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Sep 28 2010

Samsung Galaxy S – Where’s the GPS Fix?

Samsung have had no shortage of heat with regards to its flagship Android phone over the last few months. Issues with the lag attributed to their proprietary file system (RFS) have been an ongoing problem prompting the user community to come up with their own solutions such as the Voodoo Lag Fix which I wrote about recently. Then, there was the issue of the missing three button download and recovery modes (of which the problem source was never publicly released by Samsung) and a fix was only provided by Samsung after significant outcry on various social media outlets such as Facebook and community sites such as XDA Developers.

Another issue plaguing the device is the poorly performing GPS. These days, a smartphone worth its salt will have GPS built in with Google Maps being the de facto maps implementation (obviously on an Android device but also on Apple iOS devices). Even fairly “middle of the road” feature phones like the Nokia 6110 Navigator have GPS capabilities.

Unfortunately, the Samsung Galaxy S has issues with its GPS capabilities that create inaccurate positioning, slow location locks or no response. Cutting edge devices usually have a form of “Asssisted GPS” (A-GPS) which use a combination of cell tower triangulation and services such as “Skyhook” to triangulate based upon nearby Wi-Fi access points in conjunction with regular GPS capabilities to obtain a faster and more accurate lock.

Despite this Android device having A-GPS, this device is unable to maintain a reliable lock on satellites despite having clear line of sight. Also, the device cannot lock onto more than eight satellites at any one time (despite having view of more satellites) and then appears to jump around sporadically between the available satellites. As to whether this is a hardware or software issue remains to be seen (like the missing three button modes on some newer devices) but Samsung has been promising a solution for a while now but has been otherwise tight lipped.

The widely held belief is that the GPS driver used in the Samsung Galaxy S is flawed. The GPS solution in the Samsung Galaxy S (which is the Broadcom BCM4751) is an incremental version up from the one used in the TomTom XXL GPS units (and they are pretty accurate). It’s one of the most sensitive GPS chips available however the manufacturer of the mobile device incorporating this chip has to write their own driver since Broadcom do not appear to provide one. At present, the source code for the GPS driver cannot be found which makes things difficult for the user community.

This reminds me very much of the internal softmodems that flooded the market in the early noughties that would frequently drop out or exhibit poor dataflow. They would also require your to reboot your computer if you misconfigured them before getting another shot. However, once the driver had matured and computers could handle the load of a softmodem on the CPU then the problem went away (for the most part). I even recall dealing with a customer whose modem would stop working after a particular date and putting the date back to a time in the past fixed their immediate problem.

Strange stuff does happen.

So, for the time being, users have to resort to making noise in the hopes that Samsung will bring out a working solution but it really disappoints me that they release such a great piece of hardware with such crumby software suppressing its full potential.

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