1 model might be a better choice. If you don't have a netbook or laptop with you then I'd just keep the tracker on and do all the geotagging when I get back home.

The CS1 is a 12-channel puck (I think SiRFIII) and does what it's supposed to. I've tested mine in open terrain, cities and in the forest. Accuracy varies and when walking along a forest road it did track my path fairly well.