Sunday, February 26, 2006

BackCountry Navigator

What a nice surprise to look back at BackCountry Navigator. I tried BCN about six months ago while looking at Navio A2B and even made a mess while trying to describe which files were installed by which package.

Now in its version 1.1.4 BackCountry Navigator shows an easy of use that comes really handy with a PDA equipped with wireless connection support. BackCountry Navigator installed the .NET Compact Framework SP3, plus SQL CE 2.0 and English Error Messages from a .msi download. No .cabs are being made available. I couldn't choose where to install the packages, so they went straight into the main memory, but according to the FAQ you should be able to install it to a SD card.

The surprise comes from the fact that in its current release and since probably version 1.1, if you have a working connection to the Internet, you can download aerophotos from TerraServer and Topographical maps from USGS. You only need to obtain a fix with your GPS receiver and pull the data, BCN will fill in the latitude and longitude values, make the connection to the servers and download the corresponding files. No need to calibrate maps or transfer them to the PDA from a PC.

Setup

First select the GPS tab and choose the COM port you have your receiver connected to. BackCountry Navigator will figure out the baud rate automatically. Wait for a fix and then select the Data tab. At this point make sure you have a good working connection with the Net. If it is not strong enough you will probably get error messages saying that the server was busy, in my case it just meant that it wasn't able to connect properly to the server.

You first need to create a new document at the Data tab by hitting the New... button. Any points you want to save have to be stored in a new or existing doc file, otherwise you will hit a bug. After getting a good link, and using the current GPS location as a guide, BCN downloaded maps from both TerraServer and USGS. Make sure you update the size for download if you want more data than the one provided by default.

That is pretty handy, the only problem is that you will need to have a connection where you want to download the maps. You can also set the location in the Data tab of the location from where you want to download maps.

Now hit the Map tab and you will be offered with a zoomed view of your current location, you might need to zoom out (press the main navigation button up) until you get a good resolution of your area. Select View | Topo to switch to a topographical map of the same location.

In the Download Map Data dialog you can hit the PlaceFinder button and look for a specific place name in a state. Make sure you are connected to the Net and hit Find. After a while a list of names with the words you typed will be presented including the corresponding Quad name of the USGS map that contains it. Select the item you want, press OK and the corresponding latitude and longitude will be filled in the Download Map dialog, you only have to hit Download Data to get the corresponding maps.

Locations

An even cooler feature is that BackCountry Navigator also provides with the downloaded data, the location names for the area you just got the maps from. Look under List and hit the Places button at the top. You will be presented with all known locations in the area. Those come with the Topo maps probably based on the GNIS database and usually refer to buidings, cities, rivers, lakes and other geographical points and known places. You can add your own locations as waypoints to the list.

Later on you can reload the same data by selecting Open... in the Data tab and pointing the document you just created previously. With that you will get maps, places and waypoints.

If you want to set a given waypoint as a destination, just select it from the List page and hit Goto. An arrow from your current location will point you towards it and the Nav tab will display your bearings in relation to that waypoint. Finally, you can also import .loc and .gpx files from the Data tab, they will be added to the currently opened document.

Among the screens in the Software Tour of the product, you can see an Export button in the Data tab that I couldn't find in the current version of the product. Not sure if this is one of the features disabled during the trial period.

Another significant feature missing from this version is the ability to record a NMEA log from a track. In fact, you don't actually see your "bread crumbs" behind as in a moving map with BackCountry Navigator, but only an arrow from your current location that is constantly updated to the active point you are navigating to.

Waypoints can be also grouped under Geocaching where you can provide full descriptions. No help is included in the product so make sure you browse the Software Tour pages in the website describing its features.

Conclusion

If you are not looking for the ability to record NMEA logs and visualize tracks you might be appeased by the easy of use offered by BackCountry Navigator for obtaining maps and tracking waypoints. You can try BackCountry Navigator for 21 days. A full license costs US$30 and includes future updates to the product. I hope a new version will offer tracking but still for its easy of use, what a nice surprise.

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