DigitalCameraReview.com
Solmeta N1 Digital Photo GPS Review
by J. Keenan -  3/15/2008

For some time now, higher-end Nikon DSLR cameras have had the ability to link with select Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receivers and record very precise information on the camera's location at the time each image was captured. Nikon cameras equipped with this feature include the D200, D300, D2Hs, D2X, D2Xs, and D3, as well as the Fujifilm S5 Pro (a D200 derivative). The typical setup involved the camera with a Nikon MC-35 GPS adapter cord attached to its ten pin remote terminal while the other end connected to a PC interface cable connector that was in turn attached to the GPS.

Solmeta N1
Solmeta N1 GPS on a Nikon D3 (view large image)

Now, Shenzhen Solmeta Technology Co., LTD (Solmeta, for branding purposes) has produced a camera-specific GPS unit that is dwarfed in both size and weight by the typical hand-held GPS used for this type application in the past, and makes use of a single connection directly to the camera's 10 pin terminal. For digital users who need or want GPS data for their images, things just got a lot simpler.

Design and Construction

Solmeta has three products in their line - the N1, which is the subject of this review, and the N2 and C1, both soon to appear on the market per a company spokesman. The N2 will feature a compass (heading) function for the D3 and D300, and the C1 will be for other brands of cameras and include the compass function.

The N1 is a light and compact unit, measuring about 2 x 1.25 x .75 inches and weighing in at 50 grams. Contrast that with the dimensions of a Garmin Geko 301 GPS, one of the smaller and lighter Garmins that have been operationally confirmed by Nikon for use with the D300 and D3: 1.9 x 3.9 x .96 inches and 96 grams. Keep in mind that the weight of the Garmin doesn't include the Nikon and PC adapter cords necessary to complete that installation, while the N1 is ready to go as is. Obviously, weight is not really a major concern here, since the difference between the two systems can be measured in ounces, but it is part of the larger picture that makes the Solmeta system quite simple and easy to use.

Solmeta N1
(view large image)

The N1 features a composite body with an integrated foot that mounts on a standard camera hot shoe, and an approximately 10-inch-long connector cord with a Nikon 10 pin terminal connector. The unit may also be attached to the camera strap. There are power and control switches on one side of the body, and red and green system status LEDs on the top. Materials and construction appear to be high quality: the Solmeta connector mated to the Nikon terminal with no problems. Solmeta includes a protective bag, AC adapter, camera strap fastener, CD-ROM software/operating disc, and a remote controller with the N1.

Solmeta credits the rechargeable battery with 10 hour endurance, and estimates overall service life at approximately 500 recharges. There are a few nice power-related design features: the unit can run on its own internal or camera power via simple switch selection on the side of the unit, and the unit may switched on for continuous operation or set to automatically come on only when the camera is on, again by a simple switch setting.

Solmeta N1
(view large image)

A brief list of select device specifications may be found at the bottom of the review.

Shooting with the N1

Shooting with the N1 involves little more than insuring the unit is on and has acquired satellites. The red LED atop the unit will blink at three times a second when the unit is first switched on, and will continue to do so until the N1 has acquired enough satellites to establish its position, at which point the blink rate changes to once per second. A "GPS" icon appears on the top control panel of the camera to confirm the camera has established contact with the GPS, and that's all there is to it. Every shot taken with the GPS enabled will have latitude, longitude, altitude, and Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) included in an additional data page for each image. The N1 acquired satellites and was ready to shoot in a minute or less - a good start up time for a GPS.

Here are three shots I took with the D3 to illustrate the information gathered/displayed by the N1.

Solmeta N1
(view large image)
Solmeta N1
(view large image)
Solmeta N1
(view large image)
Solmeta N1
(view large image)
Solmeta N1
(view large image)
Solmeta N1
(view large image)

 

When you bring up the GPS data page while reviewing in the camera, it is overlaid on the actual image. The data can also be displayed by Nikon's Capture software during review on a computer.

The first image is a shot of a galaxy far, far away. Actually, it's a shot of a shot by the Hale 200 inch telescope at Caltech's Palomar Mountain Observatory complex near my home, and with it the GPS data page generated by the N1. Note the altitude.

The second was taken about 80 yards up an incline toward the main telescope's dome. Slightly different lat-long data, as well as altitude. The final one was miles away in the Borrego Desert, and you can see more significant lat-long and altitude changes. I had brought one of my personal hand-held Garmin GPS units along on the shooting trip, and received consistent readouts with those of the Solmeta. The unit is so small and installation on the camera so natural that pretty soon you find yourself not even aware of the unit being onboard.

Conclusions

GPS information for each image is not something for everyone. If I take the camera to Disneyland, I pretty much know where I'm at. But on a trip with friends through Europe a few years back (my last trip shooting film), those fjords, mountains, and other majestic scenery started to run together in our minds. Shots from London were easy to identify on sight, but rural England or Normandy in France were not. The first thing my wife said when I showed her the N1 and told her what it did was, "too bad we didn't have that for the Europe trip." Sure, digital cameras can be set to record dates and times, and that can be a help in identifying difficult sites. But nothing identifies a site like the lat-long, and that's the extra level of information provided by the N1.

The N1 seems well-built and is quick and easy to use. It's light and compact, almost to the point of not even being there, and it eliminates the need for Nikon and PC connector cables in order to utilize a standard GPS for data gathering.

I've shot Nikon equipment since 1975, and I've always been a tiny bit leery of using "third party" equipment: with some third-party flash units and lenses known to give users fits, I was concerned. How would the Solmeta fare? Would it work? Thankfully, worrying about the Solmeta turned out to be a waste of time and energy. The N1 mated up to the D3 with no problems, and worked flawlessly in terrain ranging from seashore to mountain top to desert. Single frames per second or high speed shooting rates were all no problem. I shot it on my D300, D2x, and D200 as well, and it never missed a beat. In short, if you're in the market for GPS capability for your DSLR, Solmeta is worth a long look based on my experience with their N1.

The N1 is available from Solmeta for $288 USD, shipping included. Their website is www.solmeta.com.

Pros:

Cons:

Solmeta N1 GPS Specifications:

Electrical CharacteristicsGPS Chipset: SiRF Star III
Frequency:
L1, 1575.42 MHz
C/A Code:
1.023 MHz chip rate
Channels:
20 channel
Tracking sensitivity:
-159dBm
Acquisition RateHot start: 1 sec., average
Warm start: 38 sec., average
Cold start: 42 sec., average
Reacquisition: 0.1 sec., average
AccuracyPosition Horizontal: 10 meters, 2D RMS
1-5 meters 2D RMS, WAAS corrected
Velocity: 0.1m/sec.
Weight50 grams