Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Backcountry Tablet

I confess I have taken my Kindle Fire hiking.

Probably a stupid thing to do, carry an expensive device over lava fields, leaping over cracks in the earth; or up dusty trails, through woods, or out on the riverbanks. One drop and it’s all over, pal.

Besides, its utility in the backcountry has always been a bit limited. I have a full survival manual on my Kindle, but the topographical maps are always dependent on an always-on Internet connection (yes, I have a free app, but I understand the paid apps work on the same stupid, stupid principle).

So when I read TechCrunch’s article on Earl, the Android tablet “that wants to be your backcountry buddy,” I was intrigued. And at $279 a pop (if it ever gets out of development stage) I’d seriously consider buying one.

Here’s why it’s neat: It incorporates technology that other tablets should have already – the ability to pick up AM and even FM radio signals, the ability to function as a two-way radio without a blinking Internet connection, and a few others, including a solar panel for recharging and a robust anti-dust and anti-water chassis. (While the solar thing is cool, I have to wonder about costs in getting this beast repaired with the addition of a panel. Also, I have a portable solar panel that might work to charge my current stable of tablets. I’ll have to look at that more closely.)

TechCrunch is a little hazy on the details. I wonder if this works on the ham radio frequencies and thus would require the operator to get a license (not that big of a deal).

So as always, I go to the source, where I can meet Earl in person. They tell me this works on FRS/GMRS systems, as well as MURS – making it a pretty versatile device that would generally not require a license to operate. (Some GMRS channels required FCC licensing.) Pretty cool.

The guide part looks a little looser – if you want an always-there topo map, guides, or whatever, you’ll have to pay for them. But then again, having them all in one neat little package might make the extra cost worth it.

Tablet technology being what it is, though, Kindle and company could catch up (or may have this kind of thing already; I’m really rather ignorant of what apps are available). And the Earl has no camera, which is another reason to enjoy carrying my Fire around (cuts down on the baggage, see).

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