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3Jul/113

Review of Groundspeak’s Geocaching for Android App

Android Geocaching app

Android Geocaching App

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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.

15May/111

How to geocache – Understanding GNSS

The GNSS constellation has about 24 satellites orbiting at nearly 11,000 nautical miles.

GPS Constellation

A GPS unit is the primary tool for geocachers so it's important to have a really good understanding of how the system works, the limitations and things to consider when using them. A good working knowledge of the system will help you to understand how to geocache properly.

The GPS system is one of the great inventions of the 20th century.  It has revolutionized navigation and many applications have been developed that make use of this system.

The system that we use for geocaching is called GNSS, or Global Navigation Satellite System.  It was set up and is operated by the US Air Force and costs billions of dollars. We get to use it for free!

Basically GNSS is based on about 24 satellites that orbit the earth and transmit a radio signal towards the ground.  The signals from the satellites are all synchronized to incredible accuracy by a ground-based atomic clock.

The GPS unit that you hold in your hand is basically a radio receiver (not a transmitter!) that is able to calculate the time differences from the signals that it receives from the various satellites that it can "see" in the sky above where you are standing.

Remember that these signals are travelling at the speed of light, so the time differences from the various satellites are minuscule.   Even so, your GPS can detect these differences and triangulate where you are down to about 3 metres at best.  The optimal place to get the most accurate fix is when you can see clear sky all around, such as on the top of a hill, or out on the water.  The signal is degraded if you are, for example, under trees,  in a canyon, in amongst tall buildings or anywhere you don't have a clear view of the sky.

Garmin Oregon - a popular geocaching GPS

The GPS receiver is a marvel of modern technology.  To give you an idea of its sensitivity, it is equivalent to trying to see a 100 watt light bulb located 10,988 nautical miles out in space!

So what does this mean for you?

It means that next time you're trying to find a geocache be aware of the limitations in the accuracy of position.  The best accuracy your unit can achieve in the most optimal conditions is about 3 metres (~10ft).  So your search radius is about 3 metres from where your GPS says is GZ - and that's assuming that the cache owner has published accurate co-ordinates.  If you are under trees, in a canyon or some other difficult location, your search radius may be wider.

It also means that when you are placing a cache don't just hide the container, mark the location and leave.  That's a recipe for inaccurate co-ordinates.  Spend the the time to average the position (a good GPS has this function) to get accurate co-ordinates - especially if it's in a location where the signal is not so good.    Your fellow geocachers will have loving thoughts towards you if your co-ords are accurate.

This is a really important subject when you learning how to geocache, so we'll go into more detail elsewhere.

10May/110

GPS for Geocaching

gps
What is the best GPS system to use for geocaching?

The main features to look for include:

  • High sensitivity receiver (e.g. SiRF chip set)
  • Compass
  • Waterproof (floating optional but useful on a boat)
  • Ability to load as many waypoints as possible e.g. 1000 is good
  • Inbuilt maps and the ability to upload new maps
  • Colour screen

The Truth About GPS: How it works