I don’t quite recall where I first got wind of the Earl Back-country Adventure Tablet, and it doesn’t really matter. Being into a variety of radio technologies, Earl called me.. nay- Earl YELLED at me– to consider all sorts of unique features for a tablet. And Earl is pretty darned unique– but can it make a go of what it’s trying to be?
Here’s my early take.
If you are an Android fan, Earl is interesting. If you are the outdoorsy type, Earl is interesting. And if you are a radio hobbyist- like really into the technology of radio, Earl is interesting. Being all of these, I’m jazzed about the premise and promise behind an environmentally ruggedized tablet that’s loaded with radio technology. But I also have real concerns.
Here’s what Earl has under the hood that fascinates me:
- Tuners for AM/FM, Shortwave and Longwave
- Weather radio (NOAA, with local alerts)
- 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
- FRS, GMRS, MURS “walkie-talkie” capabilities
- Solar charging (built-in panel)
There are plenty of other tablet-related things to talk about, but I’ll let someone else do that. From the above list, I can talk about all of these first hand. First and foremost- just reading the list thrills me. I’m a licensed ham radio guy (KI2K, Extra Class- yes there are still many of us out there). I have a number of shortwave receivers. I actively listen to Longwave, which is just a weird band. I’m a broadcast radio junkie. I do Geocaching. I’m a trained Storm Spotter and seldom don’t have access to a NOAA wether radio. I’ve taken solar power classes and play with the technology every chance I get. And yes, I have a pile of FRS radios… add that to my WiFi-ness, and Earl should be a match made by Marconi himself in Radio Heaven.
But here’s why I’m also a bit jaded (in no specific order).
- Earl’s specs say it will fully charge in 5 hours in direct sunlight. Not bad- but multiple radios in use (say GPS and FRS) along with the display and normal tablet battery-sucks all sucking on the battery teet at the same time can really drain batteries quick. And full sun in many places isn’t a given. I’d probably pack an external USB-power source and not rely on the solar panel (though again, I love having it as an option.)
- Earl’s specs also say you can “communicate up to 20 miles away” with the FRS/GMRS/MURS radio capabilities. To this I say “yeah, right”. Exaggerated claims of range on these walkie-talkie style, stubby-antenna’d radios are legendary, and this space may actually have marketing even more outrageous than the WLAN industry. Given that Earl appears to have no external antennas, plan on pretty short range in this regard, measured more in hundreds of feet than miles. And remember- GMRS still needs a license, though FRS and MURS do not.
- Speaking of no external antennas (at least not that I see or read about provisions for), Earl is going to be hard-pressed to do well afield, well away from broadcast towers, for AM. Usually AM radio needs an internal ferrite-core antenna or something external to get the job done. FM (and Weather radio) should work better, but could still be disappointing without provisions for an external length of wire to bring signals in when you are remote (especially in hilly terrain).
- Longwave is a bit of a no-man’s land for radio, especially in the US. And those of us who do get off on odd hobies like listening to navigation beacons from far-off airports know that receiver sensitivity and proper antennas (usually hundreds of feet long) are the key to success here. Shortwave is more forgiving of antenna compromises than longwave, but sadly there is getting to be less and less to listen to as many long-running shortwave giants close up shop and take their programming to the Internet. Shortwave isn’t dead, but it’s a far cry from what it used to be.
- With all of these receivers plus GPS and WiFi on board in a tiny space (Earl has a 6″ screen), I hope isolation between them can be achieved. Where performance is already iffy, “birdies” (radio noise spurs) from other receivers can really suck.
All of that aside, I’m sure I’ll buy an Earl if it makes it to prod. My skepticism on the radio features aside, the sunlight-taming display, glove-friendly touchscreen, Micro-SD slot, and weather-proof build alone would be wins for me, personally. I hope that Jon and Sqigle, Inc. can make a go of it, and that my low expectations of the radio feature set are proven wrong. I love the concept, and applaud the innovation.
Update, March 2014- now expected to ship in early-mid 2014, pending FCC approval. See updated specs, including Android Kit-Kat, here.