An easy answer to a hardware decision.

If you are looking for a small, lightweight data collector with a wonderful color display and powerful data collection software, but don’t want to spend a whole lot of money, take a close look at TDS Survey Pro for Pocket PC (Tripod Data Systems, Corvallis, Ore.). TDS has recently introduced its new Survey Pro software for the Compaq iPAQ, Pocket PC. The software runs in the Windows CE environment and provides a full color graphical interface. If you already use or have used TDS software, on the Ranger or the HP48GX for example, you will find the interface very familiar and, in minutes, you will be up to speed using this new software. TDS tells me that this is the same software as on the Ranger with the interface redesigned to fit the iPAQ screen size. There are three versions of the software for the iPAQ: Standard, Survey Pro and Survey Pro Robotic.

Entering information is easy using your choice of specialized TDS software keyboards.

Survey Pro on the iPAQ

The iPAQ I used for this review was the Model 3650. It has a StrongARM processor running at 206 MHz and 32 Mb of internal RAM. Because the iPAQ uses the same processor as the TDS Ranger, performance of the two data collectors is similar. The color display on the iPAQ measures about 2 1/2" by 3", the same as the Ranger, but probably because the iPAQ is so much smaller than the Ranger, the display seemed to me to be larger than it really is. As you can see from the images, the display on the iPAQ resembles portrait mode as compared to landscape mode on the Ranger. Once you have seen the iPAQ display you will understand why it has become such a popular little computer. Indoors, with the backlight on (it actually has sidelights, which are much more effective than a backlight) the display is very bright and sharp with excellent contrast and vivid colors. Outside, with the light off, the display is still bright and sharp and very readable, even in direct sunlight. It is one of the best LCD screens I have seen on any CE device.

I tested Survey Pro on a Trimble 5600 robotic gun. I don’t know about you, but when working alone in robotic mode, I never have enough appendages to carry all of the stuff I seem to need. If you are doing topography in an open area, mounting the data collector on the prism pole is a workable solution. But I do mostly boundary work and spend a fair amount of time traversing in the woods. Under those conditions, mounting the data collector on a prism pole usually doesn’t work for me so I tend to look for alternative solutions. A strong point of the iPAQ is its size. It is tiny. When working in robotic mode away from the gun, it is easily carried in your hand, or in a pinch you can just stuff it in your pocket.

The Survey Pro software as supplied by TDS is shipped with a black sleeve that slides over the iPAQ. The sleeve holds a 32 Mb compact flash card, which must be installed in the iPAQ for Survey Pro to run. This is not a disadvantage because collected data can also be stored or backed up to the same card minimizing the possibility of losing data should the iPAQ battery go dead in the field. The iPAQ has no separate backup battery, backup power being dependent on a portion of the main battery. Compaq claims the backup battery will prevent loss of data for 24 hours, but I personally think it is safer to store data on the compact flash card. Compact flash cards use nonvolatile memory to store data. Because power is only required during a read or write, once the data is stored in the card, maintenance of data integrity is no longer dependent on a power source.

Having had some prior experience using an iPAQ, one of my concerns was the battery life of the rechargeable lithium polymer battery. The battery is built into the unit and cannot be swapped with another battery in the field. Used as a data collector, battery life on the iPAQ will be dependent on temperature and, to some extent, on the number of shots taken. On one occasion, connected directly to the gun, my test unit ran for about six hours in mid-20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and still indicated that more than 70 percent of the battery life remained. Although I was not taking hundreds of shots as you might if you were collecting topographic data, I made no effort to turn off the iPAQ when not in use, so it remained on most of the time. On another occasion in mid-30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures running solely in robotic mode, I began to get low battery warnings after about three hours of use. During this period I was using the remote staking routine to look for some old traverse points on a job I had done a number of years ago. The increased use of the iPAQ communications port in robotic mode may account for the decrease in battery life compared to the previous occasion.

When running the iPAQ on its internal battery, it’s a good idea to set the backlight to “automatic.” In automatic mode, the backlight only comes on when the ambient light falls below a certain level. Unless you are working outdoors in the dark, the backlight will probably not come on, substantially extending battery life. Daylight viewing does not require use of the backlight. A sleeve containing an additional battery and provision for a PCMCIA card is available, which would extend the battery life by about half, although the sleeve did seem to make the iPAQ noticeably heavier. The sleeve can be easily swapped in the field with another sleeve, and the same vehicle charger that is used with the iPAQ can be used to charge the battery in the sleeve. The 12-volt DC charger has the standard cigarette lighter connector so the unit can be charged in a vehicle while the crew is having lunch or driving to another job. There are also third party external battery packs available, which plug into the power port on the bottom of the iPAQ.

If the iPAQ has a weakness it is probably the serial connector located at the bottom of the device. Let’s just say that the connector doesn’t inspire one with confidence in its ability to come through unscathed in a confrontation with a nasty tangle of bull briars. TDS has taken effective steps to remedy this problem by supplying a sturdy aluminum support tray that attaches to the back of the iPAQ with Velcro. The tray has an extension that provides a rigid support for serial cable/connector. TDS also supplies a soft environmental case with a soft clear face so you can see and use the touch screen. The iPAQ is not designed as a ruggedized data collector like the Ranger or other dedicated data collectors. It is not waterproof. Nor is it designed to be dropped onto concrete. On the other hand, it is relatively inexpensive, it has a great screen and it is likely to give good service if reasonable handling precautions are taken.

Switching between data input screen, result screen and map view allows for easy error detection.

Entering Text

The iPAQ has no physical keyboard, so in order to input data it is necessary to use the soft keyboard, sometimes referred to as an SIP or Soft Input Panel. Entering text is done by using a stylus to pick the keyboard icon visible on the right side of the bottom task bar. Each touch of the icon toggles the keyboard on and off. The SIP pops up on the lower portion of the iPAQ screen. The iPAQ comes with its own built-in SIP that looks much like the keyboard on a computer. TDS also supplies its own SIP, which has larger keys than the iPAQ version. There are actually two TDS SIPs: one for numbers and one for letters. Some surveyors may find the TDS SIP more convenient for entering the primarily numeric characters commonly used in surveying.

When characters are picked on the SIP they appear in the active text input box of the current screen, just like a standard keyboard. One problem with the SIP is its potential to pop up over a text input box covering it so you can’t see what you are typing. TDS has done a good job of designing the input screens so this doesn’t happen. I initially found using the SIP less convenient than a regular keyboard, but I quickly acclimated to using a stylus to enter data. After a little practice I was up to at least 80 characters per minute (not to be confused with 80 words per minute). (This may be one instance where having learned to touch type puts me at a disadvantage compared to the “Hunt and Peck School of Typing.”)

I found that, in cold weather, when wearing heavy gloves, using a stylus was no more cumbersome than trying to hit the buttons on a regular data collector keyboard. Under these conditions it may actually be a faster method of entering data. At least you needn’t take your gloves off.

Depending on your style of surveying, it may not be necessary to use the SIP that often. For example, when actually taking side shots all you need to do is press the enter key, the big silver button located at the bottom of the iPAQ. This triggers the gun to take a shot. You will then be prompted to enter a description. Survey Pro supports description files, with and without feature codes, so to enter a description just press the edge of the big silver button, which acts like a four-way cursor key, to scroll up or down to the correct description. Pressing the middle of the button enters the description and pressing it again stores the shot. I found this method to be fast and convenient, even when wearing gloves. For repetitive descriptions, Survey Pro remembers the last description so you only have to press enter once to take the shot and press it again to save it. If you are doing lots of repetitive shots where the description is the same for each shot, you can easily configure the software so that pressing the enter key takes and stores the shot, all with one key press. This is a very fast method of collecting data, particularly with a robotic gun. The active button is highlighted on the screen in red so you can always anticipate the effect of pressing the enter key.

The main menu makes for easy navigation. The command bar gives quick access to the Map View, Quick Pick Menu and specialized keyboards.

Transferring Data to a PC

Survey Pro ships with Survey Link, a program used to transfer data from the iPAQ to a PC. Survey Link also has a number of conversion routines used to convert between TDS *.JOB files and other formats native to a number of other popular software packages. Conversion to ASCII is also available.

The iPAQ ships with Microsoft ActiveSync, which automatically connects the iPAQ to a desktop or laptop computer when you drop the iPAQ into its USB cradle. You can configure ActiveSync to automatically keep certain files updated. For example, I was able to use Microsoft Outlook, included with the iPAQ, to keep a copy of my schedule and contacts with me while in the field. This is a handy feature when needing to call a client and not remembering the number. ActiveSync includes a File Explorer that enables the user to copy and move files between the iPAQ and a PC using the drag-and-drop method with the mouse. I found this to be a very fast and convenient way of transferring the Survey Pro coordinate files to and from my PC. A coordinate file containing nearly 2,000 points only took about three seconds to transfer. Because the iPAQ cradle has a USB connection the transfer worked just as well with my laptop. Most laptops have PCMCIA card slots, however, so the compact flash card from the iPAQ can be moved to the laptop using an inexpensive compact flash adapter. With this method, you needn’t carry the iPAQ cradle with you into the field.

In the next issue (July 2002) we will take a more detailed look at the features available in Survey Pro for Pocket PC.

Tripod Data Systems
P.O. Box 947
Corvallis, OR 97339

Suggested List Price:
Complete package starts at $995 and includes Survey Pro for Pocket PC card, cables, iPAQ support tray and soft environmental case. Package does not include iPAQ.