According to Geocaching.com, “Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online.”
The Magellan eXplorist GC is one of only a handful of paperless, purpose-built geocaching devices on the market and Magellan’s first foray into the niche–although not its first off-road handheld GPS device. Boasting a full-color display and a ruggedized design, the eXplorist seems ready to tackle the world’s largest treasure hunt, but what about the technology with it?
The handheld device measures 2.2 inches wide by 4.4 inches tall by 1.4 inches thick. The round-edged, pebblelike design and rubberized finish makes the eXplorist feel great in the hand, but its thickness means that it isn’t very pocketable–unless you’re talking cargo pockets. Fortunately, the device features an integrated loop along its bottom edge for attaching a strap or carabineer and a slot on the rear panel for attaching a belt clip (not included).
The eXplorist GC features a 2.2-inch color transflective screen that’s a bit small but provides very good readability in direct sunlight, which is very important in a device meant to be used outdoors. The screen is not a touch panel, so all of the user’s interactions will be handled by a bank of rubber buttons located just below the screen. The user is given controls for Back, Menu, Zoom out, and Zoom in, as well as a centrally located joystick controller that can be nudged up, down, left, right, and pressed to select.
At the top edge of the device is a soft power button that is molded into the rubber body without a seam, and along the bottom, behind the hanging loop, is a mini-USB port hidden beneath a rubber flap. The rear panel locks into place with a metal rotating latch that folds flat when not in use. A rubber gasket seals the compartment where the two AA batteries that power the device live.
If all of the rubber seals and gaskets didn’t tip you off, the eXplorist GC is ruggedized for outdoor use. A raised ridge around the screen’s bezel is meant to protect the display in the event of a drop. The device is also shockproof and IPX-7 waterproof, able to survive submersion for up to one minute without damage.
Like the Apisphere Geomate.jr that we reviewed last year, the Magellan eXplorist GC is designed to be a standalone, paperless geocaching device. The idea is that you should be able to power up this device and begin ‘caching right out of the box.
To facilitate this ease of use, the eXplorist comes preloaded with a database of geocaches stored in its memory. Magellan doesn’t disclose exactly how many caches are preloaded, but they seem to number in the thousands. The unit also includes worldwide base maps. These maps aren’t as accurate as those used for turn-by-turn directions, but at least you’ll still be able to use your eXplorist to hunt geocaches while on vacation in Orlando, Florida, or Dublin, Ireland, without buying a new map pack.
For each cache in the eXplorist’s memory, the user is given access to the GPS coordinates and a wide range of information about the cache’s location. This usually includes a rich description of the significance of the location you’re visiting, a few hints about the cache’s location, other geocacher’s comments and notes, a difficulty rating, and a cache size graph, amongst other things.
Users can search for geocaches in a list format or by browsing the map screen.
Once a cache is chosen, the eXplorist will display your current location on a map along with your heading and a line between your current location and the cache’s. Simply follow the line to the geocache point and begin to look for the hidden cache. An alternate dashboard view is available which displays the distance to the end, heading, the current time, estimated time of arrival, speed, and a trip odometer. When the search is over, users can mark the cache as found, mark not found, specify that the cache needs maintenance, or enter field note, which takes the user to an onscreen keyboard. Using that keyboard with the rubber joystick can be an exercise in frustration, so make those notes short.
Users can also use the eXplorist to set custom waypoints and navigate to them. This is a useful feature for getting back to your car if your day of geocaching takes you off of the beaten path.
Users are able to add more caches by USB connecting their eXplorist to a PC and downloading new data from the Geocaching.com user community. The eXplorist listed five caches in the city of San Francisco, but a quick search on Geocaching.com showed over 150 geocaches in the same area, so there is quite a bit of replay value. With your purchase, Magellan includes a 30-day premium membership to the Geocaching.com site, after which the site will charge $30/year. There is also a free basic account that may be enough for most casual ‘cachers, but if you find yourself getting serious about this activity, the advanced search tools and notifications of new caches make the Premium membership a heck of a deal.
The eXplorist GC is powered by a SiRFstarIII GPS receiver that, while accurate to within 3 meters under optimal conditions, doesn’t appear to include a any sort of internal compass. This means that the device can only infer the direction you’re facing based on the direction that you’re moving. This isn’t so bad at the beginning of your hunt, when you’re far away from the cache and moving pretty quickly, but as you approach the waypoint and need to move more precisely, it can be frustrating to have to walk in circles to get pointed in the right direction.
Geocaching is a sport that takes place in the great outdoors, but more and more caches are being hidden in densely populated urban areas. During our testing of the eXplorist, we used the device to sniff out a few caches that we were familiar with in Oakland, Calif., and a few new caches in San Francisco.
In Oakland where the sky is mostly unobstructed by skyscrapers, the eXplorist took us straight to our five favorite geocaches with little issue. We liked having access to the full color maps and that all of the cache info was right at our fingertips. The street names could be a bit difficult to read, and scrolling around the map with the joystick was at times maddening, but overall our impressions were very positive.
For the second portion of our test in San Francisco, we first set out to discover a cache hidden in the city’s Union Square. Along the way, we had to pass through the tall skyscrapers and narrow streets of the downtown area, where we noticed that the eXplorist GC had a hard time maintaining its satellite lock. For blocks at a time, our position wouldn’t change on the eXplorist’s screen, and occasionally, the device would just give up looking for the satellites and ask if we wanted to quit. However to be fair, most GPS devices suffer in this sort of urban canyon.
Once in the relatively open air of Union Square, the eXplorist was back on task, tracking our location rather accurately within the city-block-size park. The waypoints led us to the base of the monument at the square’s center. According to the info, we were looking for a micro cache that was hidden with a high degree of difficulty. After an hour of searching, occasionally raising the curiosity of the tourists in the area, we called of the search. Our second San Francisco cache was located at the top of a hillside park. We were unsuccessful in our hunt, but–despite its initial satellite reception issues–the eXplorist had proven itself a worthy geocaching tool.
Compared with the only other standalone geocaching tool we’ve reviewed, the Apisphere Geomate.jr, the Magellan eXplorist GC stands head and shoulders above the competition. It sits in a sweet spot between the toylike Geomate.jr, which is aimed at being a child’s first GPS device, and a high-end handheld GPS device. The eXplorist has a larger color screen that displays richer and more accurate data than the Geomate.jr, and it is updatable without the need for special equipment. Yet, the eXplorist lacks the even larger touch screen and internal three-axis compass of the higher-end model that offers more precise directional tracking while standing still.
At an MSRP of $199, the Magellan unit also sits in the pricing sweet spot between the considerably less expensive $69.99 Geomate.jr. and the more expensive prosumer units. For the urban outdoorsman, the extra cash is money well spent, leading to a much more enjoyable entry point into the geocaching experience.