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5Jul/1111

Blackstar geocaching app for Blackberry

Blackstar geocaching app for Blackberry

Blackstar on a TGV between Paris and Lyon

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BlackStar is a free geocaching app for Blackberries.

Check out the picture on the right.  I was travelling on a TGV (high speed train) between Paris and Lyon in November 2010.  The waypoint is a cache in Lyon. It's 258 km away but we are going to be there is less than an hour at this speed!

It's a good demonstration of the capabilities of Blackstar, and a more interesting screen shot than a static one.

Blackstar is not as pretty as Android apps like c:geo or Groundspeak's geocaching app, but I have found that it works much better. This may be due to superior GPS electronics used in Blackberries and the way the software interacts with it. Also those pretty coloured features need a lot of processing power which tends to make them very slow.

It's so good that while my Blackberry Bold was still working, I rarely used my Garmin.

Compared to the Android it's faster and works better under trees etc. When you are near GZ the display updates much quicker making it much more usable.

The other advantage of using a Blackberry is having a real physical keyboard.  It makes entering logs a breeze compared to the touch screen on the Android.  The Android is so painful and time consuming for log entries, that I normally wait until I get home and enter them on the computer.

BlackStar keeps track of your current Latitude, Longitude, Altitude, Speed, Direction and the distance to your destination. You can record, save, and export your track as you use BlackStar. This is useful for recording a trip, exercise, or just to see where you've been.

Geocaching features include:

  • Displaying a list caches closest to your location,
  • Importing GPX files from Pocket Queries
  • Ability to log finds immediately online
  • View the cache description and hint
  • Locate the cache on Google Maps.

Don't under estimate the ability to import GPX files.  To upload files to the previous generations of Garmins (e.g. GPSMAP 76Csx, 60Csx), you need to convert a GPX file to a WPT format and upload it using a piece of software like GSAK, OziExplorer or Mapsource. On Blackstar it imports the GPX file directly from a folder on your BB.

However, one of the biggest downsides of Blackstar is that it takes a several minutes to import and convert a GPX  file if it contains a few hundred caches.  When you receive your Pocket Query email you have to save the GPX file to a folder on the Blackberry so that it can be imported into Blackstar.  This is where the Android apps are much more streamlined.  They can display nearby caches by downloading them directly from geocaching.com.  They can also import a GPX file directly from the Pocket Query email that arrives on your Android.

Another downside compared to the Android apps is that it doesn't have turn-by-turn navigation for when you're driving. The Android apps use that feature of Google Maps.

Apart from these drawbacks, Blackstar is otherwise an excellent piece of geocaching software.  Highly recommended if you own a GPS enabled Blackberry especially since it's free!

For more information go to the Blackstar site here or download it from the Blackberry apps market.

Note: Be aware that as with most smartphones Blackberries are not ruggedized like dedicated GPS devices, so you need to be careful not to get them wet in less than ideal weather conditions.

3Jul/113

Review of Groundspeak’s Geocaching for Android App

Android Geocaching app

Android Geocaching App

Groundspeak, the organization behind Geocaching.com has released a geocaching app for Android platforms 1.5 and up. It's available for about US$9.35 from the Android market.

In the old days we used to print out cache pages and take them with us.  What a hassle! With the technologies available today you need to become familiar with how to geocache in a paperless manner.

This Groundspeak app promises to be the ultimate in paperless geocaching because everything you need to find, navigate to and log caches is all in one unit.

The question is, does it live up to the promise?  Is it time to retire your Garmin or Magellan and go paperless with your Android?  I installed the app on my  Samsung Galaxy and used it to find out.

Here is a summary of my experiences...

Pros

  • As you'd expect it's tightly linked to the geocaching.com database.
  • You can search for caches in a similar manner to the way you do searches on geocaching.com
  • An Advanced Search facility has a range of useful filters e.g. terrain, difficulty, size, type.
  • Caches can be displayed on Google maps and selected from the map;
  • It will allow you to navigate to the cache in three ways - compass, map or turn-by-turn instructions using the Android Google map system.
  • Active Pocket Queries are automatically downloaded (for Premium Members)
  • Logs can be entered on your Android device, although it can be very time consuming.
  • If you are out of communication range you can save logs for later upload.
  • All recent logs can be displayed online.

Cons

  • Battery life!!  With both the GPS and screen running, this thing drains your battery like emptying a bath. Don't expect to do more than a couple of hours of caching with it.  It certainly won't go all day like a Garmin.
  • The compass feature is slow... on the Samsung Galaxy at least.  The Samsung does not have an electronic compass, so the app relies on updates from the GPS.  Therefore it only updates the display if you are moving, making it  quite useless when you are approaching GZ. Some smartphones have an electronic compass so they may work better.
  • Low sensitivity.  I think one of the most important features of a GPS for geocaching is sensitivity, because we often work under tree canopies or in among buildings.  The GPS used in the Samsung does not work well in these situations and I often found myself wandering in circles within a 20 - 30 metre radius, exacerbated even more by the slow updates of the compass display. Although this is not the fault of the app, it is a problem with the system. I used the Samsung side by side with the Garmin. In open the two pretty much agreed with each other - although the Samsung did not update as quickly. As soon as I got under light tree cover the Samsung lost the plot and started giving readings that were up to 30m off.  The Garmin kept on giving accurate readings.
  • Adding waypoints not obvious.  It took me a while to figure out how to enter new Waypoints because it is not obvious. You may want to add new waypoints for example if you are doing multis or simply want to add a new co-ordinate. To add a waypoint, you need to bury down through the menus to Map Mode then select Add New Waypoint from the menu. You can then click on the waypoint and navigate to it. However this should be on the main menu, not buried down about 3 levels, because it is a fundamental thing that you do when you go geocaching.
  • Not rugged.  Unless you get one of those Motorola Defy's, Android devices are not built for outdoor activities where you might be in the rain, or wading rivers, or out on boats.  One "oops" moment and it's all over. Although this is not a fault of the app, it is a problem if you are geocaching on a smarphone.

Summary

Many of the above comments relate to the app being used with the Samsung Galaxy.  You may have a different result if you use it on another type of smartphone.

I'd call this a "pinch hitter" geocaching solution i.e. it's OK if you don't have another option.  For example if you can't afford a real GPS, or have left your proper GPS at home, then this is "OK".  If you'd  like to know how to geocache paperlessly then take your real GPS to find the geocache, and use the Smartphone for descriptions, hints etc.

The app is pretty good but is hamstrung by the hardware limitations of the Samsung Galaxy.  I also have c:geo installed on my phone.  It also suffers from the same limitations. I may do a comparison review sometime.

In my opinion, the best smartphone geoaching app is Blackstar - but you have to own a Blackberry to use that.

So what is the Groundspeak Geocaching app good for?  It's a good complement to a real GPS device like a Garmin or Magellan.   Use your real GPS to do the grunt work with high sensitivity, accuracy, speed and ruggedness.  The Android allows you to read the cache descriptions, recent logs and submit log entries.

In terms of doing paperless caching in a single unit, yes, sort of...but not quite.

I still use it if I have to but don't like it as much as my Garmin.

20May/110

Garmin GPSMAP 76Csx Review

Garmin GPSMap 76Csx

Overview

The venerable Garmin GPSMAP 76Csx has been around for a few years now but is still an excellent GPS to use for geocaching. The Csx refers to C for Colour screen, s for Sensor (compass and altimeter) and x for micro-SD card.

Important features for geocaching include:

  • Sensitive GPS receiver
  • Electronic compass
  • Bright colour TFT screen -readable in any light
  • Ability to upload maps
  • Micro-SD card for storing waypoints and maps
  • Ability to store 1000 waypoints
  • Rugged and waterproof

Electronic circuitry

The circuitry in the 76Csx is identical to the 60Csx and therefore they are functionally the same.

It uses the SiRFstarIII chipset which are the receiver and processing chips that receive the signals from the GPS satellites, calculate the co-ordinates and run the software in the unit.

It means that the unit is more sensitive under tree canopy and in urban (or natural) canyons. In difficult environments  like these the GPS will receive both direct and reflected signals that bounce off hard surfaces and cause multipath reflections.  This introduces errors into the process and is why you have trouble locating caches in these sort of conditions.

The SiRFstar III chipset has the processing power to crunch the numbers from all the reflected signals and come up with something meaningful.  This processing power also means that the chipset can consider weak signals that were ignored by previous chipsets. The SiRFstar III also has faster acquisition times, making for a faster time to first fix (TTFF), and a quicker reacquisition if the signal is lost.

When we learn how to geocache we are trying to locate a container within small radius.  So often we are under trees or in between buildings, and it's in situations like these that the amazing reception of the 76Csx comes in handy.  This sensitivity is just as important when placing a cache.  In addition the 76Csx has the ability average co-ordinates to improve the accuracy of placement even more. I have placed many caches using this unit and finders report very accurate co-ordinates even in difficult locations.

Battery Life

Garmin claims a battery life of about 30 hours using normal alkaline batteries. I used rechargeable 2700 mAh batteries and although I never actually timed hours of operation I am able to do several geocaching runs over a number of days on the same batteries.

Maps

The 76Csx comes with a base map of whichever country you bought it.  However you can upload other maps that take priority over the basemap.  In fact you can upload a number of maps via the USB port and select which one is displayed.

The unit comes with Mapsource which enables you to upload various maps and waypoints.

Using the GPSMAP 76Csx

The unit has the typical Garmin interface and buttons.

The unit has 6 main pages; Satellite page, Trip computer page, Map page, Compass page, Altimeter page and the main menu.  You cycle through the pages by pressing the MENU button to go forward and the QUIT button to go in reverse. Extra pages can be added in page sequence option of the main menu.

The 76Csx is "geocache ready" which means that it has a two waypoint symbols; one for unfound cache and other for found caches.  It also has a calendar feature that shows when you found the caches. It also has a  search feature for geocaches that is separate from normal waypoint searches.

I use the GSAK Smart Tag feature to create meaningful waypoint codes that indicate type of cache (traditional, multi etc.), container size, terrain, difficulty and text for the hint.  This appears on the compass page under Notes. An annoying feature of the Compass page is that it is too easy to hit the Found button and remove the cache from the list of unfound caches.  If you do accidentally hit the Found button, you have to find that cache in the list of waypoints and change the symbol back to an unfound cache.

The nice thing about having an electronic compass is that it will point to the cache even when you standing still.  When using GPS units that don't have this feature you have to be moving before the needle will point to where you need to go.

However it is important to calibrate the compass.  If you don't calibrate the needle will point in the wrong direction when you trying to find a cache. To calibrate, go to the Compass page, hitting menu and selecting Calibrate.  When you select Start you turn at a certain speed until the unit tells you it has finished.

Ruggedness

As is typical of Garmin units it is rugged and waterproof.  In fact it is rated to IPx7 (Ingress Protection rating), which means that you can submerse it in water to a depth of 1m for up to 30 minutes. The backside of the unit has rubber covers for the battery case, antenna and power connectors.

A handy feature if you're canoeing or boating is that it floats. I don't know how they build it so light.  The newer Oregons and Colorados are much heavy and would sink like a stone if dropped them overboard.

It certainly is rugged.  I was using it to navigate while flying my hang glider.  It had a nasty whack when I had a "non-optimal" landing but like a Timex watch, it took a lickin' and kept on tickin'.

Summary

The Garmin GPSMAP 76Csx is an excellent unit for geocaching because it has high sensitivity, a colour screen that is readable in any light, an electronic compass and a number of specific geocaching features.  In addition it is rugged and waterproof so that it will handle any conditions that in which you may be working.

Because it is now over five years old, you can pick them up for a few hundred dollars.  If I had the choice I would recommend one of these over something like an e-Trex if you could pick it up for the similar money. I would also choose a 76Csx over a 60Csx because of ability to float and be used as a marine GPS.

In summary, the Garmin GPSMAP 76Csx is an excellent unit for geocaching.  It's an oldie but a goodie.