Field-Testing The Bad Elf

For those unaware, I was recently supplied with a Bad Elf to review. This miniature box plugs into the 30-pin dock of your iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to provide you with quality GPS reception for your device.

One of the unknowns with the Bad Elf was exactly how well it would perform in the field, especially as the accuracy does not show anything better than 10 metres, but the producers of this unit suggest it can be as good as 2.5m (environment dependent).

So before I gather various GPS units and run some accuracy comparisons (that will happen in the next few weeks) I thought I’d field-test it first.

The results were … surprising.

I elected to throw the Bad Elf in the deep end right from the start and go after a couple of caches that are under heavy bush cover. Why waste my time finding clear-area caches only to find it can’t handle anything overhead?

Weirly Fast (GC30Q9A) is a local traditional cache set in fairly dense native bush a short walk and moderate stream crossing from the nearby road. I then planned to follow this track for 1000m+ to find a new puzzle cache.

With me I had the Bad Elf and iPad running Groundspeak’s Geocaching app. I also carried my trusty Blackberry Bold 9000 running Cachesense and my backup Garmin eTrex. Before anyone screams “where was the real GPSr?”, I will point out that the Blackberry has already proven itself in the field against one of the better Garmin units.

I parked on the roadside and started up the iPad/Bad Elf – and was pleasantly surprised to find it had satellite lock in about 30 seconds. The Blackberry was already running but, while I waited an eternity for the eTrex to warm up, I wondered whether the Bad Elf could keep up with its good start.

A short way down the track was a stream that required crossing (I regretted not having an Otterbox at that point) and from then on it was fairly heavy tree cover. Again, the Bad Elf surprised me by maintaining its satellite fix.

Within moments, the eTrex was struggling, but the only thing I noticed with the iPad was that the compass became a little erratic from time to time. I suspect this was probably more a result of the software reacting to changes in the number of satellites fixed as the accuracy did not appear to change and the problem righted itself quite quickly.

The cache was well hidden but both the Blackberry and the Bad Elf/iPad got me into the right spot. The eTrex had long since given up trying. At GZ the Bad Elf/iPad showed the cache as being a very respectable 3m away. Again, a surprisingly good result.

The Bad Elf at Weirly Fast Cache. A very respectable 3m at GZ under very heavy tree cover.

The 1km walk to the puzzle cache final was along a fairly good bush track with varying levels of cover. The Bad Elf/iPad again performed well, keeping the correct orientation and not appearing to lose any accuracy.

Despite the wish that I had the iPad in an Otterbox, I really enjoyed the large screen and compass showing the way.

I had also wondered whether the Bad Elf sticking out of the bottom of the iPad would be a worry as I wandered along; would it be in danger of falling out? The answer is no. It snugly tucks into the iPad and its location meant it was never knocked about or in the way.

At GZ for the puzzle cache, the cover was extremely heavy with thick forestry. Again, the eTrex gave up the ghost but the Bad Elf/iPad maintained a decent connection. The Bad Elf showed the cache as being 6m away, whilst the Blackberry registered 10m. Given the extremely heavy cover I was impressed.

Overall, the Bad Elf performed very well as a geocaching tool. The satellite connection was excellent, there was always enough and it was never lost. Connection was fast. Accuracy appears quite good. My biggest complaint was the spinning compass, which I assume occured when satellite connections changed. Remaining in one place for a few moments did improve accuracy and let the compass settle things down, but I don’t experience this with the BB and assume it is actually more an issue with the geocaching software, rather than the Bad Elf itself.

Wherigo in the World is Garmin Sandiego?

I also had the pleasure of running a play-anywhere Wherigo cartridge at a local park. Wherigo in the World is Garmin Sandiego (GC2WBZZ) is a fun adventure that gets you running all over the place and is well worth checking out.

The Bad Elf/iPad was an excellent combo for a Wherigo challenge like this. The first thing I noticed was having the larger iPad in my hands and moving about in an erratic pattern produced fewer odd looks from passers-by than a standard GPSr does. My guess is they assumed I was a town planner or similar.

The large screen again proved enjoyable and made reading the instructions, viewing photos and navigating around the functions simple.

The accuracy also proved to be excellent. Despite only showing 10m accuracy, the actual navigation proved to be spot on. This Wherigo has you visiting the same locations over and over and each time the Bad Elf delivered me to exactly the same spot. If the accuracy was dodgy, I would expect to have been all over the place – clearly it was not!

But as good as the Bad Elf proved to be, it couldn’t help me find Garmin Sandiego. Next time maybe.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by how good the Bad Elf performs in the field. I always believed it would be good at providing GPS capability but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, especially under heavy cover.

I’m now very much looking forward to putting the Bad Elf through its paces over the next few weeks against a range of GPS units, including how it performs in an iPhone 3 and iPhone 4.

Stay tuned!


2 pings

  1. Cumbyrocks

    And before anyone raises the ‘only a dedicated GPSr can be trusted’ argument let me finish the comparison testing first. At this point I think the apps are yet to catch up with the quality of the Bad Elf – but one would hope this is only a temporary thing!

  2. John Gordon

    Which eTrex were you using?

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