GPS modules are great in that the moment you turn them on, they'll start spitting out data, and trying to get a 'fix' (location verification). Like pretty much every GPS in existence, the Adafruit Ultimate GPS uses TTL serial output to send data so the best way to first test the GPS is to wire it directly to the computer via the TTL serial to USB converter on an Arduino. You can also use an FTDI Friend or other TTL adapter but for this demonstration we'll use a classic Arduino.

This tutorial step won't work with a chip that has NATIVE USB - its for an Arduino UNO compatible only. Go on to the next step, "Arduino Wiring", but refer back here for this discussion of the GPS data!
First, load a 'blank' sketch into the Arduino:
// this sketch will allow you to bypass the Atmega chip
// and connect the Ultimate GPS directly to the USB/Serial
// chip converter.
// Connect VIN to +5V
// Connect GND to Ground
// Connect GPS RX (data into GPS) to Digital 0
// Connect GPS TX (data out from GPS) to Digital 1
void setup() {}
void loop() {}
This is will free up the converter so you can directly wire and bypass the Arduino chip. Once you've uploaded this sketch, wire the GPS as follows. Your module may look slightly different, but as long as you are connecting to the right pin names, they all work identically for this part
Now plug in the USB cable, and open up the serial monitor from the Arduino IDE and be sure to select 9600 baud in the drop down. You should see text like the following:

This is the raw GPS "NMEA sentence" output from the module. There are a few different kinds of NMEA sentences, the most common ones people use are the $GPRMC (Global Positioning RecommendedMinimum Coordinates or something like that) and the $GPGGA sentences. These two provide the time, date, latitude, longitude, altitude, estimated land speed, and fix type. Fix type indicates whether the GPS has locked onto the satellite data and received enough data to determine the location (2D fix) or location+altitude (3D fix).

For more details about NMEA sentences and what data they contain, check out this site

If you look at the data in the above window, you can see that there are a lot of commas, with no data in between them. That's because this module is on my desk, indoors, and does not have a 'fix'. To get a fix, we need to put the module outside.

GPS modules will always send data EVEN IF THEY DO NOT HAVE A FIX! In order to get 'valid' (not-blank) data you must have the GPS module directly outside, with the square ceramic antenna pointing up with a clear sky view. In ideal conditions, the module can get a fix in under 45 seconds. however depending on your location, satellite configuration, solar flares, tall buildings nearby, RF noise, etc it may take up to half an hour (or more) to get a fix! This does not mean your GPS module is broken, the GPS module will always work as fast as it can to get a fix.
If you can get a really long USB cord (or attach a GPS antenna to the v3 modules) and stick the GPS out a window, so its pointing at the sky, eventually the GPS will get a fix and the window data will change over to transmit valid data like this:

Look for the line that says $GPRMC,194509.000,A,4042.6142,N,07400.4168,W,2.03,221.11,160412,,,A*77 
This line is called the RMC (Recommended Minimum) sentence and has pretty much all of the most useful data. Each chunk of data is separated by a comma.

The first part 194509.000 is the current time GMT (Greenwich Mean Time). The first two numbers 19 indicate the hour (1900h, otherwise known as 7pm) the next two are the minute, the next two are the seconds and finally the milliseconds. So the time when this screenshot was taken is 7:45 pm and 9 seconds. The GPS does not know what time zone you are in, or about "daylight savings" so you will have to do the calculation to turn GMT into your timezone

The second part is the 'status code', if it is a V that means the data is Void (invalid). If it is an A that means its Active (the GPS could get a lock/fix)

The next 4 pieces of data are the geolocation data. According to the GPS, my location is 4042.6142,N (Latitude 40 degrees, 42.6142 decimal minutes North) & 07400.4168,W. (Longitude 74 degrees, 0.4168 decimal minutes West) To look at this location in Google maps, type +40  42.6142', -74  00.4168' into the google maps search box . Unfortunately gmaps requires you to use +/- instead of NSWE notation. N and E are positive, S and W are negative.

People often get confused because the GPS is working but is "5 miles off" - this is because they are not parsing the lat/long data correctly. Despite appearances, the geolocation data is NOT in decimal degrees. It is in degrees and minutes in the following format: Latitude: DDMM.MMMM (The first two characters are the degrees.) Longitude: DDDMM.MMMM (The first three characters are the degrees.)

The next data is the ground speed in knots. We're going 2.03 knots

After that is the tracking angle, this is meant to approximate what 'compass' direction we're heading at based on our past travel

The one after that is 160412 which is the current date (16th of April, 2012).

Finally there is the *XX data which is used as a data transfer checksum

Once you get a fix using your GPS module, verify your location with google maps (or some other mapping software). Remember that GPS is often only accurate to 5-10 meters and worse if you're indoors or surrounded by tall buildings.

This guide was first published on Aug 23, 2012. It was last updated on Aug 23, 2012.

This page (Direct Computer Wiring) was last updated on Apr 19, 2021.

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