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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Watches > Silva Outdoor Computer > Colleen Porter > Test Report by Colleen Porter
Silva Outdoor Computer
Initial Report - March 5, 2007
Field Report - M ay 18, 2007
Long-Term Report July 21, 2007
been backpacking for about 11
years. I used to pack HEAVY, but then I
had kids. So to bring them backpacking I
reduced my pack weight drastically, and I’m now a quasi-ultralighter
11 lbs/5 kg solo base pack weight). However, I
still have to carry the kids' gear and food. I
sew some of my own gear (tarps, tents, down jacket).
I mostly backpack in the mountains &
deserts of southern California,
with occasional jaunts to adjacent states.
I am not a gadget person. I'm not a Luddite either, but I don't
use gadgets much and generally avoid anything complicated. I've
had my current cell phone for over a year and only recently discovered
use it as an alarm clock! I'm stepping out of my comfort zone
specifically to give a newbie's perspective on this item.
Initial Report - March 5, 2007
My first goal in reviewing the Computer was to see how intuitive it was to use. That is, could I figure it out without reading the guidebook? Let's be honest, a lot of us don't like consulting the instructions. But it turns out that for a gizmo this complex, I really do need them. I was able to figure out how to set the time on my own, but anything beyond that was a bit more work. I'm going to go through the Outdoor Computer's features and at least give my initial thoughts on them.
First off is the computer itself and how to operate it. In anything less than perfect, full light, some parts of the screen can be difficult to read. The background of the digital face is grey, and there is a printed band of darker grey about 2/3 of the way down the screen with the function's names listed on it like so: LOG, COMP, ALTI, BARO, TIME. The problem with this is that the letters are tiny, and when one changes from mode to mode what happens is that a spot of black appears underneath the printed-on band of grey, so that the user is trying to figure out which of these tiny little words has been turned to black, against a dark grey background. I have actually given up on trying to read this (and no, I don't wear glasses and my last vision check was 20/20) and instead pay attention to what is being displayed on the screen.
My second problem with the interface is that when switching modes, there is no sequential order - at least, the modes don't switch in the same order that they are listed on the screen. Instead of moving from LOG to COMP to ALTI to BARO to TIME, the order is TIME (which is what all other settings revert back to in order to save battery power), ALTI, BARO, COMP, then LOG. This contributes to the confusion of knowing exactly which mode one is switching to. The labels for the button functions suffer from a small degree of difficulty to read, also being printed in black on a dark grey background, but by tilting the housing to allow more light on them (they are set in deeply along the perimeter of the screen and so one side is usually in shadow) I can read them. As I become more accustomed to the Computer, I will doubtless memorize the buttons' functions, but for now I have to tip and tilt the housing to read which button does what.
Logbook. I have not yet played with the Logbook feature. According to the instructions, it can hold up to 375 "records." Each record consists of altitude, barometric pressure, temperature, time and date. The Logbook will be put into use on my next hike with any significant altitude gain (and hopefully with some weather shifts as well).
Compass. The digital compass has been a problem for me so far, but not because of any defect or problem with the Computer itself. Magnetic and electronic interference will throw off the Computer's ability to detect magnetic north. I live in Orange County, California, a land of many people and possibly even more electronic gadgetry. Even the places I commonly hike are populated with cell towers, antennae, and gigantic power line towers. I have not yet been able to get far enough away from interference in order to see the compass feature work properly.
Altimeter. This is the only function of the Computer that I have clearly identified as a problem. When I first received the Computer, I could not seem to get the altimeter set. I tried repeatedly to set what it calls the "reference" altitude, meaning the altitude that I am actually at, and each time it just went back to what it said before. For example, I set my reference altitude at 360 ft (110 m), my home elevation. But when I cycled back to the ALTI mode, it says my elevation is 1214 ft (370 m). But when I pressed the SET button, the screen changed to say REF and there's my actual altitude, 360 ft (110 m)! So I pressed the START/STOP button to confirm it, just like the instruction book says. But when I cycled back to the Altimeter setting, again it said I was at 1214 ft (370 m).
So I contacted Silva's customer service, which is operated by Silva's parent company, Johnson Outdoors. I spoke with a wonderful employee there who walked me through the process of setting the altimeter. When this did not succeed, she said that the altimeter was malfunctioning and arranged for me to ship back the original unit and ship me a replacement. Unfortunately, I was unable to conceal the fact that I was a reviewer, so I cannot say for sure whether the exceptional service I received was standard for all customers, or if I was getting special treatment. I received the replacement about a week later and immediately tried out the altimeter. But it had exactly the same problem as the first computer I had received. So before contacting Customer Service again, I decided to try re-setting the Computer by removing the battery and letting the data settings expire, then re-installing the battery. This actually worked, but was quite an ordeal - see "Changing the Battery" near the end of my report. Another BackpackGearTest tester, who was having the same problem with the altimeter, spoke with somebody a little higher up at Johnson Outdoors and was given a MUCH easier solution: hold all four setting buttons down simultaneously and this will re-set the Computer. Boy, I wish the Customer Service representative I originally spoke with had known about that trick! Although the battery would still be just as tricky to change.
A note on digital altimeters. They calculate increases and decreases of altitude by monitoring atmospheric pressure. So what this means is that when there is a pressure shift, whether it is due to actual increases or decreases in altitude OR whether it is due to changing weather, the altimeter will show an increase or decrease in altitude. So I could go to sleep with the altimeter reading 6000 feet/1828 m but wake up in the morning with it showing 6500 feet/1981 m. For this reason, digital altimeters should be re-set at regular intervals, when the correct altitude is known.
Barometer. This seems very simple, as there is nothing for me to set in the basic Barometer mode. Now it is up to me to learn what barometric pressure tells me about what to expect from the weather. I have found a chart which explains the basics of weather forecasting using barometric trends and wind patterns, and I will be carrying a laminated copy of this chart in order to help me better understand the data provided to me by the Outdoor Computer. The Barometer setting also includes a temperature reading. There are extended functions for the barometer, but I have not used any of these yet.
Time. It was very easy and intuitive to set the time, date and year. My only complaint about the Time function is that seconds are not displayed! I know that the computer has a stopwatch feature, but I haven't gotten to that feature yet and for me it's a lot easier to just glance at the time and count seconds from the main screen. There is a kind of gimmicky approximation of a second counter, though - around the perimeter of the screen there are black dashes. When all of the dashes appear, they make a circle around the entire perimeter. In the Compass and Barometer settings, these dashes are used to indicate north and south or how the barometric pressure has been trending. But in the time setting, the dashes indicate a kind of second count - three dashes appear at a time to indicate counts of five seconds. This seems to have no real use, unless one wants to time something in five-second intervals.
Changing the Battery. Removing the CR 2032 lithium coin battery was quite simple. Getting it back in was... difficult. After prying off the back cover, the battery itself is secured in place by a gold-colored metal cover which is screwed down by two extremely tiny magnetized screws. I used an eyeglass repair screwdriver to remove the screws. After waiting over one minute, I put the battery back in, replaced the screws (which were continually falling off the end of the screwdriver and rolling under something or other on the desk, or on the floor, and in one case took me over twenty minutes to find), popped the back cover back on, and turned the Computer over. To my horror, every display pixel on the screen was black. X's and O's all over the screen. My stomach flipped.
I called Silva Customer Service to find out just what I had managed to screw up. I spoke with a different employee this time, who seemed stunned by the idea that I had actually followed the instructions for removing the battery. She asked me several times how I had managed to remove the battery, and I told her that the instructions were right there in the manual and that I had simply used a very small-gauge screwdriver. We agreed that I would remove the battery again and go though the whole thing on the phone. However, a screw fell out again as we were doing this and rather than have her on the phone while I crawled around on my hands and knees looking for it, I told her I would call back
I found the screw and decided to try it again before calling Silva back. After replacing the battery for the second time, I didn't immediately close up the back of the Computer. Rather, I turned it over to see how the screen looked. Again, all the display pixels were showing black. I pressed on the battery and wiggled my finger a little bit and for a second the screen displayed correctly. Aha! I knew then it was just a matter of establishing the battery circuit correctly. I quickly figured out that the secret lay in the screw to the lower right of the battery. I simply had to screw that in to the proper tightness and the Computer was working again. I went straight to the Altimeter setting and attempted to set the correct altitude. It worked!
The interior of the Computer. The battery is held in place by that large golden circle, which is screwed
down to the left and the lower right. The lower right screw is the key to getting the battery correctly re-installed.
Lanyard Accessory. I have been primarily carrying the Computer on the lanyard. This works well, but presents two semi-annoyances. One, if I absentmindedly slip the Computer under my jacket, it will only tell me what the temperature was inside my jacket. I then have to keep it away from my body for a few minutes in order to get the true air temperature. Two, if I reach down and flip up the Computer in order to read it, the display is upside-down. This really isn't a big deal, I just have to remember to twist the computer up and around in order to be able to read the screen (I can read upside-down, but it's not my first choice). Also, if the cordlock slips off the end of the lanyard (which has already happened), it is very difficult to get back on. I haven't managed it yet.
Wristband Accessory. I will not be using the wristband very often for this test series. It is too large for my wrist, even buckled as tightly as it will go. It is also pretty large and snags on the shoulder strap when I'm putting on a heavy pack (lighter packs don't have to be hefted up my arms). And in order to get a true air temperature reading, I need to remove it from my wrist and keep it away from my body for five or so minutes.
Carabiner Accessory. This will probably be my primary choice for using the Computer during testing. It is convenient to hang the Computer from my pack, belt loop, or anything else it can fit over and hang from. It also does not present the problem of my body temperature interfering with reading the actual air temperature.
Field Report - May 18, 2007
Battery woes and another interaction with Customer Service.
On the first night of a three-day trip the Computer fritzed out. Sometime after 6:41 pm, at around 9000 feet/2743 m the Computer re-set itself, which caused me to lose all data saved in my logbook and all cumulative barometric data. Curiously, the altimeter was still fairly close to the correct altitude. Sometime that night the unit stopped working completely and the display read "TUE 12:00 5.31.05 AM." No buttons worked except the backlight (which caused the display screen to go blank). Because the product manual states the battery should last for approximately 18 months, and I had not had it for even two months at that point, I hadn't bothered to carry a backup battery for the Computer. My mistake, but an understandable one. Silva does state in the manual that "Extensive use of the backlight, compass or altimeter will reduce battery life," but I don't feel that my use of any of these features was what could be called "extensive." So I finished the trip with no way to know what time it was or to record overnight temperatures (very useful for determining how well gear functions), and was lucky that this wasn't a trip where I had to rely on an altimeter for determining my location.
A few days after returning home, I called Johnson Outdoors' customer service hotline and spoke to a representative. I described the problem and asked what I should do. She immediately issued me a Return Authorization number, arranged for FedEx to pick up at my home, and asked me to package the Computer up and address it to Johnson Outdoors. The next morning, prodded by a suggestion from a fellow BackpackGearTester, I decided to try replacing the battery to see if that made any improvement. Lo and behold, upon replacing the battery the Computer is working just fine. Now, I should probably have tried that right off the bat, but again because the manual says battery life should be about 18 months I assumed that the battery wasn't the problem. Oops. However, when I switched out the battery this time it was a much easier process. The secret to making it easier? I used a much better-quality fine-pointed screwdriver (raided my husband's electronics tools), and kept the Computer on a large sheet of white paper so that the screws would be easier to find if they rolled away. The magnetized screws clung to the quality screwdriver much better than to my cheap eyeglass screwdriver.
The Main Story
Aside from my little battery incident, the Computer seems to function well. I have continued to have trouble with the compass, but I have had limited opportunities to get very far away from power lines, cellular towers, and other sources of interference. The altimeter is reliable for short periods of time, provided there are no significant changes in atmospheric pressure. Re-setting the altimeter at known altitudes is easily done and presents no real problem or inconvenience. The barometer seems accurate, as far as I can tell. For a while I carried a "cheat sheet" of weather predictions based on barometric pressure plus wind direction, but since we've had such an almost rain-free winter there just ended up not being much weather to predict. However, on those rare occasions when the pressure made any significant drops while I was monitoring it, the weather did seem to turn at least to cloudy, if not very rainy. Using dots on the perimeter of the display screen, the barometer function tells the user at a glance what the pressure trends for the last 10 hours have been. I've found this quite useful, especially waking up in the morning and seeing if there have been any pressure drops overnight (in general, pressure drops indicate heavier weather is on the way).
I wish I had more to report about the logbook feature, but when the battery in the Computer died I lost all of the records I had saved. I have saved data from two additional trips since then, but I don't feel that two trips is quite enough to go on. Accessing the data from the logbook is not an intuitive process at all, and I had to do it while paying careful attention to the instructions. Silva offers online tutorials on their website, and I did find these very helpful in retrieving data at home, although I do not feel that I fully understand the capabilities of the logbook feature at this time. It does record cumulative altitude gain and loss, barometric pressure (at pre-set intervals), and the number of descents (which are counted as every change of 60 feet or more between ascent & descent). But I find accessing the saved records to be confusing, and the switch in my head just hasn't been flipped yet. The online tutorial that can be found on Silva's website (as of May 2007) explains the logbook functions much more clearly than I am able to at this time. I hope that with more extensive use of the logbook feature, I'll be better able to explain it in my Long Term Report.
A caveat to users of any device that saves trip data - if it's important, write it down! I didn't, and as a result lost any data that wasn't recorded on paper or in my head. This is no fault of the Silva Outdoor Computer, just a fact of life when dealing with electronics. As I noted in my Initial Report, I am not a seasoned user of electronic equipment.
As for the non-technical aspects, the Computer seems satisfactorily waterproof so far, although I have only done a shower test on it. I have been using the carabiner accessory exclusively, because the watch band supplied with the Computer is just too big for my 5.75 in/14.5 cm wrists, also because I already wear a lanyard when hiking, and because body heat interferes with getting an accurate temperature reading. The carabiner accessory is functional but less than ideal - the gate on the circular carabiner is not securely anchored, so it can wiggle around a bit and doesn't always close securely. This may or may not be the reason why I have found that the carabiner does tend to dislodge from my clothing or pack too easily - it has fallen off of me multiple times while I attempted to retrieve other items hung from the same loop on my clothes or pack, or when I bend over while wearing it on the front of my pants. Nothing catastrophic and provided I am using common sense (for example, not removing items from my belt loops while crossing a river) the Computer seems unfazed by these short drops.
Long-Term Report - July 21, 2007
I must admit that the last two months have not presented me with as many opportunities for field use as I would have liked - only local day hikes, a week long campout on the California coast, and one overnight backpacking trip. Very little has changed in my overall opinions of the Computer, but three new problems have come to light. First, the Computer seems to have lost some time - it is 45 minutes slow. I have no idea how long this has been happening, because I typically check the time on hikes in order to monitor how long I have been hiking and not necessarily to know precisely what time it is. But I recently found myself running errands with the Computer as my sole timepiece, only to arrive home and find it was 45 minutes later than the Computer was reading. Second, I am not convinced that the Computer is waterproof, or even very water resistant. I have periodically done shower tests, since we have had no rain. After the last shower test, the Computer began behaving strangely for a few days, but then began working normally again. Third, the "Option/-" button has stopped working. I noticed this on the first day of our coastal campout, when I attempted to re-set the reference altitude to sea level. The altimeter had drifted, which is to be expected, but with the "Option" button malfunctioning I was unable to reduce the altitude and thus re-set it.
I plan on contacting Silva to see if something can be done about the malfunctioning button. Right now, I have three weeks before I leave on an 8-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada. I would like to take the Computer on that trip and I hope that Silva will be able to replace or repair the Computer in time for me to bring it with me. Either way, I will then post an addendum to this report in order to give the Computer as thorough a final evaluation as I can. Honestly, I'm not impressed with the Outdoor Computer, and I think I'm hoping that somehow it will turn out to better than it has proven to be so far.
Thank you to Silva and to backpackgeartest.org for the opportunity to test the Outdoor Computer.
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