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Reviews > Navigation and Map Gear > GPS > Geomate Jr. > Test Report by Derek Hansen
Test Series by Derek Hansen
7 Oct 2009
The Geomate.jr—hereafter referred to as ‘GPS’, ‘Geomate’, or ‘device/unit’—is a lightweight, family-friendly, out-of-the-box geocaching device utilizing GPS technology. Its simple functionality has been fine-tuned for geocaching with only two main function buttons and a clear, geocache-focused display.
The Geomate is targeted at youth, but it can be used by anyone wanting a no-fuss geocaching GPS unit. The unit is lightweight and fits snugly in my hands and in the hands of my children who are also testing this device with me. The Geomate is powered by two AAA batteries, which are accessible from a sliding panel on the back of the unit.
The top and bottom casing of the Geomate are made of hard plastic. The center section is made of a black rubberized plastic. On the left side of the unit there is a small, black rubberized panel to access the custom USB plug for the Update Kit, sold separately. The power button is located on the top of the unit. There is a black loop on the bottom of the unit where the included lanyard can be attached. The loop is also rubberized plastic and is flexible.
The included lanyard is approximately 1.5 ft (45 cm) long.
Also included with the package was a small quick-start guide that reviewed the basic features and functions of the unit.
The Geomate has an excellent website that is well-designed and easy to use. The site has information and video presentations on geocaching and shows youth using the device to find caches. While I cannot buy directly from the site, there are links to retailers who sell the Geomate.
Also included on the website is the “Updates” tab, which allows personalized accounts and will allow connections to the Geomate via the optional Update Kit. I signed up for the free account with the intention of getting the Update Kit and testing the user interface.
While browsing the website is supported on all modern platforms and browsers, the update functions are currently limited to Windows-based computers running Internet Explorer on a PC. The manufacturer is aware of the Macintosh community and states that Macintosh support is coming soon.
The website also includes more user manuals and guides that fully explain the functionality of the device.
I found this online User Guide to be indispensable in learning the about the extra functions of the device.
When the Geomate first arrived at my home, I was expecting a larger package. I guess I didn't realize how small everything would be. My kids were so excited! They quickly dismantled the packaging, and with my help, installed the batteries. Within 30 minutes, we dressed for the cool weather and went out to find our first geocache!
Confessions of a Muggle
Before I go too far, I should mention that I am brand-new to both GPS units and geocaching. I am a die-hard map-and-compass boy, but have considered a GPS for some time, especially for geocaching with my kids and as a multi-purpose navigation device.
Prior to receiving the Geomate, I signed up for a free account with geocaching.com. This website is a partner with Apisphere, Inc., and the Geomate’s database is pulled from this website. From what I’ve read, geocaching.com is the top spot for geocaching around the world. I also found that I am (or was) what is commonly referred to as a “Muggle”, in the geocaching world—a non-geocacher. It’s a reference pulled from the popular Harry Potter book series where “Muggle” is a non-magical character.
Geocaching.com is a great resource for geocaching. I can search and find caches near my hometown and get maps and even hints (on occasion) on where the caches are hidden. I quickly found that a map is still an indispensable part of geocaching, especially with the Geomate. Once turned on, the Geomate determines the 20 closest caches to my current location. I have to walk in some direction before the device will point which direction the cache is located and how far away it is from my position. This is all well and good, but it points in a straight line “as the crow flies” and isn’t much help in figuring out how to actually get to the cache. Having a map and knowing generally where the cache is hiding is an important part to actually finding the cache, in my short experience.
Our First Treasure Hunt
So, before the GPS unit arrived, I picked one cache that was close to my home and thought that my kids and I could find it with just a map and compass. After all, how hard could it be? I quickly marked the map and we went out, but after 30 minutes of randomly searching, we gave up and came home. My kids were disappointed that we didn’t find the “treasure,” but I was hopeful that with the GPS unit, it would be easier (to be honest, if I had used the latitude and longitude data from geocaching.com, I probably could have triangulate a better position on a map, but I was lazy…).
So after my oldest kids (ages 8, 6, and 4) were ready, we went back to this first cache. My 6-year-old powered up the device and within a few seconds we had acquired enough satellites to get some cache data. I knew, from the website, that there were about four caches close to where we had parked our car. From the Geomate information, I was under the impression that certain caches were not part of the standard database, including “virtual” caches and extremely difficult caches. The first cache the device pointed to was one that was marked as a “Night Cache” on the website, which meant we needed to follow hidden reflectors through the forest before we found anything. It wasn’t dark (yet), but I didn’t think this sort of cache was “traditional” enough to get on the database, but apparently so? The good news was that the Geomate had located the first cache: the parking lot! We'll have to come back and try the night cache later.
My son pressed the “next” button (the “Big” button) to scroll to the next closest geocache. I was hoping it would be the one we originally came to hunt. It pointed in the general direction so off we trotted. From our previous exploring, I knew the general area where we needed to hunt, but I watched as my kids wandered left and right trying to follow the direction arrow on the device. As long as we were moving, the arrow pointed in the right direction and we eventually got there. I had to remind my kids a few times to keep moving so the device would work.
The cache was marked with 1.5 for “finding difficulty” and 2.5 for “terrain difficulty” (1 being easiest and 5 being hardest). The Geomate uses stars to indicate these ratings on the top left and right of the screen. The cache size was marked as “medium” in the lower-left screen while we were in geocaching “hunt” mode.
I could feel my kids excitement (hey, I was excited too!) as we neared the spot. My son counted off from 20 ft (6 m). We overshot the spot and wandered back a bit, but once we hit “0” we stopped and looked around. It was a nondescript area, with a few downed and rotted logs with stumps. I’ll admit that I was first to spot something shiny under one stump. I called to my kids to investigate and they shouted with excitement at finding the “treasure”—finally!
The Hunt Continues
After this first successful hunt, my kids didn’t want to stop. The darkness, however, was enough to turn us back and bring us home. In the last few days, we’ve found a few more caches. We’ve prepared a little geocache backpack that contains little toys we can trade with, some snacks, water, and warm clothing, just in case.
The Geomate.jr is designed to be a “grab-and-go” device with its primary mode tuned to pointing to nearby geocaches. In the past few days, I’ve found the other modes or features to be a great help. The “Geocache Code” mode does exactly that: it shows the geocache codes for the 20 nearby caches. I started using this when I compared the code with what I had found from geocaching.com. This was how I discovered that GCY130 wasn’t listed in the Geomate, and how I made sure to pick the right cache for those locations where several caches were nearby. The Navigation mode is also very helpful. There is a compass feature that shows my heading (only when I’m moving) and two screens that show longitude and latitude. A final screen in Navigation mode shows my elevation (listed as “Height” in the manual) which I’ve found to be very accurate and handy.
We’ve used the “Big” button (as it’s referred to) to switch between local caches, but we’re not yet in the habit of marking when we’ve found a cache. When I press and hold the Mode button (small button), I can mark a cache as “found” and it is subsequently stored in one of 1,000 memory locations. I can see these found caches when I go to the “Found List” mode.
The other feature I haven’t used much (not in the habit yet) is storing a “home” location. This is actually a great feature where I can set a starting waypoint. By pressing and holding both the “Big” and little buttons together, I can store my current location as a “home” waypoint—typically my car or maybe a trailhead. Once I’ve found a cache, or I’m just ready to turn back, I can press and hold the “Big” button, or press to scroll to the “home” waypoint. As I mentioned, the Geomate lists 20 caches at a time plus the “home” waypoint. A single press of the “Big” button will scroll through each of the 20 cache locations and then the “home” location or waypoint. A press-and-hold of the “Big” button is just a shortcut to this “home” location.
REVIEW SO FAR
As a Muggle-turned-Geocacher, I’m already hooked. My kids and I are already planning which caches we will hunt. We took out a city trail map, and using the geocaching.com website, marked the map with dozens of cache locations. We’re already fighting over who gets to hold the GPS unit!
I find that I like the caches that are hidden in the forest rather than in urban areas. The urban caches are easily pinpointed, especially major landmarks. I guess the fun is in stealth and not letting Muggles see me find the cache. The caches out in the forest have been a lot of fun. We’ve been able to hike outdoors longer, we don’t have to worry about obstacles in the same way, and the hunt feels more like pirates searching for buried treasure.
We’re not yet in the habit of using the “home” feature yet, but I imagine when we get out to some areas it will be a good feature. My kids are also asking me if we can hide our own cache and I think I could by using the “home” feature to mark a waypoint and store the lon/lat data for upload.
I’m also not in the habit yet of using the “found” button feature, and storing the found caches on the unit. I am using the geocaching.com website to record the found caches, and that seems like the best solution for me. The “Found List” mode doesn’t really offer a lot of helpful information for me besides a list of the geocache codes.
PRO—Lightweight; easy-to-use, even for kids, built-in compass and GPS-based altimeter. Rugged design and nice ergonomics.
CON—I wish the Geomate was waterproof.
5 Jan 2010
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
We have found an additional 28 caches since my last report, most within the Flagstaff, Arizona-area with a mean elevation of 7,000 ft (2,133 m) with temperatures ranging from 20 F (-7 C) to 70 F (21 C). Most of the caches were hidden in heavily forested areas where we did some bushwhacking. On a trip to southern Utah in November, we found six caches. A few of the Utah caches were in urban settings (tennis courts, college campus) where the terrain was flat. I took my kids and some relatives on a long day hike to find some caches. We hiked above Snow Canyon State Park, elevation 4,800 ft (1463 m), and bushwhacked a straight line to some remote caches, where we scrambled through juniper, sagebrush, and other tangled briars and bushes, and slogged through thick sand. Temperatures in Utah hovered around 40 F (4 C).
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
The Geomate has performed amazingly well over the past few months. I still find that I need to research the caches through the online database first and use a map to best locate remote caches. There were a few caches we hunted that we didn’t find. One cache, GC12ZZD, had bad coordinates, but I was able to connect with a fellow cacher on the website who gave us a good tip. At first, I thought the Geomate was off, but I found that many people who didn’t find the cache reported the same problem with this particular cache.
During this testing phase, I received the Geomate Update Kit, which is a USB cord that connects the GPS unit with a computer. The website indicates that “Apple availability” is coming soon, but as of this writing, the update kit does not work with a Macintosh, which is the computer I have at home.
Before my trip to Utah, I took the update kit to work and successfully updated the Geomate. I had to download a program from the Geomate website that allowed the USB cord to communicate with the device and the computer. The process of updating is very easy and made simpler by the website interface. The update process is done through the web interface. The website update program only works with Microsoft Explorer internet browser on a Windows-based machine.
I only had one glitch in the update process, due to dead batteries. At first, I thought the update had failed because the Geomate wouldn’t turn on. To my satisfaction, the unit worked perfectly again once fresh batteries were installed. I have had to replace the batteries twice since receiving the unit. My guess is that the unit is living up to the 12-hour claim based on our usage.
In the update process, I selected the "USA Western" update module. Other modules for the entire USA and other areas are available. Once updated, the Geomate shows a new date on the startup screen telling me when the last update occurred. I was also able to add a five-character “personalization” to the startup screen. I had secretly hoped I would be able to manipulate or manually customize some waypoints or caches, but this ability is not available with the update. I was only able to select from the update regions provided online.
Reactions from the kids
My kids continue to enjoy the Geomate, but after a few weeks of almost daily caching, my kids were getting tired of the hunt. I was still excited, but I backed off for a while before hinting about caching again. I think I over did it with heavy geocaching at first. Our next big geocaching adventure was during our November trip visiting family in southern Utah. My kids got excited again when they were able to go cache hunting with their cousins, showing them the Geomate, explaining how it worked, and taking turns finding caches. We all had a great time, despite the extra miles we hiked searching for a cache we thought was much closer (we parked at the wrong trailhead).
Over the testing period, I asked my oldest child on different occasions which type of cache she preferred: in town or out on the trail? Although she voted both ways on different occasions, the “out in the forest” won more votes. I think it all depends on her mood.
The basic functionality seems to work fine for my kids, although they have been lost at times when they push the menu button and lose the “how many feet to the cache” screen. I also have to remind them to push the “Found It” button and we have never consistently used the “Home” function yet. Even on long bushwhacking trips, we seem to find our way back again, but admittedly, we used maps and the adults keep everyone on the trail. The best example of this was our three-cache-in-a-row find in Utah when we were bushwhacking above Snow Canyon. We hiked a straight line from our car to each cache, almost two miles (3.2 km) away. There were no trails along our chosen route and we had to scale cliffs and scramble up and over multiple hills to get to the location. Once we found the cache, we found an easy trail and followed that back instead of the GPS. I find that this is our typical pattern: bushwhack to the cache, follow the trail back. Most all the caches we’ve found out in the forest are near trails, although when we hunt them, we tend to ignore that fact and hike like the caches were dropped from airplanes into the middle of territory untouched by beast or man.
FIELD USE SUMMARY
PRO—The Geomate continues to perform wonderfully. I find it is a perfect unit for GPS geocaching and even light direction finding. The interface has been easy for my kids to use and I’ve been able to use the compass and “advanced” navigation features for direction finding.
CON—I was glad to use the update kit, but I’m not sure how often I’ll use it since I can only update in bulk. Perhaps in the future, the Geomate will allow for some extra level of customization. I am eager to test the Macintosh connectivity.
LONG TERM REPORT
16 Feb 2010
FIELD LOCATIONS AND CONDITIONS
In the past month since my field report, I've taken the Geomate on two more outings, but we didn't find any more caches.
January 9 ~ Campbell Mesa, Coconino National Forest. My older sons and I took off in the morning to explore the mesa and enjoyed lunch on the trail. We hiked a little over a mile (2 km) in the snow. Elevation was 6800 ft (2072 m) and the outside temperature was 40 F (4 C).
January 15–16, 2010 ~ Fossil Creek Wilderness, Arizona. Went on an 8-mile (13 km) overnight backpacking trip with my two oldest kids and followed the Fossil Springs Trail down to a beautiful riparian area. Overnight low was 30 F (-1 C). The trail begins at an elevation of 5680 ft (1731 m) and descends to 4280 ft (1305 m), an elevation change of 1400 ft (427 m) in 4 miles (6.4 km).
PERFORMANCE IN THE FIELD
Although we carried the Geomate with us on these trips, we never found any caches. The primary reason has been the weather. Northern Arizona has experienced some heavy snowfall over the past few months, making it nearly impossible to find any caches. In mid-January, we had over five feet of snow fall in one week, causing all kinds of trouble around town.
Our trip into the Fossil Creek Wilderness was relatively snow-free (this was just prior to the week-long snow storm), but we still weren’t able to find any caches. Before I go out geocaching with the kids, I check geocaching.com to see if there are any caches near where we are going. I often use this site to print off a map that contains basic cache information. On this trip, the website listed three caches in the area.
We planned to find these caches as we hiked, but it turned out that two were not listed on the Geomate because of their difficulty ratings. The one that was listed proved too elusive as we headed down the trail. Since we were backpacking on a schedule, we didn’t have much time to hunt for a cache, so we pressed on. The only thing we found was a pair of abandoned shoes hanging from a tree.
When I checked geocaching.com, I noticed that new caches had been placed in my neighborhood. I checked the Geomate website again, but as of this writing, they still do not support the Macintosh platform, which is what I have at home. I wasn’t able to observe my children updating the device, but I was able to bring it to work where I updated the device easily. The Geomate website has this to say about the update:
I think the update kit is an essential part of the Geomate, even if it is only offered as an optional accessory. In my short foray into geocaching, I've found that caches move, get destroyed, and new ones are frequently added. Without the update kit, the Geomate can quickly become obsolete, since there is no other way to interact with the unit--I can't add latitude and longitude data, I can't mark custom waypoints, and I can't arbitrarily select a cache I am looking for unless I am within the "20 nearest caches" the unit provides.
The Geomate has been a great accessory and I enjoy it. However, from my experience, there are a few things I would change: add water protection (this is an outdoor adventure device!); add the ability to mark a few waypoints beyond just “Home”; add cache names along with codes; add custom latitude and longitude data, even if only through the web and the update kit; and be able to pick an arbitrary cache from the entire database on the unit.
Paired with an expanded website, the Geomate could be a wonderful interactive tool, especially if I could upload my latest exploring based on basic GPS data the unit could store, or see/save some of the waypoints I've marked (if I could).
The Geomate is a perfect trinket if I'm out on a picnic, for example, and want to see if there are any hidden caches in the vicinity. It can be a very spontaneous adventure starter. However, in my experience, I never felt comfortable venturing "blindly" without knowing something about the area and terrain--especially with my kids. Since the Geomate provides only basic information on the 20 nearest caches, I preferred to use the geocaching.com website to "scout" certain areas of interest and see what caches were available before exploring. Printing a map marked with the cache data was very helpful to me and my children, but not all the caches listed online are on the device.
Having a map was an essential navigation tool, but also a teaching opportunity, as we reviewed the map and compared it with what we saw on the ground, and what we read off the GPS device.
PRO—Easy to use; small size and weight; kid-friendly controls; good backup navigation tool.
CON—No Macintosh support (yet); not waterproof; doesn't show cache names (only codes).
30 Mar 2011
In the past few months, Apisphere has made several upgrades to its service for the Geomate GPS. I’ve also had several opportunities to take the Geomate.jr out and about so I thought I would add a short addendum to discuss these new features.
First, and probably most exciting for me, is that they added Macintosh support to a degree. First, I must use the Firefox web browser for the update kit to work. Apisphere had some step-by-step instructions to get this working since it requires some behind the scenes magic to make this work. The process was straightforward and in time I was able to connect my unit to the computer and use the Firefox browser to interface.
The great thing is that I was able to access the features I could only do on a PC: name my device and update the cache database.
One of my wishes with this device is the ability to add my own caches or locations on the device. Recently, Apisphere added this ability with “Custom Caches” and “Pocket Queries”. I haven’t been able to really test the Pocket Queries because it requires a paid membership to Groundspeak’s Geocaching.com. The idea is that I can build my own cache list from their expansive database and add it to the Geomate.jr device.
The Custom Caches feature is really a free-form database where I can create my own entries on the device. These entries do not have to be caches at all, although I have access to all the meta data: cache size, terrain, etc. One way I wanted to use this feature was to enter in some favorite off-trail camping spots and use the Geomate.jr to find them again. The Custom Cache feature is not something I can update in the field — everything must be done on my computer and synced with the device.
Unfortunately, when I synced the device, I found that I had to choose between Custom Caches and a regular database, not both. This meant that I only had two personal caches or waypoints on the device and nothing else — no access to the regular cache database. On subsequent syncs, I would get “NO DATA” errors on the device so nothing was syncing over.
After a few failed attempts at getting my Custom Caches synced, I gave up and synced an updated “regular” database.
A few weeks after this exploration, I received a notice from Apisphere that with the recent upgrades in Firefox, the Macintosh syncing ability has broken, as of this writing.
So, while the promise of upgrades, including Custom Caches, is on the horizon, for me the process still isn’t robust enough to rely on yet.
In using the device since my last report, I’ve found that I can break away from pre-researching caches and just “go for it.” In the past several months I’ve taken the Geomate.jr on day hikes and overnight trips and turned it on just to see what’s out there. In a few cases where the cache was pretty close, we made attempts and found caches. It has really been a lot of fun and a bit liberating to just go exploring without knowing anything about the terrain or location.
I hope that Apisphere comes up with a more robust solution for syncing the Geomate.jr with Macintosh computers, but I am encouraged that they are investing time to keep the device upgraded with new features.
I would like to thank Apisphere, Inc., and BackpackGearTest.org for providing me with the opportunity to test this product.
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