Geotagging Photos With Aperture & QStarz BT-1300S

With the release of Aperture 3, geotagging photos is now an integral part of the application’s workflow. Aperture grew the Faces & Places features like iPhotos!

In particular, the Places feature allows you to import GPS data from iPhone photos or from GPS data captured by pretty much any device that can spew a standard GPX format data file.


Tagging from the iPhone is straightforward. With the iPhone connected to your computer, go to Places in Aperture and then select Import from iPhone Photos…. Aperture will then display all the photos on your iPhone that have GPS metadata and you can pick the photos from which the GPS data is to be imported. Once picked, Aperture will apply the GPS data to photos taken near the same time as the imported data.

However, one issue with the iPhone is that it really isn’t a terribly good GPS logging device. Using it as one eats the battery and the data generated often has holes. And, because the iPhone uses A-GPS (GPS assisted by cellular signal), it doesn’t work at all when hiking in areas without cell signal. Apparently, I’m mistaken about A-GPS — it should fall back to regular GPS behavior. My experience, though, is that the iPhone just isn’t a terribly good GPS device when it doesn’t have a cell signal and has often been off by miles when in the hinterlands. It works great when on the road or near cities, though.

Dragging a photo onto a track. Note that my camera’s clock was set correctly.

Importing a raw GPS Track is a slightly more involved process and, at first blush, doesn’t entirely seem as easy as it could be. But there is a good reason for the way it works; clocks on cameras generally suck and, thus, there is a need to effectively timeshift imported photos vs. the GPS data.

When you import a GPS track, the Tracks and Waypoints submenu will be populated with the various segments of GPS track data imported from the log. Once you select a GPS track that includes a location for a photo that you want to geotag, drag the photo to the exact location on the track where the photo was taken. Aperture will display the offset in time between the photo’s timestamp and the GPS data. When you drop the photo, Aperture will ask if you want to assign GPS metadata to all photos taken during the (potentially offset) duration of the GPS track.

Done. Photos geotagged. And, if you haven’t happened to reset your camera’s clock recently, you’ll probably be chagrined and amazed to know exactly how poorly your camera keeps time!

Of course, you need a source of GPS metadata. And this is where your fuzzy happy generally intuitive and “just works” experience ends. Frankly, the state of GPS support on the Mac just flat out sucks outside of a handful of navigation oriented devices.

After purchasing and returning two different devices, I finally settled on the Qstarz BT-Q1300S.

First, the good: the Q1300S has about a 15 hour battery life, recharges conveniently off of USB, and is conveniently small in size. Once you deal with the shenanigans that I’ll describe below, the unit “just works”. The LED indicators on the front are pretty straightforward. Overall, the passive industrial design — the case, the indicators, the static elements — are quite solid and attractive.

Now, reality:

Physically, the device is small and conveniently sized. The strap is too tight and, thus, doesn’t really swivel much. I can easily replace that.

There are two additional flaws that can’t be fixed. First, the unit uses a single button for power and other functions. It is of poor quality and, after only a few uses, is starting to stick. A co-worker with the same device has the same problem.

Second, the mini-USB connector is covered by a rubber shield (good!), but that shield flips open to cover the power button (which you need to get to) and actually gets in the way of sticking in the USB cable! Dumb.

From a User Experience perspective, the device is a train wreck. To turn on, hold the power button for 4 seconds. It boots and then it starts logging (the LEDs on the front do a pretty good job of giving status, though “solid” vs. “blinking” for “looking for GPS” vs. “GPS signal good” is non-obvious). To turn off logging (convenient for downloading or for just using as a BlueTooth data source), hold down the button two seconds. To turn off, hold down the button for four seconds. There is very little visual feedback during this process.

Horrible. Combined with a button that sticks and it is close to unusable. I would much rather have two buttons — power and mode — without the need to hold either down for any length of time.

To download data, requires that the device be on. Plugging in the device causes the Battery light to come on — almost looking like a power indicator. Of course, if you turn on the device, it’ll default to logging data. Expect to always have a dozen or so data points from wherever you happened to be when you downloaded the data. Remember that rubber gasket thingy from the USB port I mentioned earlier? The one that covers the power button? Yes, it is in the way if you need to turn on the device after plugging it in.

Why the damned thing doesn’t simply turn on when USB power is applied is beyond me. Better yet, why not let the device mount as a flash drive (some units do, but they had other flaws that made them even worse than the QStarz).

Since it doesn’t mount as a drive, that means you need some software to retrieve data from the device. Thankfully, HoudahGPS to the rescue. Once configured, it works quite well. Plug in the unit, make sure it is powered up, and then click the Acquire button. Done.

Configuring the device from a Mac is… unfortunate.

Roger & Phone Booth

The QStarz device is based on the MTK chipset. This is a fairly standard chipset and, thus, there exists open source software for interacting with it. In particular, you’ll want BT747. It is a Java application that can configure, download, and otherwise manage an MTK based device (amongst other). Via the BT747 software, you can configure the sampling rate of the device. It defaults to once-a-second, but 2 or 3 times a second is useful for tracking relatively fast moving motion that changes directions quickly; biking or driving, for example.

If you want to communicate with the QStarz via BlueTooth (and maybe via USB — I didn’t try), go to the Finder and check the Open in 32-bit mode option.

Bottom line; with geotagging of photos becoming pretty much ubiquitous across both photo organization tools and the various websites (flickr, etc), it is only a matter of time — 12 to 18 months, I would guess — until pretty much every camera has GPS built in. Until then, the QStarz 1300S fills the gap. Not nicely, but it does work.

Heck, not only can I take can take a photo of Roger and one of the very few phone booths left in the state, but I can even show you exactly where it is (turn on “Hybrid” mode to see more than a green blob on the map)!

I am concerned about build quality. The company does monitor twitter, is aware of my power button issue, and is responding extremely proactively (so far). I’m impressed and, frankly, if QStarz comes through with their promise to replace my device, it will go far to assuage my disdain for the device.

Now, if QStarz would produce a useful — simple — Mac client, that would make me even happier.

11 Responses to “Geotagging Photos With Aperture & QStarz BT-1300S”

  1. ssp says:

    Your report sounds very similar to my experience trying to use a friend’s GPS logging device (GRays something, called Wintec WBT-x00 by software). HoudahGPS (and previously are more arcane GUI for GPSBabel) seem to be the only viable ways of using those little toys. I am wondering: is this somewhat sad situation due to Apple ignoring these devices or due to a lack of stadardisation which makes it hard to support them in a consistent fashion?

    Also: in iPhoto, GPS support sucks as setting the location in the application will only store it in its database rather than in the file – thus tying you to the application more than seems advisable and creating a path to data loss. As a consequence I always have to add GPS EXIF data to my images with external tools (own script or, these days, GeoTagger) which isn’t overly convenient. Does Aperture, as ‘pro’ application, take a more reasonable approach on this?

  2. bbum says:

    The devices are just poorly implemented. There is nothing about Mac OS X that prevents writing decent client software for any given device, as demonstrated by the handful of open source [poorly designed] software that “just works” and does so using the standard APIs on the system. The client software market for devices seems to lag the rest of the market by 18 months to 3 year; Epilog’s laser printers are Windows only even though the Mac dominates the Maker community that is their primary market, you can’t get a decent digital microscope with Mac client software even though the Mac is huge in science/education, and Garmin is just about the only GPS maker with decent Mac software.

    Aperture has a strong notion of Master — the original image — vs. Versions — the post-processed images. You generally export versions and these versions do have the GPS metadata shoved into the EXIF, along with everything else.

    On my son’s iMac, he has an iPhoto library of photos of interest, most of which are sourced from my master Aperture library. It “just works”; I do the initial import, sort&select, processing and metadata, then export a set of versions to Roger’s computer and drop them on the iPhoto icon.

  3. ssp says:

    That Aperture behaviour isn’t quite what I’m looking for, but probably makes more sense in a professional workflow than it makes in iPhoto. I quite like iTunes’ way of doing things where the metadata in the database and those in the files are identical. It gives me the good feeling that my library is in good shape and I could take it onto another software without losing much.

    I wonder whether we’ll even see good GPS/BT software then. If, as you predict, many cameras will come with BT soon, the demand for this may be even smaller than it is today.

    When looking at the tracks I got out of ‘my’ little GPS gadget I also thought good software should probably do some processing of the data before using it. As the signal can be quite ‘wiggly’ at times and occasionally contains points that are hundreds of kilometres off, the data could to with some cleaning and ‘smoothing’ in many (most?) situations.

    It’s a shame so many devices are made by Windows-only shops. A big problem is that even if they want to provide a Mac version, they seem to be very likely to just outsource it to whoever comes knocking first an most likely is a complete imbecile. I recently read a review about USB UMTS sticks on the Mac. It was hilarious because many of them looked _extremely_ amateurish and some of them even damaged the system beyond repair (I think the installer overwrote the system’s libcurl with its own version that didn’t have 64bit support). The reviewer there said that, while shocking, it at least made it easy for him to give very concrete disrecommendations…

  4. James Duncan Davidson says:

    Thanks for the writeup.. It’s timely as I’m researching trackers to take with me on the big trip coming up. It seems like everything at the sub-$100 point has gotchas of one kind or another. I’ve thought about getting one of the new Garmin super duper machines, but given that I have an iPhone for most of my mapping needs, it seems a bit excessive.

  5. bbum says:

    To be fair, the AGL-3080 — the device I sent back due to the stupidity of the strap blocking the USB port — is likely a more seamless experience for Mac users. Now that I have things working, I won’t investigate further unless someone sends me a device. :)

  6. Brad Mohr says:

    Have they redesigned the AGL-3080 recently? I’ve had one for a couple years and haven’t removed the strap yet. I’ve found the workflow to be pretty smooth: connect the AGL-3080 (it mounts like a flash drive), copy over the log files, let HoudahGeo do it’s magic, then import into Lightroom. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Lightroom 3 will eliminate the HoudahGeo step à la Aperture 3, though I’m not particularly optimistic. I’m not too optimistic about camera makers getting on the ball, either. When I bought the AMOD in 2008, I fully expected it to be supplanted by built-in GPS by now. Sigh.

    I know it’s moot at this point, but I’ve put a couple pictures of the AGL-3080 with the strap and USB cable both attached on flickr.

  7. bbum says:

    Huh — they must have changed it since you picked one up. I have heard of a couple of folks indicate that the strap doesn’t get in the way.

    I’m tempted to pick up one even though I banged through the Qstarz busticated software experience so that it is now pretty seamless.

  8. Brad Mohr says:

    It occurs to me that they might have changed the cable rather than the device. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which AMOD switched cable suppliers to save a penny or two each and never bothered to check whether their cheap commodity cables actually fit. The same could be true of the strap.

  9. Chris Cornelis says:

    My iPhone app GeoLogTag offers an all-in-one geotagging solution for Mac users. It tracks your location during a photoshoot and geotags your photos afterwards over WiFi. No extra hardware or software is required. Support for both JPEG and the most popular RAW formats.
    There is a free version of GeoLogTag available too. It’s fully functional except for the fact that tracked locations are automatically removed after 2 hours.

  10. Harun Abdurrazaq says:

    I just got a Qstarz QT-1300 GPS receiver. It pairs via bluetooth to my N810 running Diablo. Maemo Mapper or Wayfinder can use it as an external GPS.
    The device also does data logging. I’m looking for a way to transfer the binary log files from the GPS receiver to my N810 via Bluetooth.
    I don’t expect to convert the log files to other formats or do photo-geotagging or other operations on my N810, but I want to store the log files so that they can be processed on a PC at a later time.

  11. KTodd says:

    Can you give us an idea of what some of the settings are in GPSBabel to get it to read in a file from the Q1300S? I’ve tried a lot of options, but I always seem to “exit unsucessfully with code 1″ :(


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