GEOSPEX Custom Banner

GEOSPEX | geospatial analysis | urban planning | environmental issues

GPS + ArcGIS vs. GPS + QGIS: Pluses and Minuses

The benefits and preferences of one desktop GIS vs the other – specifically ArcGIS vs. QGIS – are legion and numerous; and not the subject of this post. Both platforms do however tout the potential to interface with handheld GPS units for both upload/download capabilities of geospatial data- waypoints, routes and tracks.

Handheld, recreational GPS units (as opposed to commercial units like Trimbles) continue to advance in their locational precision, and they are increasingly used for field survey work that doesn’t need the surveyor precision of a commercial unit. Precision at 5 Meters is relatively common at this point, especially with GPS + GLONASS found in many units such as the newer Garmins.

What doesn’t seen to be keeping up with the advances in the handhelds themselves are the interface options both in ArcGIS and QGIS. Both platforms require extra plugins/dependencies to effectively sync directly with a handheld GPS. This is nothing less than frustrating. For QGIS some leeway can be given for the open source nature of the platform; plugins are developed by its open development community. But for ArcGIS that relies on proprietary, profit-driven development, not to feature a quick, easy and dependable handheld support as of the latest release (10.2.2) is a definite oversight.

For ArcGIS, STILL (2015!) the only port option available as default in the GPS interface tool is a serial port. ArcGIS will simply not recognize a standard USB port that is part and parcel of handhelds . Really the only option available for GPS to ArcGIS directly is create a virtual port via third-party software. North River Geographic has a post on this process of creating a virtual port; and MxGPS has an extension– both processes are certainly more hassle than simple ‘plug and play’.

ArcGIS serial port GPS interface [ ArcGIS serial port GPS interface ]

For QGIS, GPS capability resides in its plugin architecture, specifically its GPS Tools plugin. On the face, this is all and good, but there are, again, dependencies in the form of GPSBABEL that need to be downloaded and installed to create the bridge between the GPS unit and QGIS. This is not without its complications as discussed in this GIS stack exchange post.

QGIS GPS Tools Plugin [ QGIS GPS Tools Plugin ]


QGIS GPS Tools Interface for USB [ QGIS GPS Tools Interface for USB ]

Given the limitations outlined above of both ArcGIS and QGIS relative to GPS, I’ve been resorting to a workaround found in an application designed and developed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources- the DNRGPS.


Although it doesn’t provide a direct connection with either ArcGIS or QGIS, it operates much better than either interfaces for the unit itself in prepping both upload/downloads between unit-desktop.

DNRGPS- Initial Load [ DNRGPS- Initial Load ]

Typical File Types [ DNRGPS- Typical File Types ]

DNRGPS is not designed to work specifically with QGIS but it does handle .gpx and other geospatial data types common to QGIS. Its not designed to run on Mac, not tested on Linux, but is stable on Windows. It features good documentation; its open source, accessible, free and is built on dependable components, specifically GDAL, GPSBABEL, PROJ4 and ESRI’s File GDB API. I like it and now depend on it as my ‘go to’ GPS input/output step prior to mapping in ArcGIS or QGIS.