Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Evelev's Review of the iPhone4 for Geocaching

Some geocachers use a map and compass, others carry a GPSr and clipboard. I am the type of geocacher that does everything with my iPhone. I plan, locate, and document all from the palm of my hand. You can imagine my sheer joy at the announcement of the iPhone 4. They promised faster processing, multitasking, better GPS accuracy, and a range of photographic enhancements (two cameras, flash, and a whopping 5 megapixels).

I joined the iPhone 4 zombie mob late in the game and did not pre-order online like I should have. It was only a few days before release when I tried to get my name on a waiting list. In order to accomplish this, Brian suggested I help my chances by being…flirty. I won’t confirm or deny if I used this tactic, but I found myself in the #4 spot on the waiting list at a nationwide chain electronics store. Oh, Apple, what have we become?

While the guy set up my phone, I jabbered moronically about how awesome it would be. Soon he handed me the phone like a delivery nurse hands a newborn to its mother. Angels sang, trumpets sounded, and the guy behind the counter let out a sigh of relief that I was leaving. In the following days, almost every one of my apps released an update to catch up with the new technology. Groundspeak was among them.

Groundspeak has released several updates over the past few months, but the first iPhone 4 version was terrible. Despite the improved GPS technology, the current location dot was extremely slow to update. This made it difficult to pinpoint a parking spot, let alone the actual GZ. I spent a lot of time driving in circles and the maps only compounded this issue. They were slow to zoom and the resolution was horrible, making it hard to read the street names. Back then we also had to choose between satellite and street view. It was barbaric.

I give credit to Groundspeak, they have addressed all of these issues. At the writing of this blog post, we are on version 4.2.1 and the app is pretty darn functional. The satellite and street maps have been integrated, meaning I can view a satellite map (which offers vital clues to a cache’s location) AND see the streets names (which tells me where to start looking). The maps load faster and seem to be more accurate, but I can’t say for sure. Maybe I’m just better at finding.

Another bonus of the iPhone 4 is the button that rotates the map according to the finder’s point of view. Instead of having to shift the phone around to see where I am in relation to the cache, the map moves for me so that all I have to do is walk forward. I use this function almost every time I look for a cache.

The new app also includes a bunch of new features on the home screen. For one, we now get an indicator of whether the app is working – a little dot that turns green when online or red when offline. Let me tell you, that little red dot is infuriating because there is nothing the user can do except look at it (Edit: I hear that logging out and then logging back in helps). Luckily, this rarely occurs. In keeping with their attempt at giving the user more info, Groundspeak also gives us a box dedicated to the device’s current location. It includes the current location’s coordinates, a map of those coordinates, and estimated accuracy (in feet). As I write this, my estimated accuracy is fluctuating between 98 and 213 feet, but the map looks dead on. I may finally be able to hide a cache and use the coordinates from my iPhone.

The search function has improved significantly. When I click “Find Nearby Geocaches”, each listing now includes the cache name, difficulty and terrain ratings, distance, size, and type (traditional, mystery, etc). I also have an option to sort the list by distance, GC code, title or type. I would assume that if you just pressed the “Find Nearby Geocaches” button, you would probably want them sorted by location, but it's nice to have options. Personally, I don't find this function particularly useful because I kept the option to see only 10 caches at a time.  I don't need to see the 30 closest caches unless I'm looking for something in particular. 
One of the lesser-known functions is the ability to add your own waypoints.  I'm not sure how long this function has been available, but someone at FTF Geocacher had to point it out to me, and I have shown several people since.  If I just blew your mind, here's how it works: Look-up a cache and view the map by pressing "Navigate to Geocache", click the little flag in the upper right corner, and enter the coordinates.  You can even name the waypoint, in case, say, you want to add actual coords for a mystery cache and the coords of your car.  Speaking of which, if you want to add the coords of your car, simply stand by it and click "Set to Current Location", which will auto-populate your current coordinates.  Just make sure that your iPhone's signal is somewhat accurate at that point in time.

I found a wonderful use for this feature yesterday.  I was at an event and the hosts had placed several "temporary" (i.e. not published or assigned GC codes) caches for us to hunt.  At the sign-in table there was a sheet with all of the coordinates.  It only took me a few minutes to plot them all out.

My only gripe with the app right now is how slow it can be at times, especially on the weekends.  Sometimes I press a button and have to wait a full 60 or 90 seconds for it to respond, or I get the error "No caches found" when I know I'm standing within a few feet of one.  I don't know if the servers over-loaded, or maybe the cell network in Orlando just sucks, but whatever it is, it's really annoying.

The app as it exists today is full of neat features and easy to use. Groundspeak has obviously put in a lot of work to make it that way. They continue to take feedback from the users and make improvements, which is really all that we can ask for. I eagerly await the next update.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for the tip on how to enter your own coords. Learn something new everyday!

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