There's a reason "Nikon GP-1 alternative" is a search phrase that finds its way into Google's simplistic query box frequently. Put simply, the only GPS add-on with Nikon's name on it is universally seen as a poor purchasing decision. For one, it's still right around $200... despite the fact that it's pushing four years old. But perhaps more importantly, it's a major battery hog and takes eons (read: four to five minutes) to get a solid GPS lock if you attempt to conserve your juice by having it shut down each time you flick your camera's power switch to 'off.'
Recently, we embarked on a road trip that took us through sparsely populated areas of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and California. For the purposes of using a geotagging module to accurately journal the precise locations of thousands of shots through some of America's most pristine wilderness, we strapped Solmeta's Geotagger N3 atop a Nikon D3S. For those unaware, the N3 was first introduced at CES 2012, and just recently started shipping directly from the company's Hong Kong headquarters to purchasers all over the globe. Much to our surprise, it managed to not only outgun the GP-1, but it also exceeded even our lofty expectations. Care to hear more? Join us after the break.
Solmeta N3 geotagging module unboxing and hands-onSee all photos
In a word: easy. In more than a word, we've a hard time believing that Solmeta could've made this any simpler. Just unpack the product, screw the plug end into the circular port just north of the lens eject button on the camera's face, and drop the module itself into the hot shoe. That's it. Of course, that's the process with Nikon's D3 and D3S. Solmeta actually sells three different versions of the N3, with the only difference being the connection mechanism. The N3-A supports the newly-announced D4, D3S, D3, D800, D800E, D700, D300 series, D2X, D2XS, D2HS and D200. Those with a D90 will need to opt for the N3-B, while the N3-C plays nice with the D7000, D5100, D5000 and D3100.
The unit is designed to siphon energy from the camera's battery pack. In a sense, this is far superior to those somewhat janky Bluetooth solutions that log data separately, and force you to use matching software to pin metadata to images in post-processing. On the other hand, this more integrated approach -- which embeds the data onto each image as it's shot -- does indeed make the module more of a parasitic being. Rival dongles have largely been panned for sucking away too much of the camera's life, but we'll touch on that in just a bit.
Solmeta thoughtfully used a coiled, flexible, highly durable cable to run between the unit's head and the plug end. When coiled, there's no slack whatsoever, and the overhang really doesn't impact usage. If you're using a hot shoe tree to hold the N3's head as well as a flash, an LED square or a shotgun microphone, being able to uncoil it to reach such a place is a real boon. After you've slotted the N3 into your camera's hot shoe (or anywhere that you feel like affixing it with your own Velcro kit), watch that LED on the rear. A flashing red informs you that it's looking for a GPS lock; a solid green affirms that a fix has been acquired. You can confirm that you are indeed locked in by pressing the Menu button on the D3S and navigating to GPS > Position and looking for live data. In our testing, it was so precise that simply taking a single step in any direction caused the metadata to react accordingly, proving that a GPS lock was in place.
It all boils down to this, doesn't it? The vast majority of direct-connect geotagging options for Nikon's DSLR range suffer from two problems. The first is that they just aren't reliable. The GP-1 -- as well as most of the other alternatives that surfaced prior to the N3 -- can routinely take between four to six minutes to find a GPS lock from a cold boot. In my testing, the N3 geotagger secured an accurate lock within a few feet within one to two minutes, even under fairly dense tree cover. If I had a reasonably clear view of the sky, I saw it grab a lock in 35 seconds. Without question, that's industry-leading speed. Time after time, the unit managed to find a fix in some of America's most remote locales in just a fraction of the time it takes rival units.
The other problem that most add-on units suffer from is excessive battery drain. On the D3S, you've two options once the N3 is connected. Tucked within the GPS menu is a selection that's (confusingly) titled "Auto Meter Off." Our outright recommendation is to leave this "Off" when using the N3. Nikon's GP-1 GPS dongle will chew up roughly half of the D3S' battery if this is set to "Off" and forgotten for three to four hours. With the N3, we left it "Off" for 36 straight hours, took over 400 images and still had roughly 20 percent remaining in our cell. That's simply astonishing. Frankly, there's no reason whatsoever to tweak this setting to "On."
By keeping it on "Off," you're effectively telling the N3 GPS dongle to remain alive even when the camera is switched off. The benefit here is that the GPS dongle will continually ping satellites in order to maintain a general idea of where you're located. Then, when you suddenly see a herd of bison tromping through Yellowstone National Park, you can flick the camera on, snap a few shots and have each of the images tagged with the precise location that you were at. This mode basically keeps the GPS unit only a second or two away from being able to regain a lock, and in our testing, the N3 managed to reacquire a fix before we had time to turn on the D3S, press Menu, and surf to the Position menu. If you're unfamiliar, that process takes two to three seconds. Impressive, indeed.
Design and procurement
The N3 is spectacularly engineered. We already mentioned how brilliant the spiral cable design is, and the screw-in mechanism ensures that the cable won't ever slip out even in bumpy conditions. It's also wildly light at just 1.8 ounces. You won't even notice the extra heft -- pinky promise. Interestingly, Solmeta also throws in a 2.5mm port on the side and a bundled wired remote trigger. The cord on the remote is a few feet long, and if you plug it into the connected N3, you'll be able to dictate a shutter press without having to lay a finger on the camera body itself. Can't say we were expecting a remote trigger to be built into a GPS module, but hey -- we'll take it. We're guessing it's there to act as a passthrough for those using the front connection port for a separate remote trigger apparatus, but honestly, the whole ordeal just reminds us how irked we are that the D3S doesn't have inbuilt support for a wireless remote trigger.
As of now, there aren't too many options for picking up an N3. Thankfully, the one option we tried -- placing an order with Solmeta itself -- works well. You'll need to visit the More Coverage link below and order one directly from the company; it'll ship from Hong Kong, so we'd recommend coughing up the $30 expedited shipping fee unless you really can wait a sliver of eternity for the unit to arrive on US soil. In our experience, that option got the product to America in five business days.
If you've been dragging your feet on purchasing a geotagging dongle for your Nikon DSLR, good on you. The options presented thus far have been lackluster at worst and just bearable at best. Solmeta's N3, however, is the one you've been longing for. It's light, durable, stupendously reliable and absolutely consistent. Over the course of seven days, we took over 2,500 images across some five states in incredibly diverse scenarios. Not a single image was mis-tagged, and not a single image was missing a tag. The impact on battery life was so minimal that we don't even consider it an issue; just get this thing and get to geotagging. Those who travel -- even if it's just a one-off vacation -- can gain a ton of value from looking back at photos and finding the precise points where their galleries were taken.
Yeah, you'll probably need to be something of an argonaut to truly appreciate the art of great geotagging -- and we'll be covering the best methods for doing precisely that in a future article -- but the N3 finally delivers that ability to Nikon shooters in a way that no other unit has to date. If you're on the fence, pull the trigger on this guy: it's $189 (plus some lofty shipping fees) well-spent.