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My Tracks turns Android phone into GPS device

Google releases software that lets T-Mobile's G1 mobile phone use its GPS system to record where you've been and share the resulting maps online.

Google on Thursday released an application called My Tracks that turns the T-Mobile G1 Android phone into a full-fledged GPS receiver.

The free software can record tracks showing where you've been, display them on a map, show elevation gains and losses, and share data with various online services.

As a geography buff, I have to confess that this one of the first applications that actually got me excited. I carry a Garmin standalone GPS device so I can geotag my photos and keep track of my trips, but My Tracks one-ups it in several ways.

For one thing, it's a phone and therefore much more likely to be toted at all times, not just on dedicated occasions. But more important, it's an Internet-enabled device, which means it shows my position on Google Maps--either map mode or satellite image mode, not just the feeble and expensive Garmin Maps--as long as it can find the Internet. Track data can be saved not just as a GPX file, but also uploaded and shared with Google Maps. And statistics can be uploaded into Google Docs spreadsheets or even Twittered (for example using the Twidroid application).

In a blog post announcing My Tracks, Dylan Casey, a Google product manager and former professional cyclist, said the software began as a 20 percent project--the ideas Google lets its engineers pursue when not working on their official job assignments.

The application works in the background, even when the phone nods off.

"The application only draws additional power when a track is being recorded. If you want to save power you must stop recording your track," said Sandor Dornbush in a discussion board post. "When you are out and about just let the phone go to sleep as normal. My Tracks will run in the background even if the screen is off."

Now on to the downsides. First, the G1's GPS receiver doesn't match that of a dedicated GPS device; I couldn't get a signal inside CNET's offices, though my Garmin and indeed my iPhone do. Perhaps there's a kludge through Google's location technology that uses wireless networks and cell towers, but I only could use that to get the phone to show my current location.

Second, the G1's battery is good enough for only about 5 hours of recording, according to Google. I can only confirm that after a little testing my phone's battery did draw down noticeably, a far cry from the three days or more I get out of my Garmin with two rechargeable AA batteries.

Third, I'd like to be able to see topographic maps, or at least the terrain view of Google Maps. And how about integration with Google Earth on the Android? Oops, that's only available for the iPhone for now.

Update 4:45 p.m. PST: I've played with this application a bit and concluded it is good, overall, if battery-sucking. However, I have some nit-picks and other comments:

• The screen doesn't automatically scroll to follow my current position, though it does zoom out when my position moves off the edge of the screen. I'd like at least the option to keep me at the center of the screen.

The elevation gauge thought I was going down when I was going up. Eventually it figured it out, so it's probably a GPS accuracy issue. Also, I couldn't find a way to adjust the vertical interval to get a closer look at my elevation gains and losses.

• The G1's GPS abilities are limited. The phone never figured out where I was over two whole blocks in downtown San Francisco when my iPhone had little trouble. It worked with no trouble once I got to a more suburban area with two-story houses. This isn't the fault of the My Tracks software, of course, though it would be nice if lower down in the stack the phone's location system based on wireless networks and cell towers could give the GPS system a leg up.

• I like the ability to send a link to an online map of my trip, but I couldn't figure out how to create a private map. And unpublicized map URLs may be more private than published ones, but they're still public. How about some truly private online maps as long as I'm logged into Google?

• I'd like to be able to add tags such as "walking," "biking," "vacation," and "photos" to my online maps, not just descriptions.

• The ability to Twitter and e-mail links to maps is nice, and I e-mailed myself the KML file of my trip with no trouble, letting me view it in Google Earth at my leisure.