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A multi-functional tablet built for backcountry survival


May 10, 2013

The Earl tablet could become your best friend in the outdoors, offering you navigation, communications, weather tracking and more

The Earl tablet could become your best friend in the outdoors, offering you navigation, communications, weather tracking and more

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Smartphones, tablets and laptops are great when you're sitting on the couch or running around the city, but they aren't as great in the wilderness where cellular service disappears and bright sunlight renders LCD screens near-illegible. The Earl is a tablet designed to skirt around those shortcomings and keep you connected in the deepest of backcountry terrain. The "backcountry survival tablet" navigates you across the land, keeps you in communication with your crew and lets you know what weather lies ahead.

The Earl is an Android 4.1-based tablet that uses a 6-inch LG e-ink display. While the black-and-white display won't be so great for watching videos or picking out paint colors for your next car, it is designed to provide superior visibility in the outdoors. With its "lunar mode," the Earl maintains visibility at night and works as a lantern.

The e-ink display also uses energy frugally, allowing for up to 20 hours of battery life. The designers thought of the weekend backpacker with that battery life, but the built-in solar panel on the backside can keep it running on longer trips.

The Earl is much more than just a black-and-white tablet designed to be used outdoors. It uses a 50-channel GPS/GLONASS/WAAS chipset that tracks up to 20 satellites at once and delivers accuracy of up to about 10 feet (3 meters). It comes pre-loaded with topographic base maps, and its creators advertise Everytrail.com as a means for accessing mapping information for more than 300,000 trails. Using its internal magnetometer, accelerometer and gyroscope, the Earl can keep track of your position and route even in dense jungle and urban environments that lack a clear line of sight to the satellites above.

In addition to keeping you on track, the Earl is designed to keep you in communication with others in your group. Since cell phones can turn into useless backpack weights out in the wilderness, the Earl incorporates an FRS/GPRS/MUR two-way radio that lets you communicate with other radios up to 20 miles (32 km) away. The tablet can send text and voice messages and information like weather, location and route. Its designers advertise that it can be used to call for help in an emergency, but that will really depend on where you are and who else is around. Because it lacks satellite communications capabilities, it shouldn't be relied upon as an emergency rescue beacon.

To keep you tuned into the world beyond your two-way range, the Earl includes an AM/FM radio along with shortwave and longwave band radios. The latter gives you access to NOAA weather information and alerts. The tablet includes a built-in speaker for playing audio.

Outdoor-device standards like the NOAA weather radio, barometer and thermometer are joined by an anemometer and hygrometer. The Earl is able to provide current temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and wind speed and direction. It can also give you the location of where the sun, moon and stars will be the brightest.

As an Android tablet, the Earl works with all kinds of available apps, and app designers will be able to build apps specifically for Earl and its unique sensor set. The tablet includes ANT+, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, allowing it to connect to the internet and work with wireless devices such as heart rate monitors.

Since it was created to be used outside, the Earl is a bit more rugged and grizzled than the average tablet. It uses a waterproof case that can hold its breath in 3 feet (91 cm) of water for 30 minutes. It is also dust-, shock- and mud-proof and works in temperatures between 0 and 50ºC (32 to 122ºF) and altitudes as high as land rises (40,000 feet/12,192 m – more than 10,000 feet/3,000 m higher than Everest). It recharges via USB or the aforementioned integrated solar panel.

Does the market really need a tablet built specifically for backcountry use? We're not really sure, but it gets its chance to decide: the Earl is hosting its own Kickstarter-style crowd-sourcing campaign. Early birds can pre-order the tablet with 100K topographic base maps for US$249. Add $50 for 24K resolution maps on microSD. Retail price will be around $360 for the base model.

The Earl can be used all over the world, but features such as the base maps and radio frequencies are designed for North America. Plans call for the launch of European and Australian versions toward the end of the year.

Source: Meetearl

About the Author
C.C. Weiss Upon graduating college with a poli sci degree, Chris toiled in the political world for several years. Realizing he was better off making cynical comments from afar than actually getting involved in all that mess, he turned away from matters of government and news to cover the things that really matter: outdoor recreation, cool cars, technology, wild gadgets and all forms of other toys. He's happily following the wisdom of his father who told him that if you find something you love to do, it won't really be work. All articles by C.C. Weiss

Great idea; I think the market ought to offer a low-end smartphone with e-ink as well, possibly with a solar panel.

Bruce Crosby

Its a bit pricey and I understand why with the tech embedded in it. If they could get it down to $200 with good maps out the door, I would totally be interested in it.

Rann Xeroxx

@Rann: seriously?!? A decent backcountry GPS runs at least $200... Add on two way radio, android functionality, solar charging, and more... Asking $500 would be reasonable. This is a STEAL.

Sean Wormsbecker

I agree. The closest in features to this might be the Garmin Rino, which lists for around $600 (depending on the version). Color would be nice, but the e-ink display was a good call considering.

I hope they are successful.

Andy Barrow

sounds like it is better than my smartphone for gps, etc. however, 32 degrees is not very cold for a unit that goes to the top of everest...not very cold for any northern contiguous US state for that matter...now if it went down to -40 degrees it would be reasonable.

Also i can understand the gps and accelerometer and gyroscope for keeping track of position when satellites are not available, but a magnetometer?? you could maybe use it to prospect for gold?


I wonder how this would work in an ultra light aircraft or small plane?

Ron Tucker

I agree this is a good deal and a great product, im SERIOUSLY thinking of buying one, maby even one for my brother who would definitely love one.

This is a great idea for anyone thinking of doing some serious backpacking in back country. Also preppers. I think the fact that it has a solar charger is what makes me really like it.

Only thing i could see them adding in the article is the weight.



Magnetometer could also be described as a digital compass..

Instead of prospecting for gold, maybe the north pole.


And this is why people get lost, need rescue and some die. Before you go out there learn how to use a compass and a map. People rely far too much on GPS, they go thinking the GPS will get them out from anywhere. It wont, it's easy to get lost even with a GPS.

A map and a compass are your best friends, provided you know how to use them. If you do and additionally have a good GPS excellent.

Say you just go trekking at a mountain. You get lost and take out your very expensive cool GPS. Say it works, fixes your position exactly where you are and your altitude. You check where the camping was and head that direction. Oh wait, you are in a mountain and can't remember where you passed (You are lost remember?). You know in which direction the camp is but you can't just walk straight to it, you follow a path and damn it stops and falls down 300 meters. Next path, damn this one also ends in a fall. Again and again and again wrong way. But hey you know you coordinates as well as the camp, seems it's not that useful on it's own, is it? Too bad it's getting late, sun is out and it's now very, very cold. Since you don't know how to use a map (Whether it's a plastic/paper map or the one in the GPS, same thing) I'm going to assume you are one of those idiots that go trekking without appropriate clothes and backup stuff, like say a sleeping bag. You have a phone but there is no reception. It rains and you die. Additionally all this work on your GPS on fixing you position rains the battery, and probably didn't bring backup batteries.

TL;DR Learn to use a map and a compass. Do not ever go out without this knowledge and tools. If you have a GPS as an EXTRA, awesome.


Early birds should be careful here, as the U.S. Department of defense might well put a ban on this device for strategic reasons, e.g.. to prevent resistance organizations operating in the wilderness from powerful networking -- or to curb its use for ultra-light aircraft navigation.

It's probably for the same strategic reasons the $100 OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) is still hopelessly behind its sales target -- it has indeed a couple of features to please the revolutionaries, ranging from a screen that can be switched from color to black-and-white for very low consumption and daylight readability, to a handle-operated dynamo for grid-independent recharging, besides retractable antennas and 100% solid-state construction which, together with a shock-proof case, makes it almost indestructible...

Yet did you notice that both the OLPC and the e-ink technology are originating from the MIT? And that the MIT is a government-sponsored institute with close connections to the Pentagon? Hence, we might be a long way from seeing e-ink screens on our tablets, laptops and net-books...

Another risk for early birds might be the CIA running a hidden scheme on the Internet to identify potentially subversive users of the device...


I'd really like to see a color option. I know color e-ink isn't as vibrant as LED screens, but I don't really care about that. The topo maps would be more effective in color.

Dave Andrews

Not approved for importation to the US.


A year later (now July 2014): No product, no delivery schedule, poor communication and backers backing out! Suggestions of a scam are already being made. New technologies now on the market (military spec waterproof cases, solar panels) make this product obsolete if and when it ever gets to market. At the time it was a nice idea. However, good ideas coupled with poor execution are doomed.

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