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Tech deep dive

Many people have asked, what’s special about our Unleashed. It’s said that the devil’s in the detail, so we wanted to share some of the technical details that really set the Unleashed apart. It’s gonna get real nerdy, so buckle up 🤓

Where to start?

We’ve been working on the Unleashed with up to 8 developers at once, over the course of about 5 years! The firmware alone is comprised of around a quarter of a million lines of code! For all those unsure what this means: That’s A LOT!

The Unleashed has two main components – a Bluetooth module based on a Nordic chipset and a microprocessor from STM. The STM is in charge of communicating with the camera. It implements a USB Host instance, two serial protocols and GPIOs. The Nordic handles communication with the app as well as accessories paired directly with the Unleashed.

Here’s what’s special and what makes those ~250000 lines of code even more incredible: The STM only has 128 Kilobytes of RAM, and 256 Kilobytes of storage, and the Nordic just 64KB RAM, but a little more storage.

That means we can’t use any readily available image handling libraries or SDKs to control the cameras, and we have had to program everything ourselves from scratch. We’re programming bare-metal – i.e. we’re not even using any operating system! We’ve had to be extremely careful with our very, very limited resources, which has resulted in clean and efficient code – by necessity. And that translates to a great user experience for you! The sad thing is, that no-one will ever notice most of the things that we have taken so much care to get right. Because it just works as you’d expect it to! We usually only notice the things that don’t work as they should.

Since we’re so proud of our accomplishments, I wanted to use this update to highlight some of those things that you’d probably never notice.

USB protocol madness

Except for Nikon, who provide excellent documentation on the USB protocol they use, we have had to reverse engineer this protocol for all the other camera brands. This protocol is called PTP/MTP, for which there is actually a well defined standard. What we found really odd is that, for reasons we cannot figure out, every manufacturer has their own weird extension of this protocol, instead of utilizing it in a way that’s already defined by the standard. Again, Nikon is an exception here, and maybe that’s a reason they’re happy to publish all the details of their API. You have no idea how often, when we finally figured out how something works for a certain manufacturer, we developers collectively just shook our heads and asked “Why???”. That’s the reason why it’s not so easy to add new manufacturers to our compatibility list. The protocol was designed to cover most camera capabilities, and provide easy ways to extend it, but instead, every single one of the manufacturers (except Nikon) does their own thing with it.

But that’s just the basics. Once we figured out everything we could, there were still so many cases where we were left wondering why they couldn’t have just done this other little bit, too, and made everyone’s life easy. Instead, we’ve had to implement complicated workarounds for things that should have just worked in the first place.

Nikon video

After all the praise, here’s a Nikon oddity. For some reason, when starting liveview (e.g. for video recording) via USB, Nikon did not allow for the liveview image to be displayed on the camera’s LCD. I suppose they assumed most use-cases for remote control via USB were to add a bigger screen like a laptop, and therefore expect the liveview image to be transmitted via USB. That’s fine, but why disable it on the camera screen? Anyway, we found a really cool workaround for that: When the user starts a video recording from the app, we quickly change a setting deep in the camera menu, that allows us to start liveview by halfpressing the shutterbutton, and start a video recording by fully pressing the shutterbutton. We then proceed to turn off the USB protocol, and turn on a secondary protocol (more on that later), half press, then full press the shutterbutton, and within a very, very short time, can start video recording with the live-view image showing on the camera’s screen (and HDMI for those with external recorders). Upon stopping the video, we quickly change back the setting to what it was before. Pretty cool, eh?

Nikon’s 10 pin protocol & GPS

That secondary protocol I mentioned is one that no-one knows of, which we completely figured out on our own – and it allows almost all the functions over just the 10 pin port that the Unleashed N1 and N2 plug into. This means that the Unleashed N1 and N2 actually work really well without the USB cable, retaining almost the entire featureset, except anything that has to do with image data. So image review, gallery and the LRT autoramping algorithms don’t work, but everything else will.

This also allows us to still give you control over all the settings while we turn off USB to allow you to shoot video.

One downside to this protocol is that is uses the same pins that we need for the GPS protocol on Nikon cameras. So when it’s used with geotagging turned on, we have to quickly turn off that protocol, turn on GPS, and then take a photo. This adds a slight delay to your triggering, but that’s what the “GPS Priority” setting is for – if you prefer no delays, you can set to trigger immediately, at the risk of having some photos without GPS data.

The other great thing about Nikon’s 10 pin port is that we get lots of information about the camera’s state directly through these pins. Like whether the camera is turned on, the meter is currently on, etc. This helps us manage power-saving features really well!

Tap-to-trigger

But one very cool bit of information is exactly when the shutter opens and closes. This allows for several cool features. The simplest is “tap to trigger”. At first we translated pressing the shutterbutton in the app 100% to pressing the shutterbutton on the camera. As photographers we’re used to pressing the shutterbutton until we hear the clicking of the shutter, then we release. But in the first user tests we did, we noticed that 100% of all testers, whether they were die-hard photographers or not, did a single short tap on the shutterbutton in the app, and were wondering why the camera wasn’t taking a photo! Because that’s what everyone is used to from apps! And so we implemented a solution for this in our firmware: if we receive a tap, the Unleashed will press and hold the camera’s shutterbutton for exactly as long as required, until it senses the shutter opening – i.e. when the camera starts the shot! We then release the trigger so fast, that even with the camera set to continuous high, it will only take a single shot! Of course, if you continue to hold the shutterbutton in the app, the Unleashed will also keep pressing the camera’s shutterbutton until you let go, for burst shots or in-camera HDR bracketing.

Minimal darktime

This also allows us to promise the absolute shortest dark-time during timelapses! Most intervalometers default to fully pressing the shutterbutton for one or two seconds, some even to the interval you set minus 1 second. This results in darktimes of at least that amount of time, no matter how fast the shutterspeed is. With the Unleashed, it’s guaranteed to be shorter than the darktime of the camera itself (while it’s taking the photo). On top of that, most intervalometers half-press for a second or so before fully pressing the trigger, just in case your camera needs to autofocus. This adds yet another second to the dark time, and in most cases, as your exposures get longer, will result in you not being able to review the images at all on the camera screen. Since the Unleashed has the information whether the camera is set to autofocus or not, we can skip the half-press time entirely. And because you really shouldn’t be using autofocus on timelapses, the Unleashed app will even warn you about this while setting up the timelapse. There are a handful of cases where we do half-press in advance, for example geotagging is on, and we do everything possible to make sure GPS data is in each and every photo.

We have similar mechanisms on several other camera brands, and because we’re triggering via USB on those, we can often also just tell the camera to take a single picture, rather than telling it to half-press/full press the shutterbutton. In other words, no intervalometer out there can have a shorter dark-time than what the Unleashed can offer!

LED in the dark

While we’re on the topic of triggering: We have a nice RGB LED in the Unleashed to quickly tell you at one glance what’s happening in the Unleashed. Since one of the many strengths of the Unleashed is in night photography, even a really dim LED can completely alter an exposure, and illuminate an entire room! That’s why the Unleashed turns off the LED automatically for the entire duration of each exposure. Even when you trigger on the camera (on most supported cameras), we will turn off that LED. These are the kind of details, you’ll simply never see implemented in products that weren’t designed by or at least with photographers. And talking about the LED: While it’s idle, the Unleashed’s LED slowly pulses the LED in different colors, depending on the connection state. We tested various pulsing patterns, and all the most obvious ones simply looked wrong. By far the most natural looking one was a sine-curve. Remember we said we had limited hardware resources? Yeah. Trigonometric functions are always floating-point based, and require a lot of resources. Both in memory, to hold the complex functions, but also in execution time, as working with floating points alone is “expensive” and trigonometry even more so. Instead we scoured academic papers on the topic and found a very, very close approximation – the Bhaskara I’s sine. We then implemented that with integer logic, making it extremely efficient and just as beautiful as an actual sine curve. Pretty cool, eh?

There are so many of these kinds of details all throughout our firmware and apps, it would take days to write them all down!

Image decoding on the fly

There’s one pretty amazing part of our firmware that I can’t not talk about. Our image decoder. I don’t know if any of you have any idea about the resources required to work with images. It’s a lot. Usually the entire image gets loaded into RAM, then gets fully decoded into RAM, then calculations are done, and everything is discarded again. With JPEG images easily getting to 20Megabytes and the decoded version of that often being over 100MB, You’d think it’s an impossible task for our little Unleashed with its 128KB of RAM. And yes, with conventional methods it would be.

That’s why we wrote an image decoder from scratch, which can decode JPEG images, requires a mere 500 bytes of RAM, and can handle image data coming in in packets as small as 1 Byte at a time. All that while being performant enough to run at relatively slow processing speeds! That means we don’t have to save any of the image data, but can handle a packet of data, do our calculations and throw it away, We calculate and save the histogram data, and then use that to run the image-based algorithms for autoramping timelapses. And that happens once every interval. While we were at it, we also wrote a parser for EXIF data, so that we could get some valuable information about each image within the first few bytes of an image, skip to the really interesting parts, and only have to decode those parts, as opposed to decoding everything, and keeping only what interests us. That’s also how we can transfer the high-resolution previews without having to transfer the originals!

Previews with metadata

In fact, on most cameras, when we transfer a high resolution preview, we actually merge the EXIF data of the original with the image data of the preview, of course replacing things like X and Y resolution on the fly. This makes those previews even more valuable, as they still contain all your metadata, such as geotags, so if you save the previews to your iPhone’s camera roll, you’ll get to see your camera’s photos in the really cool Places album, where you can browse and find all your photos on a map interface.

We worked so much on our image decoder, and even implemented really, really efficient transcoding of jpeg images to reduce their size on the fly. Something we had hoped to be able to use for reducing the size of liveview frames, to be able to offer decent liveview over the low bandwidth of Bluetooth Low Energy. But sadly, after implementing all that, we hit other bottlenecks that prohibited us from being able to release this feature.

Our Baby

You probably read on our campaign page, that the Unleashed is not just another product out there, but it’s our Baby! Maybe now you have a little bit more of an idea of what we meant with that. We love the Unleashed and we’re pouring everything into it that we’ve got – to make it the coolest camera accessory that we personally always dreamt of!

Greetings from Berlin.

BACK TO INDIEGOGO

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Geotagging – What it is and how it can help you

picture of a map

Photos let you capture the most beautiful moments in life. Geotagging is a feature that can make reliving those moments even easier. Geotagging was also the basis of our company. It was the first feature that the Unleashed supported before it developed into more of a camera remote. But as our community grows we want to take new users along on the journey and share some insights on geotagging. What is geotagging? Why should you geotag photos? Read on to learn more about how geotagging can help you in your personal or professional photography.

What is geotagging?

While you might know geotagging from your smartphone, GPS is not a common feature in DSLRs yet. Geotagging means embedding the location data of where it was taken into the metadata of the photo. This means that apart from camera settings like aperture, exposure and focal length, longitude, latitude and altitude coordinates are saved as well.

How to geotag photos

If you don’t have a camera with built-in GPS, don’t worry – there are other ways to add location data to your photos. You can geotag your photos using an external GPS device. Just set it to tracking mode and it will record your exact location and time you were there. Later the exact location data can be added to the photo depending on the time it was taken.

Of course we can’t go without mentioning that our Unleashed offers an effortless geotagging solution, as well. The Unleashed geotags photos the moment you press the shutter: direct geotagging. Using the GPS of the phone it is connected to, it embeds the location data to the metadata directly, saving you plenty of time and effort post-shoot. The Unleashed supports Canon and Nikon cameras at the moment, but we are planning to add more camera brands to that list in the future.

For those who prefer an external GPS over a smartphone, we’ve made it possible to use the Unleashed with some GPS receivers. Read up on that in this blog post.

GPS receivers: Holux, QStarz, Transystem
GPS receivers: Holux, QStarz, Transystem

Why geotag your photos?

Adding GPS location data to your photos has a huge range of use cases. For one, it can help you organize your photo catalogue by location, other than only by time. This can be extremely helpful: imagine you are looking for a specific shot of a location, but can’t remember exactly when you were there. Many applications, like Lightroom and Flickr, now have interactive maps that show your geotagged photos on a world map. So you can easily find your vacation pictures without having to dig through countless folders or scroll through timelines. Geotagging is also used for professional purposes. It can be used for logging the location of rare wild animals, archaeological sites, location scouting for shoots and filming, and much more.

Geotagging Map Flickr

One word of caution if you post a lot of nature shots to social media: you might not want to publicly tag the exact location of every photo. This could lead to those places being overrun and natural ecosystems being damaged. Best to keep some places secret, so they can stay as beautiful as they are.

We hope this helped answer any questions you had concerning geotagging. So grab your camera and try geotagging on your next outings and see how it can help simplify your life. If you found this article helpful, feel free to share it on social media!

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Geotagging with external GPS receivers now possible (updated)

GPS receivers: Holux, QStarz, Transystem

A few weeks ago, we released app and firmware updates that enable a handful of external GPS receivers to be paired directly with the Unleashed, to provide GPS location data for geotagging without the need of a smartphone.

This is great news for those customers that were unhappy with their smartphone’s location precision, or simply prefer a more independent geotagging solution. This might be to extend battery life of the smartphone, or to enjoy longer battery life of external GPS receivers, especially on long trips off the grid.

The compatible GPS Receivers are:

  • Holux M-241 Plus
  • QStarz BL-1000ST
  • QStarz BL-1000GT
  • QStarz BL-818GT *new*
  • Transystem GL-770

After pairing one of these GPS receivers with your Unleashed through the app (Menu->Your Unleasheds->Edit Unleashed->Accessories), you will see new GPS Modes in the first picker of the GPS settings. In addition to “OFF” and “Smartphone”, you will now also have the options “External GPS only” as well as “External GPS with smartphone fallback” (We hope the new icons make it clear which is which). The first new option will exclusively use GPS data from the external GPS, and not of the smartphone, whereas the second option will use the external GPS while it’s available and providing valid data, but will automatically fall back to using the smartphone location otherwise.

We’ve also added a few new LED colors/sequences to make using the Unleashed without the app a little easier:

  • Lightblue: when an Accessory (such as a GPS receiver) is connected, but the app is not connected, the led will slowly pulse lightblue instead of turqoise.
  • Red blink: alternating with the normal sequences, the Unleashed will blink red to show that there is an error, until now mostly GPS related errors. You can then start the app to see details about the error, or simply check that the the external GPS receiver has a Fix and is connected. Some of these errors are:
    • External GPS receiver not connected (even if it then uses Smartphone fallback)
    • GPS data not valid (even if using last known position)
    • GPS accuracy too low

Comparing the receivers

The Holux has the Unique feature that it uses a single AA battery, for which you can buy replacements anywhere in the world. At the same time battery life is not as good as with the rechargeable Li-Ion batteries of the other options. The QStarz devices provide a little more data than the other two receivers [update: Transystem caught up], and we’ve implemented a neat little feature where you can use the POI button on the Receiver to trigger the camera. But they are also the most expensive. We recommend the BL-1000ST rather than the BL-1000GT, since the Unleashed will not make use of the 10Hz update rate, so it is not worth the extra cost. The BL-818GT doesn’t support the triggering functionality, as it lacks logging, and thus the button is not for POI saving. The Transystem device is more affordable than Qstarz, while providing just as precise position data, but has a quirk that it uses a non-standard USB-A to USB-A charging/data cable. So don’t lose that!

Right from the start, we had planned to make the Unleashed directly compatible with external GPS receivers, but technical challenges forced us to decide against pursuing backwards compatibility to GPS receivers using Bluetooth Classic. Unfortunately, at the time of Launch that basically left us with no options, since virtually all GPS receivers used Bluetooth Classic. However, in the past few years, the above devices were released, so we put a lot of effort into making the Unleashed compatible with external accessories in general, and added support for each of the GPS receivers one after the other.

While we had to reverse engineer Holux’s Bluetooth Protocol (and we got the Date portion wrong for a while), QStarz was kind enough to provide documentation that allowed us to implement support for their devices much more quickly. Transystem went one step further: They used a standard protocol defined by the Bluetooth SIG, and when we found a small issue with their implementation and had additional wishes, they swiftly made changes and added support for those in a firmware update. So a big thank you to both QStarz and Transystem for your support!

So, finally, the Unleashed now enables direct geotagging with external GPS receivers for Nikon as well as Canon DSLRs!

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D5 announced – add GPS with our Unleashed D200+

Nikon D5 in front of black background.

So Nikon finally put an end to all those D5 rumors, and revealed their new Flaship FX DSLR at CES 2016, delivering even more than everyone reading the rumors already anticipated! It really is a beast of a camera, and trumps the D4s in all the important specs: 20.8MP FX Sensor, EXPEED 5 Processor, Native ISO up to 102400, extendable to Hi5 (3280000 – yes, 3.28 million!), brand new 153-Point AF System, 12 fps continuous shooting incl. AF (up to 200 shots), new 180k RGB pixel metering Sensor, Hi-Res Touchscreen, and 4K Video, just to name a few! I’m sure you all know the details, or will want to read up on dpreview (hands-on), nikonrumors, engadget or from official sources: nikon.com.

The D5, like all other current Nikon DSLRs does not have GPS built in, but we’re pleased to tell you that our Unleashed D200+ (with the D800 modification) will work on the D5, giving you the best direct geotagging solution currently available.

D5

This year is the first time since many years that we are not at CES, so unfortunately I was unable to test compatibility personally. However, I have received confirmation from a customer that the Unleashed D200+ with the D800 modification fit the D5 well physically, when he tested it. Since it was indoors, he was unable to verify the functionality. I’m very sure there will be no issues, as the D5, just like the Nikon’s Pro-DSLRs remains compatible with Nikon’s own GPS product, which our Unleashed is electronically compatible with. However, once we get our hands on a D5, we’ll be sure to test it extensively and update this post with our results.

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Nikon D5500 – no more integrated GPS

So, just in time for CES, Nikon announced the D5500, successor to the D5300. The D5300 was Nikon’s only DSLR that had GPS built-in. Its successor, however, no longer does. It seems the function was either not popular enough, or did not work as well as it was supposed to. My guess/experience: Both! (The worst was the battery drain). As usual, you can read the details on dpreview.com or engadget.com

At CES, I went over to the Nikon booth, to test our Unleashed on the D5500 there. Luckily, one of the guys there was curious enough himself to let me test it – even though they were just prototypes, and he wasn’t supposed to let me.

Nikon D5500
  • The good news: the Unleashed Dx000 works on the D5500 (see the GPS Satellite icon)
    Nikon D5500 screenshot GPS icon
  • The bad news: I was unable to properly test how well it fits the D5500, but can tell you it’ll be tight!
    Unleashed Dx000 on Nikon D5500Unleashed Dx000 on Nikon D5500
    It would have been necessary to remove the rubber flap to insert the Unleashed Dx000 completeley, and of course was not going to do that on Nikon’s prototype. The socket is a little more recessed than on other cameras, so I cannot yet promise that the Unleashed can be plugged in all the way, and therefore get enough contact to work properly. I will update this post when I know more – if you’ve tested it, let us know in the comments!
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D750 announced – Unleashed Dx000 adds GPS [updated]

Just ahead of photokina, Nikon released yet another FX DSLR. Placed somewhere between the D610 and the D810, the new D750 adds a few extras: built-in wifi, a tilting screen, and a slimmer than usual body.

D750 with 20mm/1.8

What they didn’t add is built-in GPS! Thankfully we have a solution for that, and our Unleashed Dx000 is compatible. I will personally go and test it at photokina when I find the time.

D750 terminals with rough Unleashed Dx000 outline

Read more about the D750 at nikon.com or engadget.com

One last thing: just like with the D600/D610/Df, the rubber flap covering must be completely removed for the Unleashed Dx000 to fit. There’s an almost almost completely reversible method described here.

[Update 2014-09-25] I got a chance to visit the Nikon Booth at photokina, and test the Unleashed Dx000 on the D750. It works very well, as expected, and easily fits under the eyelet for the camera Strap.

Unleashed Dx000 on D750 Side View Unleashed Dx000 on D750 GPS icon

However, this eyelet will block the remote release socket on the top of the Unleashed Dx000. This is needed for pairing (only once), so you’ll need to run the pairing routine on another camera, or purchase a pre-paired bundle.

Unleashed Dx000 on D750 Remote won t fit

It is possible to use the Unleashed without removing the rubber flap, but I would recommend removing it. The flap pushes against the Unleashed quite strongly, and could eventually push it out.

Unleashed Dx000 on D750 rubber flap

[/Update]

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Nikon Df – add GPS with Unleashed Dx000

Nikon launched yet another DSLR, just weeks after the D610 and the D5300. Catching up to the retro trend the Nikon Df (which stands for Digital fusion) looks similar to the classic FM/2 and the F3, but internally is on par with Nikons current flagship cameras. It contains the 16MP full-frame sensor and Expeed processors of the D4, and the AF system of the D610. Read more about the specs and features on nikon.com or dpreview.com.

Nikon Df in Silver

The Df does not have built-in GPS, but it is compatible with our Unleashed Dx000, which will sit nice and flat on the side of the Df, adding GPS capability to the Df, without adding bulk or cables, or getting in the way when you take photos, very much unlike the Nikon GP-1 :-)

Nikon Df with GP-1
The Nikon GP-1 on the Df – “less than ideal”

One more thing: there is no GPS icon on the top LCD, and the one on the info screen on the main LCD has changed to this: Df GPS icon

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Nikon D610 – no built-in GPS, Unleashed Dx000 compatible

Nikon announces the D610 as the successor of the D600, but only with minor updates. Many had hoped for built-in GPS and wifi, but again, Nikon did not add this. Instead they gave the D610 a new shutter mechanism, probably to put an end to the oil spot problem of the D600, but at the same time offering slightly increased frame rate (6 as opposed to 5.5fps) and a new quiet continuous shooting option. Read the details on nikon.com or dpreview.com.

Nikon D610

The good news is that our Unleashed Dx000 will still be compatible with the D610, just as it was with the D600. As such, it will also be necessary to completely remove the rubber flap covering the GPS Port, to allow the Unleashed Dx000 to fit properly. We describe a almost entirely reversible way to do so here.

Order your Unleashed Dx000 in our online-shop today!

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Nikon D600 – Unleashed Dx000 is compatible

We’re back from photokina2012 – a great show and a great success! As promised I headed over to the Nikon Booth, and tested our Unleashed Dx000 on the D600.

At first, my heart sunk: No GPS icon on the top LCD. Luckily, when I took photos, the GPS data was embedded in the EXIF data! I figured that Nikon might have simply not included a GPS icon at all on the top LCD. Looking through the manual (page 175 7) it is evident that this is not the case. – there definitely should be a GPS icon. Maybe I simply overlooked it, or the Model on display malfunctioned in some way. Sorry for this false information. Page 175 shows the INFO display, not the top LCD. Top LCD or “Control Panel” is shown on page 7, and definitely does NOT have a GPS icon.

D600 with UnleashedDx000

The Unleashed will fit nicely on the D600, the only problem being that the rubberflap is in the way. While it is possible to use the Unleashed like that, the pressure from the flap will, over time, cause the Plug on the Unleashed to break off the PCB inside, which eventually result in malfunction. There are two nice solutions for this:

  • Cut a rectangle out of the flap, just over the port – so the flap remains closed while the Unleashed is plugged in.
  • Remove the flap entirely: A customer figured out a great, almost entirely reversible method for this:
    D7000 Flap cut
    [image from georgle’s blog]


    by cutting the rubber hinges that wrap around the metal pin right next to the flap, it is possible to remove the flap entirely. By threading the hinges back under the metal pin, the flap can be replaced and will retain its full functionality.

Update:

I misread the manual: Page 175 shows the INFO screen, not the TOP LCD. On page 7 one can see that the top LCD really does not have a GPS icon – in other words, the D600 is fully compatible with the Unleashed Dx000, no “odd behaviour”, no doubt about it.

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Nikon D600 announced

Today, Nikon announced another full-frame DSLR, the D600. Read the reviews on dpreview, engadget or elsewhere.

Nikon D600

Of course Nikon added GPS support, again it’s not integrated, but via an external Module, such as their GP-1 and of course our Unleashed. According to Nikon, the D600 fits in right below the D800 and is just as much a Pro DSLR as the latter. Rumor had it, that this was going to be the first consumer DSLR with an Fx sensor, and there was much evidence to back this. One example is that the D600 does not have the “pro” 10-pin port on the front of the camera, which would have fit our Unleashed D200+. Instead, it is equipped with the port found on all the consumer DSLRs, on the side of the camera, making our Unleashed Dx000 compatible with the D600.

Nikon D600 GPS Port

D600 Ports (photo by dpreview)

In a couple of days, we’ll be at photokina, and will try the D600 with our Unleashed, just to verify it works, and get you some pics of how it looks.