Garmin Vista Cx on Ubuntu "Hardy" (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 04 Jan 2009

Garmin Vista Cx on Ubuntu "Hardy"

I got myself a GPS unit for Christmas.

I've been resisting the GPS siren song for years -- mostly because I knew it would be a huge time sink involving months of futzing with drivers and software trying to get it to do something useful.

But my experience at an OpenStreetMap mapping party got me fired up about it, and I ordered a Garmin Vista Cx.

Shopping for a handheld GPS is confusing. I was fairly convinced I wanted a Garmin, just because it's the brand used by most people in the open source mapping community so I knew they were likely to work. I wanted one with a barometric altimeter, because I wanted that data from my hikes and bike rides (and besides, it's fun to know how much you've climbed on an outing; I used to have a bike computer with an altimeter and it was a surprisingly good motivator for working harder and getting in better shape).

But Garmin has a bazillion models and I never found any comparison page explaining the differences among the various hiking eTrex models. Eventually I worked it out:

Garmin eTrex models, decoded

C
Color display. This generally also implies USB connectivity instead of serial, just because the color models are newer.
H
High precision (a more sensitive satellite receiver).
x
Takes micro-SD cards. This may not be important for storing tracks and waypoints (you can store quite a long track with the built-in memory) but they mean that you can load extra base maps, like topographic data or other useful features.
Vista, Summit
These models have barometric altimeters and magnetic compasses. (I never did figure out the difference between a Vista and a Summit, except that in the color models (C), Vistas take micro-SD cards (x) while Summits don't, so there's a Summit C and HC while Vistas come in Cx and HCx. I don't know what the difference is between a monochrome Summit and Vista.)
Legend, Venture
These have no altimeter or compass. A Venture is a Legend that comes without the bundled extras like SD card, USB cable and base maps, so it's cheaper.

For me, the price/performance curve pointed to the Vista Cx.

Loading maps

Loading base maps was simplicity itself, and I found lots of howtos on how to use downloadable maps. Just mount the micro-SD card on any computer, make a directory called Garmin, and name the file gmapsupp.img. I used the CloudMade map for California, and it worked great. There are lots of howtos on generating your own maps, too, and I'm looking forward to making some with topographic data (which the CloudMade maps don't have). The most promising howtos I've found so far are the OSM Map On Garmin page on the OSM wiki and the much more difficult, but gorgeous, Hiking Biking Mapswiki page.

Uploading tracks and waypoints

But the real goal was to be able to take this toy out on a hike, then come back and upload the track and waypoint files.

I already knew, from the mapping party, that Garmins have an odd misfeature: you can connect them in usb-storage mode, where they look like an external disk and don't need any special software ... but then you can't upload any waypoints. (In fact, when I tried it with my Vista Cx I didn't even see the track file.) To upload tracks and waypoints, you need to use something that speaks Garmin protocol: namely, the excellent GPSBabel.

So far so good. How do you call GPSbabel? Luckily for me, just before my GPS arrived, Iván Sánchez Ortega posted a useful little gpsbabel script to the OSM newbies list and I thought I was all set.

But once I actually had the Vista in hand, complete with track and waypoints from a walk around the block, it turned out it wasn't quite that simple -- because Ubuntu didn't create the /dev/ttyUSB0 that Iván's script used. A web search found tons of people having that problem on Ubuntu and talking about various workarounds, involving making sure the garmin_usb driver is blacklisted in /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist (it was already), adding a /etc/udev/rules.d/45-garmin.rules file that changes permissions and ownership of ... um, I guess of the file that isn't being created? That didn't make much sense. Anyway, none of it helped.

But finally I found the fix: keep the garmin_usb driver blacklisted use "usb:" as the device to pass to GPSBabel rather than "/dev/ttyUSB0". So the commands are:

gpsbabel -t -i garmin -f usb: -o gpx -F tracks.gpx
gpsbabel -i garmin -f usb: -o gpx -F waypoints.gpx

Like so many other things, it's easy once you know the secret! Viewing tracklogs works great in Merkaartor, though I haven't yet found an app that does anything useful with the elevation data. I may have to write one.

Update: After I wrote this but before I was able to post it, a discussion on the OSM Newbies list with someone who was having similar troubles resulted in this useful wiki page: Garmin on GNU/Linux. It may also be worth checking the Discussion tab on that wiki page for further information.

Update, October 2011:
As of Debian Squeeze or Ubuntu Natty, you need two steps:

  1. Add a line to /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist.conf:
    blacklist garmin_gps
    
  2. Create a udev file, /etc/udev/rules.d/51-garmin.rules, to set the permissions so that you can access the device without being root. It contains the line:
    ATTRS{idVendor}=="091e", ATTRS{idProduct}=="0003", MODE="0660", GROUP="plugdev"
    

Then use gpsbabel with usb: and you should be fine.

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[ 15:31 Jan 04, 2009    More mapping | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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