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Excellent communication device, but only fair as a navigational GPS
on June 10, 2014
[April 2015 update: up to four stars now that navigational functionality has been improved with changes to the firmware and phone app]
Hard to rate this, since it has no direct competition. And definitely a very full Five Stars for customizable two-way texting via satellite. But only fair for navigation in the field (i.e., the feature that differentiates it from the less expensive SE, introduced last year), and horribly weak for pre-trip planning (until perhaps a future firmware and/or website upgrade fixes that). [August 7, 2014 Edit: gpx import is now active, although waypoints are temporarily capped at 200 -- once this is fully implemented, my rating will go up to four stars. April 2015 Edit: pre-trip planning is good now, with only significant drawback being the need to go through the website interface, i.e., no way to transfer gpx data back-and-forth between your computer and the InReach w/o an internet connection. The Earthmate phone app now has all your tracks/routes and waypoints, plus some basic navigational functions, but major drawback relative to, say, Backcountry Navigator is that the names/labels for that data aren't visible on the screen; big advantage though for the Earthmate app is that your phone can use the inReach GPS and run in Airplane mode -- except for enabling Bluetooth -- for *DAYS* instead of drawing down the battery relatively quickly using the phone's own GPS chip.]
By way of my own personal background, for backcountry communication, I started off with a first-generation PLB, then the original Spot, followed by the Spot 2.0.
I held off on the original inReach, since I was wary of cell phone pairing in the backcountry.
But I bought the inReach SE immediately since it was a self-contained device, and therefore I suffered through DeLorme's initial lack of the promised syncing between computer and device (which allows contacts to be entered, and preset messages to be previewed) and many incorrect invoices.
Eventually though all that was fixed with firmware updates, and I've been very happy with my SE since then.
However, I was so tempted by the navigational features of the Explorer that I bought it immediately, since I hoped to leave behind the extra weight of my trusty old Garmin 60Cx. (Alternatively, although my smart phone is pretty good for backcountry navigation, I can't rely on it entirely since the touch screen is unreliable for ski mountaineering in cold and/or wet weather.) Unfortunately, the Explorer so far has been deja vu all over again.
So first I went through six rounds of attempts to get my new Explorer to realize that it was an Explorer and not some strange Explorer/SE hybrid (though this problem might have been unique transferring my SE service plan to my new Explorer). At least DeLorme customer service was very helpful with that (albeit not successful until the sixth try).
Based on initial use so far, as a GPS unit in the field, the Explorer is acceptable - barely. No base maps, so tracks/routes and waypoints are viewed against a blank background. (Yes, the Earthmate application uses the Explorer's GPS fix to show your position on a basemap on your phone, but that's it for the app's navigational features, even after having been around for years now, as it predates the SE version of inReach, so you're better off using some other app like Gaia or Backcountry Navigator. [April 2015 Edit: The app is much better now, as noted in the previous bracketed aside.]) And although another two buttons would have greatly enhanced menu manipulation and other functions, but the Explorer still retains only the same limited buttons as the SE. So when viewing the map, alternating between zooming versus scrolling is very cumbersome. [April 2015 Edit: This is unfortunately still a problem that can't be fixed with any firmware updates.]
For trip planning, the Explorer right now is abysmal.
Perhaps a future firmware upgrade will fix this, but as of now, creating navigational data to be transferred to the Explorer can be done only when your computer has an internet connection, and DeLorme does not offer any sort of gpx file import.
[August 7, 2014 Edit: gpx import is now active, although waypoints are temporarily capped at 200 -- once this is fully implemented, my rating will go up to four stars. April 2015 Edit: See prior comments on the improvements.]
This is okay if your only needs are to view the topo website on the website and create a few obvious waypoints and/or a simple route following a trail, but otherwise . . .
. . . more specifically, the Explorer essentially has three distinct sets of navigational data: Explorer-created lines called tracks, website-created lines called routes, and waypoints.
1. Tracks can be synced to the website and then exported to a gpx file. The track memory can also be cleared on the Explorer to declutter the map view and free up memory. (However, for the latter concern, any track logging interval less than a minute prompts a warning about more rapid depletion of the battery, yet even a 10-second interval still provides an estimated week of tracking memory, and even a one-second interval provides an estimate day of memory.)
2. Routes can be created, edited, and deleted on the website, synced to the Explorer, and deleted on the Explorer. (An in-progress navigation to a website also shows up in the route, but then disappears once navigation is ended, although that disappearance could be a function of my navigation testing not having entailed actually going anywhere yet.) No possibility though for exporting the route out from the website via a gpx file (or any other way), and no possibility for importing route data from a gpx file (or any other way). To create a route more precise that just clicking on map features: a) if the goal is to create a saved route from an Explorer-created track, then you can click away to essentially create a new line overlaid on the recorded track; if the goal is to replicate a previously created track in a gpx file, you can create a series of temporary waypoints from the individual tracklog points, then play connect-the-dots with your drawn route. [August 7, 2014 Edit: gpx import is now active, although tracklogs are limited to 512 points/nodes each, but if you want the original detail, then you can overcome this limited but splitting each tracklogs into multiple segments, with the total number of tracklogs/routes apparently not capped. April 2015 Edit: See prior edits.]
3. Waypoints can be created, deleted, and edited on either the Explorer or the website, and synced back & forth. Waypoints created on the Explorer are automatically uploaded (at the user-specified message check interval) via the Iridium satellite network to the user's map page on the DeLorme website (and ditto for in-progress navigational "routes"), with no way currently to override this automated (and bafflingly free) uploading (despite the drain on the Explorer's battery and the use of DeLorme's satellite bandwidth). The only way to import or export waypoint data to or from an outside source is to copy & paste the coordinates. [August 7, 2014 Edit: gpx import is now active, although waypoints are temporarily capped at 200 -- once this is fully implemented, my rating will go up to four stars. April 2015: Ditto as before.]