Saturday, May 23, 2009

My Look at the Geomate Jr.

Listen for my short review of the Geomate Jr. on Podcacher Show 218. Also listen to the Geocaching Podcast episode 106 for an interview with Warren of Apisphere and further discussion on the new unit.

Probably the most difficult part of looking at the new Geomate Jr. by Apisphere, Inc. is determining where the product fits. This is a GPSR find only traditional geocaches -- nothing else. It is not a GPSR for avid Geocachers. It may work well for casual Geocachers. Very likely it could fit well into the hands of younger children while caching with their parents. Perhaps someone with only a GPS enabled phone would try one as a higher performance GPSR supplementing their phone when out caching. The Geomate Jr. is probably best though for couples or families just starting out with Geocaching. Really the $70USD unit doesn't seem to have an obvious fit yet it is very compelling.

The goal was to create a simple, inexpensive GPSR for Geocaching which would be ready to use out of the box. The team at Apisphere has succeeded in that task (though you have to buy the batteries separately before you can power on the Geomate Jr.). The nearly quarter million geocaches preloaded into the device are filtered to be family friendly traditional caches available to all Geocachers.
Preloaded Coverage:United States
Cache Capacity:250,000
User Waypoints:1 (marked only, not set numerically)
LCD Display:
  • Compass (pointers at 22.5°)
  • Geocache Difficulty
  • Geocache Terrain
  • Geocache Size
  • Found Geocache
  • 12 Characters on 3 Rows
    (5 large in center of compass, 5 small in the lower right of the compass, 2 small in the lower left of the compass)
  • Current Display Mode
  • GPS Signal Quality
  • Low Battery
  • Buttons:
  • Power
  • Left (Next)
  • Right (Page)
  • Power:2 x AAA batteries
    Connection:Proprietary Update Kit
    Dimensions:1.9in x 3.7in x 1in
    Resistance:Splash proof
    Someone walking out of a store with the Geomate Jr. and a pair of AAA batteries needs only to read the short foldout included, insert the batteries, power-up the GPSR, then hit the trail for the cache nearest their location. The two button interface gives quick and easy access to all you need from the limited functions the unit can perform. Pressing the left button displays the next closest cache in the list. Press and hold that button to point to the "HOME" location saved in the unit. To mark a "HOME" location, press and hold both buttons at the same time. Press the right button to cycle through the display modes -- Geocaching, GC Code, Navigation, and Found List. To mark the cache found, press and hold the right button. To refresh the list of the 20 closest caches cycle the power (turn it off then back on). While in the Geocaching display mode the arrows of the compass indicate the direction to walk while the large numbers in the center count the distance in either miles or feet. The GC Code will display the geocache's waypoint ID from minus the leading "GC" (i.e. GC1DASP is displayed as 1DASP). The Navigation mode displays the heading, latitude, longitude, elevation, and satelites being tracked (the left button is used to cycle through information). The Found List is sorted to show the most recent found geocache first in the list. Displayed is the waypoint and the date of the find. That's pretty much all there is to using the Geomate Jr., there's not much more.

    Preloaded into the Geomate Jr. is a database of filtered geocaches. Since the user can't enter additional waypoints, nor do they see a cache description, it seems logical that the database would have only traditional caches. I questioned Apisphere about how that initial database is created and received this response:
    "...we have applied filtering that is designed to create a family-friendly list as well as maximize longevity of the database - to try to create as favorable as possible out-of-box experience. We filter the list based on things like age of geocache (we only include caches that have been in existence for a certain period of time), time since last found (if the cache hasn't been found for awhile, we don't include) and also difficultly (we don't include the hard to find or get to caches). In addition to this, every time we build a new batch of units, we always create and load a new database...."
    Obviously that means any caches placed after that database was created will not be available. The bigger problem is that geocaches archived or disabled following database creation will still be available in that unit. All of this can be updated through the coming Update Kit at less than $25 scheduled to start shipping in June. That kit consists of a special cable and software allowing the user to update the entire U.S. database or select regions to load for more complete listings. In order to keep the cost of the unit low, this cable includes the controller to talk with the GPSR eliminating the need for the USB controller in the Geomate Jr. (rather than paying for that chip with each GPSR you can use one kit to upgrade many units). As that kit has not shipped yet I was unable to test it. My opinion is that it will be a very important piece for anyone looking to Geocaching beyond the first week of owning their GPSR. Apishere would like to have upgrade stations available in retail outlet refreshing the caches at the store. This large database is both the best asset and the biggest liability of the Geomate Jr.

    With all this firmly committed to memory (and a copy of the User Guide PDF on my iPhone) we went out caching for a day. Our goal that day was to hit four specific virtual geocaches and any other geocaches we might encounter along the way. I was very happy with the performance of the Geomate Jr. as it guided us to caches with roughly the same accuracy of the Oregon 300. The screen is very readable in bright light, though under dark conditions it suffers having no backlight. We went to the iPhone for descriptions and hints on a couple of the caches, but none of the caches in the Geomate Jr. we attempted had been archived or disabled. Over half of the traditional caches we attempted were not in the preloaded database. I quickly realized that in most cases I would not have been able to find these caches off just the compass. The maps on the Nuvi 205T 265T, iPhone 3G, GPSMap 60CSx, or Oregon 300 were key to determining a means to access the cache and without those maps I might have spent hours hunting for just the right road to get to the parking lot. The workflow I settled into was to use the 60CSX and Nuvi 205T 265T to find the caches along the route, then once parked I'd power cycle the Geomate Jr. to check for the cache in that unit. If it was in the unit, I'd hunt with only the Geomate Jr. while Firefly03 used the Oregon 300. I found it distracting to see the caches we had marked found continue to show in the list of closest caches (they are marked as found with a little smily under the waypoint or distance). Many times the Geomate Jr. was all we needed to find the container. Other times we needs a little hint from the paperless on the Oregon 300 or from the iPhone Geocaching App. Never was guidance of the Geomate Jr. the problem in not finding a cache, only the lack of information prevented us from finding some caches with only the Geomate Jr.

    The bottom line is that I'm not really sure to whom I would recommend this unit. Once the update kit becomes available it is a nice GPSR for the children in the Caching Family provided mutli- or unknown caches will not be on the menu. The Geomate Jr. would be an excellent fit for group users (i.e. park systems, schools, scouts) but without an option to load non-published or private caches it might not work for many groups who use those caches for training. It's best fit seems to be were it bundled up with the update kit, batteries, and a short book about how to Geocache. I could see giving someone such a kit to geomuggles so they could go out that day and while in the field learn to Geocache. Then when they get home they could set-up an account, log their finds, update their unit, and plan for their next trip. Perhaps such a kit could even be made available within a park system allowing the park's guests to pick-up a kit while already in the park. My goal in picking up the Geomate Jr. was to have a GPSR for the kids (our nieces and nephews) when we go out for full family geocaching. It is a good fit for them, but being that we can't enter in private caches (i.e. caches at events) or cache stages (my nephew enjoys multi-caches in the woods) I'm likely to look for sales or used eTrex H series units. When I start thinking about that I wonder if it might not be a better investment anyhow as it would give them experience which could be transferred to a more advanced unit as they look to move up. So I'm still at a loss, but hopefully it will become much more clear with the release of that Update Kit in June.


    nickel said...

    Interesting. I saw that, thought of a number of possible shortcomings, and you generally confirmed them. Glad to hear that there will be an update cable, so at least it won't wind up being a disposable GPSR.

    Honestly, I think it would be better to have the USB chip in the unit so people could use whatever USB cable they have lying around. Sure, this makes it marginally cheaper for those who have multiple units, but... The need to buy an "upgrade" kit that costs more than a third of the retail price is lame.

    I agree that a low end eTrex would probably be a better solution. Sound like the Geomate is sort of a solution in search of a problem.

    Honestly, it might be just limited enough to frustrate people and turn them off to geocaching entirely. I can picture people driving around not being able to find an access point, and ultimately just deciding that it's a stupid hobby.

    Darryl said...

    All very good points on the shortcomings of the Geomate Jr. I think it's really a product for a market very different from what we as avid Cachers envision. With the special update cable it really seems more appropriate to the institutions and groups than individuals. It's strength though is that huge database which would be great for traveling if you have a phone with web access. I'd love to see a Geomate unit with the option to add and edit cache information right on the unit (i.e. multis and unknowns) because that would make a great companion to a Blackberry, iPhone, or Windows Mobile smartphone. I look forward to the updates though.

    P.J. said...

    This is a rather interesting tool for geocaching. I don't think I'd like to personally use one of these, but I could see these being very helpful to starters, a family just doing a few caches etc. Very interesting stuff.