Gadget Gets You Off the Couch and on the Hunt

PHOTO The Apispheres Geomate Jr. is shown.Courtesy Chris Renaldi
The Apisphere's Geomate Jr. is shown.

Apisphere's Geomate Jr., available online and at various retailers for $70, is a device designed to be easy to use right out of the box, especially for children and novice geocachers.

Geocaching is an outdoor pastime: members of a global community of geocachers hide objects and then post their whereabouts online for others to find using GPS-enabled devices such as Geomate Jr.

The objects, or "geocaches," can vary in size from a film canister to a tackle box; each generally contains a sort of visitors' log for people to write notes in.

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The claim on Geomate Jr.'s packaging is that with only three steps, one can be geocaching right away.

Step 1: Go outside.

Step 2: Switch it on.

Step 3: Follow the arrow & distance to your closest geocache!

Well, it's not quite that simple. When I first opened the box, I was determined to try out the Geomate Jr. by following only these three steps to verify their claim.

You Actually Have to Hunt for the Hidden Geocache

The first hiccup was that I went outside, and tried to turn it on, but nothing happened. So it was back inside to find two AAA batteries to put inside.

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Back in the game, I'm on my way to find my first geocache. The Geomate Jr. tells me I'm less than 2,000 feet from it and, boy, is it satisfying to see that number shrink rapidly with every step!

Once it displays six feet, I start to get excited and I keep moving until it displays exactly zero feet from the cache. However, after a fruitless search of a two-foot radius, I give up and go back home. It's time to read the instruction manual.

The most important piece of information came not from the instruction manual, but from a letter addressed to me, as a reviewer, written by an Apisphere employee: "You will have to actually hunt for the hidden geocache! When I get to the general location of the geocache, say less than 20 ft., I put the GPS down and look around and ask myself, 'Where would I hide something here?'"

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To be fair, this is stated in the manual, but that quote really helped me succeed when I went out to try and find that first cache again.

Geomate Jr.'s Screen Displays Location Information and More

However, on this second trip I noticed one new drawback: In order to keep the arrow pointing in the right direction, you must hold the Geomate Jr. perpendicular to your body and keep moving. It doesn't work as a compass: Turn the Geomate another way while standing still, and the arrow will not reorient its direction.

If watching the number of feet to the geocache was satisfying, then finding the geocache itself and writing my name in its logbook was infinitely more so. Even if the geocache, hidden under some loose bricks in my Tucson neighborhood, was just an Altoids tin with a mini log book. (A second geocache I found that evening was a plastic container with another log book, but this one had some small toys, not unlike the treats that come with McDonald's Happy Meal. Part of geocaching often involves substituting your own items for what you find.)

It's also a cool feeling to know that you know where something is hidden and people walk by it every day without knowing about it.

I like that there are only three buttons, an on/off, one for changing pages and another for changing items within a page. "Pages" are like main menu screens that help group certain types of information, such as current distance, current location information, and which caches you've already found.

Another good feature is that before you start on a geocaching journey, you can hold down both front buttons to set a home location, so when you are done, just follow the arrows home.

The difficulty of the terrain on the way to the cache, as well as the difficulty of finding the cache once you are there, is displayed by up to four stars. Also, the size of the cache item is displayed on the home screen.

Choosing Your Geocaching Journey

If the closest cache to you is very small or hard to find, it's easy to choose a different one. The GC code, a unique code for each individual geocache, can also be displayed, though it is really only useful if you have access to the Internet through another device.

The Geocache Jr. comes with a lanyard and an optional update kit ($30). The update kit is used to make sure you have the most recent geocache locations and removes abandoned locations from the Geomate Jr., but I'd say skip the update kit because it's not quite as polished as the rest of the product, especially if you're using the Firefox browser. The 250,000 geocache locations that have already been loaded onto the Geomate Jr. by the manufacturer seem to be plenty, as there were more than 20 within less than a mile of me.

Tthe device is very good at doing what it was designed to do, but that a cursory knowledge of geocaching (Wikipedia or, for instance) and at the very least, a reading of the quick start guide in its entirety, is required to have a better chance at a more enjoyable and successful geocaching experience on your first day out.

One of the main objectives of this device is to get people off the couch and outside and at least for me, it succeeded in doing just that.