A multi-functional tablet built for backcountry survival
By C.C. Weiss
May 10, 2013
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.