Since I’ve been successful at getting the PDA brought back from the dead like Lazarus from the grave, I thought I’d share how my PDA setup looks and feels as a total geocaching platform. This is going to be a longer post with more pictures than usual, so go grab a cup of coffee and a warm blanket.. or perhaps a nice frosty lager (just one!)—whatever your preference.
First things first, the biggest and most prevalent problem with PDA geocachers is battery life. With the Dell Axim (and many other good quality PDAs) there’s one great, cheap and easy fix—a higher capacity battery. I bought a 1400mAh extended life battery and a replacement 900mAh battery (sits flush with the device), and so far the 1400mAh is more than enough by itself. The battery monitoring software I’ve installed has shown a 4 hour lifetime with strong PDA use (Bluetooth, gps applications, TomTom, etc.) and that’s not even factoring the spare 900mAh I keep.
I’ll focus on the hardware in another post. Today I want to focus on the software. Under most circumstances, I stick with only three bits of software on my Dell Axim (Windows Mobile 2003) PDA—TomTom navigator, BeeLineGPS, and Cachemate. Sometimes I’ll use GPXview, but it’s similar in function to Cachemate and much slower to use. All of these geocaching-related software packages are listed in the right of this blog’s page under “notable links.” The design of this setup is entirely a paperless caching device born on outside functionality as a business (or personal) tool as well. Until recently, it served as my everything box—a contacts, email and calendar platform with internet functionality (with the added benefit of serving as a Skype-phone too).
The PDA connects via Bluetooth to a Holux GR-230 “puck” that weights a few ounces and has a separate and very slow draining battery. Once I establish a connection between the PDA and the Holux (a 5 second procedure of clicking 2 buttons) I’ll get to the business of locating a cache and navigating to it.
TomTom is the program I use primarily to identify local caches in relation to the roads available—I import my Geocaching.com .gpx files in to TomTom by loading them in GSAK and converting them to .ov2 files and copying them to the TomTom maps directory on my PDA. I’ll usually use the GC.com website to get a rough idea of the locale I want to visit and make a brief list of caches I want to hit before I go. It’s not required by any stretch, but I prefer having a small checklist of my own. If I don’t make the list, I’ll just load TomTom and look for a cache (identified by the beige asterisk in the left screenshot), and then tell TomTom to navigate me there with turn-by-turn directions. Before TomTom, I used Mapopolis—but they’ve since folded and are offering no support for purchasers of their original product (TomTom is still the better product in my opinion anyway, so despite the additional cash out that wasn’t so bad after all). The latest version of TomTom fetched about $150 USD at the time this article was written.
Once I get within the vicinity of the cache, I’ll close TomTom and open up a program called BeeLineGPS. This is my core geocaching program as it allows me to simply import my .gpx files and display them in the same way that most modern GPS geocaching devices do, with plenty of added features (more on those in another post). BeeLineGPS will take me within 2-4 feet of a cache, and will provide a track line so I can trace my way back out of a location the exact way I came. It’s a super-easy program to use, and runs automatically once loaded. I’ll usually highlight the cache I’m targeting in BeeLineGPS and ask it to draw a line between me and the cache (one tap) so I can keep an eye on the general location of the cache without being zoomed too far out. The latest version of BeeLineGPS fetched $29.95 at the time this article was written, and all future updates are provided free.
Once I’m satisfied with my location, I’ll close BeeLineGPS and load up Cachemate to learn more about the specific details of the cache and perhaps pry into the hint and the latest finds if I’m having trouble. Cachemate is essentially a portable database that allows geocachers to go into the field entirely paperless on the same PDA, with full access to the data contained within the .gpx files. The latest version of Cachemate fetched $10 USD at the time this article was penned. However, as an alternative to Cachemate users are more than welcome to try GPXview available at Geocaching.com’s website under the download section for free. It serves a similar purpose (with slightly fewer functions) as Cachemate, but it’s definitely a slower program to load—something that can be very tedious when you are out caching and switching quickly between programs. Cachemate is clearly the superior program despite the price tag.