Review: DawnTech di-GPS Mini 2L / 3L

When I started thinking about my road trip across the USA, I realized one thing early on: a GPS unit for my Nikon D300 DSLR camera would be rather useful. After all, when driving thousands of miles across a continent and taking photos regularly, it’s really handy to have GPS data on the photos in case you ever want to do something nice with that later on.

I explored the scarce GPS add-on options online and eventually found the DawnTech di-GPS Mini 2L. They’ve since replaced the product with the di-GPS Mini 3L, so I’ve added notes throughout the review to addresses notable differences.

DawnTech is a Hong Kong-based company that does free shipping, even overseas, and their prices are comparable, often cheaper, to the camera manufacturers’ own brand-name GPS unit. More importantly, the DawnTech products seem to work a little better.

The di-GPS Mini 2L connects to your camera via the 10-pin circular connector and comes with a strap clip. Its form factor itself is designed for it to fit on your camera’s hot shoe, which is where it sat for most of the time with me. This does prevent you from using a hot shoe flash unit, so when you need to put one of those on you end up with the GPS module dangling (very) inconveniently against your left hand. This can be alleviated a little with the strap clip, but that was no use to me as I use a camera grip / hand strap [Amazon kickback link] which is a much more convenient solution for me to carry the camera around with.

The GPS dongle itself is small and light and has three states: off, always-on and auto-on-off, the latter meaning it’ll turn on and off along with your camera. The 2L has a red LED light that flashes when it’s trying to get a GPS signal, and is solid when a position is acquired. The 3L appears to use a solid green LED when it has a position, but this is just speculation since this product isn’t shipping yet.

Almond croissants at Thorough Bread and Pastry in San Francisco

When I got my GPS module I immediately tried it out by taking a walk to my favorite pastry shop in San Francisco and seeing how the GPS fared. I turned it on as soon as I got outside and about a block later it had found its position. I kept it on while going inside the shop and was pleased to see that it kept the GPS location there, allowing me to capture Thorough Bread’s delicious almond croissants in full geo-tagged glory.

The real test, however, came when I started the road trip.

My first day of driving started in the late afternoon and most of it ended up taking place under the quiet cover of night; it wasn’t until I hit the road from L.A. to Phoenix that I put the GPS through real significant use. For the entire 400 mile drive I had the GPS unit on, testing its drain on the camera’s battery while traveling and constantly updating its position. I was fairly pleased with the result: it definitely drained a significant part of my D300’s battery, but I had plenty left to shoot some photos with that evening.

My road trip involved nightly battery recharging—sometimes out of necessity, sometimes just as a precaution, so the next day allowed the biggest stress test on the GPS: a 1,000 mile drive from Phoenix to Austin.

With the GPS on for most of the day, my D300 had lost about 85% of its battery due to constant location updating of the GPS module. This seemed pretty good to me, actually: a 1,000 miles in a single day is far, far more than most anyone will ever drive, and I still took photos along the way (most of which weren’t interesting enough to upload to Flickr). To have even a shred of battery life remaining after that seemed quite good.

Throughout using the GPS module in L.A., Phoenix and Austin I also learned more about how fast the GPS acquires its position when you turn it on. This depends vastly on where in the world you are, it feels like. Be it open sky, inside a building but near a window, or in a car or train, the GPS can sometimes acquire a brand new position within half a minute, and at other times under similar conditions it can take over a minute.

When you walk into a building or go through a tunnel or what have you, it’s to be expected that your GPS loses its position and signal. The 2L is not as good as the new 3L in this regard, as the latter stores the last fixed position and re-uses that much more intelligently when it loses a signal. A quick run into a (larger) building won’t force a total re-sync, whereas the 2L sometimes, albeit not that often, forgets where you are and retrieves your location anew.

On the whole, the DawnTech di-GPS Mini 2L module was a great addition to my photography arsenal whilst traveling. For me, it was worth the small investment to get the vast bulk of my photos geo-tagged automatically, and with such great precision. Now that the 2L has been superseded by the 3L, which features some great usability improvements, I heartily recommend it for anyone looking to add (moderately affordable) GPS-tagging to their photos. For Nikon users at least, this is a great little product.

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