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5Jul/1111

Blackstar geocaching app for Blackberry

Blackstar geocaching app for Blackberry

Blackstar on a TGV between Paris and Lyon

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.

20May/110

Garmin GPSMAP 76Csx Review

Overview

Garmin GPSMap 76Csx

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.

Geocaching is often about trying to locate a container within a small radius.  So often we are under trees or in between buildings, and it's in situations like these that the excellent 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.

It 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. It 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 the other for "Found" caches.  It also has a calendar feature that shows when you found the caches. There is also 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.