Mind over Matter: Stuff I cared about at the time

These Are a Few of my Favorite Things

ok — one of my favorite things.

It’s my old Garmin eTrex! A friend’s son is going to be working at Garmin for the summer, and I was reminiscing about my long history with their products. This was my first — the original eTrex. I can still remember going to a MacWorld exhibition back in 1989 or 1990 and seeing a Sony GPS unit (yes, Sony!). It must have been a Pyxis model, though my recollection was that the antenna unit was spherical rather than just round. Could be faulty memory, or might have been a prototype unit. More likely the former. Anyway, it was of course super expensive, and there was no way I would be able to afford such a thing, but the concept of a (semi) portable device that could tell you (fairly) precisely where you were anywhere on earth seemed pretty magical.

In any case, GPS technology continued to evolve, and a newish company, Garmin, was producing some interesting devices. A lot of the early devices were aimed at the boating market, where LORAN had been the previous popular means of electronic navigation. There were some handheld units, but the eTrex was (I would say) the first reasonably priced, handheld GPS receiver, oriented towards hiking. And so, I bought one. I used it for hiking, and even toyed with connecting it up with a PocketPC via a cable purchased from a “pfranc” (Purple Open Project Franchisee). If you have a few minutes, the history of those 3rd-party connectors is really fascinating and fun, and Larry Berg is a great example of a hacker’s hacker. I remember being completely absorbed by the story back then, but eventually I lost track of him, and he apparently passed away in 2012. But the other thing the cable was useful for was powering the eTrex in the car. I could also connect it to a laptop via a serial port (and later, a USB-to-RS-232 converter). Because, of course, the eTrex had no built-in mapping capability. It could just tell you where you were. And via a “breadcrumb trail” function, where you’d been. And store waypoints. And point you in the precise direction of a waypoint and tell you how far it was. But it had no concept of roads, or trails, or anything other than location: current, previous, and preset waypoints. But this was enough! I recorded many hikes with my beautiful yellow eTrex that I could then save and post, and overlay the breadcrumb trail on top of topo maps, etc.

The eTrex was a miracle of technology, but still showed some weaknesses that were common among early GPS receivers. It could take quite some time to get a signal, and it required quite a clear view of the sky in order to receive the signal reliably. For the many years that it was my hiking GPS, you would see me with the unit balanced on top of my hat. No doubt this helped improve my posture. Many times I thought about velcroing it there, but I never actually did.

One of the great things about GPS was that, being a government designed technology, the standards were published, and while different companies might well choose to implement proprietary physical connectors to their device, the data coming from those devices was all standard, so if you wrote an app to interface with one GPS, with very minor exceptions, you could interface with all of them. A great example of the value of standards!

After the eTrex, I eventually bought an Edge 705, which was oriented towards biking, and could interface with a cadence meter, a wheel tachometer to more accurately calculate speed, and a heart rate monitor. This had several advantages over the eTrex — it had USB connectivity (via a standard connector, even — way to evolve, Garmin!!), and a rechargeable battery. It had much quicker startup times, and had a much more sensitive receiver. So much so that it spent most of its time in my pocket, resulting in a screen that has suffered many scratches from other pocket paraphernalia. But most of all, it had a mapping capability! I could load street maps on it, and it could calculate routes. I could load topo maps on it, and see what the trail ahead looked like, etc. It even had a color screen! Even after I had a phone that could also do all these things, I still carried the Edge. It did much better with battery life, and it meant I could leave my phone in airplane mode to conserve its battery, and have it available for emergencies.

But the beautiful thing is that, after 20+ years, the thing still works. Once I cleaned out the leaked battery acid from old alkalines (Duracell, even!), and popped in a fresh pair of AAs, the thing booted up and found the requisite “birds” and was able to give me a location. As always, it had to be outdoors to get a good enough view of the sky, but it still works! I Love It!



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2 responses to “These Are a Few of my Favorite Things”

  1. scott Avatar

    “After 20 years…”… You mean 2002?? So weird to me that old stuff is from the early 2000s.
    I recently broke out my first synthesizer… that I got used in 1985. And it still works!

    1. admin Avatar

      Yeah, I feel the same. In lots of ways, 20 years isn’t that long, but in the realm of tech, it’s pretty long (these days). Synths are an interesting crossover between musical instrument and tech, where I think we would expect instruments to have a long life, but tech, not so much. (Of course, “tech” is not a monolithic space, either).