In Review: Carlson Explorer by Carlson Software

October 1, 2004
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A new handheld data collector option for surveyors combining time-tested hardware and software.

Carlson Software
102 West Second St.
Maysville, Ky. 41056
800/989-5028
www.carlsonsw.com
Suggested Pricing: Starts at $1,795.



The Carlson Explorer's T-design is sized for a comfortable hand grip while providing a display large enough for ease of viewing results.
We live in a digital world run by micro-chips. In the book One Digital Day,[1] the authors state, "By the middle of the next century, the typical microprocessor may have more computing power than today's fastest supercomputers. It will talk, and more important, it will listen." The authors also state, "Evolving faster than any invention in history, the microprocessor's capability has grown ten thousand-fold over the past 25 years."

In addition to this increased computing power, the size of microprocessors has shrunk as well. As a result, we can now carry more computing power in our shirt pockets than the most powerful computer was capable of 50 years ago. It seems that many daily lives are controlled by this little technological gadget; surveyors are no exception as they have depended on the microcomputer since it was first introduced in 1971.

The challenge now is not how to pack more power into less space, but how to find the right balance between a small and powerful package and our ability as humans to interface with the object. That is, until the time when speech recognition becomes the norm on handheld devices, we must depend on physical contact with the device for certain types of data entry. Touch-screen technology allows us some streamlined procedures, but still, much of our alphanumeric data must be entered one character at a time. Thus, a keyboard, whether real or virtual, is required. Displays need to be large and bright enough to see clearly what is displayed and there must be some means of communicating with peripheral equipment. Until such time as wireless communication becomes an industry standard and we surveyors have retired all of our equipment that needs a physical connection, the 9-pin serial port is also a necessity for us.

Handheld devices with a variety of functions have been available to surveyors since the late '70s and developers have pushed the limits of their capabilities since then. The introduction of Windows CE in 1996 was the beginning step for what is now a powerful platform for functions not previously available in handheld devices running DOS or other similar operating systems. This, coupled with advances in microchip design, has resulted in the manufacture of a number of handheld devices from pocket size to those much larger, all with excellent display technology. The challenges have been to obtain an acceptable graphical screen resolution and size, sufficient battery power, processor speed and data entry. The challenges for the surveying market have also included an acceptable environmental tolerance, including temperature, dust and moisture, and the ability to see the display in bright sunlight or low light conditions.

A New Handheld Offering

In 2001, Carlson Software of Maysville, Ky., recognized the power of Windows CE type devices and introduced Carlson SurvCE, an adaptation of SurvStar, the company's DOS-based GPS/total station data collection software introduced in the mid-'90s. Since there were a number of Windows CE devices on the market, Carlson previously opted to provide the flexibility for the user to select from a variety of platforms. Carlson SurvCE can now be installed on more than 17 different models already on the market.

Carlson has now entered the hardware market by offering its own handheld device bundled with Carlson software. The product is the JETT.ce handheld device manufactured by Two Technologies, a producer of handheld devices for more than 15 years based in Horsham, Pa. Two Technologies' products are used worldwide in such places as airports and retail stores, for delivery services, and on industrial machines and manufacturing floors. For this review, I visited the Two Technologies facility and was pleased to learn that everything is designed and assembled in the Horsham location. This includes circuit-board design and assembly. Thus, it is a "Made-in-the-USA" product. Two Technologies provides a two-year warranty on Carlson Explorer, and Curt Goldman, territory accounts manager for the company, proudly states that the company still fully supports the first units they manufactured more than 15 years ago.

The device, marketed under the product name of Carlson Explorer, has been customized to work better for surveyors. Dale Jefferson, executive vice president of business development for Carlson Software, says that this decision was based on their desire to deliver more value to Carlson's customers by providing a low-cost, high-value and durable unit, while at the same time providing Carlson with more quality control by shipping pre-installed software.

Carlson Explorer comes standard with a 400 Mhz processor, 128 MB of non-volatile memory, a 320 x 240 color display, a compact flash (CF) card slot, one serial port and a port for recharging the battery. The CF slot will accept standard Windows CE compatible cards such as those for additional storage. Units can be ordered with factory embedded Bluetooth or WiFi technology for wireless communication. The screen shows up quite vividly in the bright sunlight and is backlit for low light conditions. The keyboard has 44 keys; the letters, numbers and enter key are arranged conveniently for one-handed operation. And the alpha-numeric keyboard has been totally redesigned by Carlson for optimal use by surveyors.

The keypad and bezel have been customized for greater ease of use for surveyors. The Enter key has been relocated to accommodate one-handed operation.
The Keyboard

Two Technologies' customers, including Carlson Software, can specify their own unique product by virtue of customized keyboards (there are more than 1,500 different keyboards made to meet customer needs), colors and other configuration options. While at the maker's facility, I had the privilege of participating in a discussion of some of the special features of the Carlson Explorer's keyboard, which has been customized for the surveyors' convenience.

In addition to the standard ALT and CTRL keys found on most handheld devices, Carlson Explorer provides two other keys labeled 1ST and 2ND. The ALT key provides access to Carlson SurvCE shortcuts, such as adding notes to the data file. The CTRL key provides access to standard Windows shortcuts such as cut, paste, copy, etc. The 1ST key provides access to the alphanumeric symbols and the 2ND key provides access to hardware functionality such as screen contrast, back-light, delete, function keys and other functions. Carlson SurvCE shortcuts are laser etched on the keyboard bezel while Windows shortcuts are labeled on the keys.

Aesthetics and Environmental Aspects

The orange and blue colors chosen by Carlson for the Carlson Explorer provide a unit that is easy to spot if accidentally dropped in the woods or in tall vegetation. While the unit has not undergone formal drop tests, the components and their mountings have been designed based on 15 years of experience of Two Technologies' other products, which are used in industrial settings and have passed in-house testing. The firm yet resilient bumper pads on the corners and edges of the unit are part of this protection.

I placed the unit in my freezer for more than four hours and it still worked perfectly. I took it outside on a humid day and moisture condensed on the cold case to the point of dripping off-and it still worked. Once it warmed up to the surrounding temperature, I opened the CF card slot cover, which is sealed against moisture and dust by a rubber gasket and held in place by two screws. There was no evidence of moisture on the inside.

Carlson SurvCE on the Carlson Explorer works with robotic total stations from all major manufacturers.
Battery Life

While battery life is highly dependent on intensity of use, a fully charged battery will run a full day under most conditions. The low battery LED, which is highly visible even in bright sunlight, provides ample warning time to allow for changing the battery before it shuts down the unit. Even if the unit shuts down due to battery failure, no data is lost since everything is stored in non-volatile storage. The standard rechargeable NiMH 9-volt battery can be replaced in the field by another fully charged unit, or by six AA standard or rechargeable alkaline batteries. When changing batteries, the unit will cold boot, taking about 30 seconds. All system settings are retained except for user created shortcuts on the desktop.

Software Bundles

The unit comes bundled with Microsoft's Internet Explorer; Microsoft WordPad; PC-Link, a variation of Microsoft's Active Sync; and any one of the various Carlson SurvCE configurations. Carlson SurvCE configurations consist of the core module-the TS (total station) support-with the option of adding any combination of three other support function modules: roads, robotics and GPS. All options include Carlson Export, the company's desktop transfer utility.

USB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

I was concerned about the lack of a USB port when I first looked at the Carlson Explorer. Devices with USB provide much faster file data transfer than a serial connection does, and the difference is especially noticeable on large files. Two Technologies offers USB as an option, but Carlson chose not to include it in favor of the 9-pin serial port, which surveyors need to interface with their instruments. I researched the wireless alternatives, Bluetooth and WiFi technology. Although faster than USB 1.1 but not as fast as USB 2.0, this technology does provide an acceptable alternative. Wireless technology can be implemented by the use of a CF card, or surveyors with an eye to the future can order it as a factory-embedded option, thus preserving the CF card slot for other applications. Instruments are currently available that provide wireless communication with the data collector via Bluetooth. Both Bluetooth and WiFi allow wireless transfer of data to the office computer. I installed a WiFi access point to my office network and was pleased with the results.

A Complementary Option

Carlson will continue to support Carlson SurvCE on other devices, even though this unit is an exciting addition to the options available for Carlson customers. By supporting the use of other units, Carlson is providing a cost-effective option for surveyors who already own a Windows CE device and may want to switch from their current system to Carlson SurvCE.

Carlson Explorer provides an excellent balance between low-cost handheld devices without environmental protection and higher-end products that will work in the harsh environments rarely encountered by the majority of surveyors. It is price competitive with other similar products on the market. Surveyors I have shown it to liked the way it handles. And although technical features related to the surveying software and the hardware that houses it are a prime consideration in selecting a data collector, personal preferences are often the final deciding factor in selecting a unit. Carlson Explorer has a lot to offer in all three categories-personal appeal, software and hardware features-and Carlson SurvCE is mature and time-tested. The hardware consists of modern electronics and is backed by a company with 15 years' experience in building such devices. Its keyboard, its low cost and the unit's T-design, which is sized for a comfortable hand grip while providing a display large enough for ease of viewing results, are items admired by many surveyors. It's no wonder Carlson's Dale Jefferson says, "This is the true heir apparent to the HP 48."

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