Something Interesting From Trimble

I’ve been expecting one (or more) of the major survey & GIS data collector manufacturers to come out with something like this for some time now. I’m not surprised that Trimble was first out the gate. It’s called the Trimble Leap.

Trimble Leap

If you understand what’s going on with this new product you realize it’s a fascinating concept. It’s not just a small GPS receiver mated to a smartphone via Bluetooth – that capability has been available for a few years now. What this receiver provides is more advanced GPS signal tracking and the integration of Trimble’s RTX GPS data correction service. Trimble’s RTX service is a virtual reference station (VRS) system that receives GPS data corrections using the smartphones’s cellular data connection. This allows the Leap receiver to provide on-the-fly GPS positional accuracies that are less than 1 meter. Remember sports fans, the best your smartphone or Garmin Nuvi can do is about 15 feet, and that’s on a good day, under open skies, with lots of GPS satellites available.

Keep in mind that the Leap is not a survey grade device. It’s a lower precision field data collection device. The kind of thing a utility company would send a work crew out with to collect manhole locations. For applications like utility data collection, sub-meter accuracy is just fine.

The Leap concept is the next evolutionary step to take smartphones into the high accuracy/precision GIS data collection role. Smarphones are really just small computers with built-in modems, so they are the ideal computing platform for applications like this. However, smartphones have one huge Achilles heel – battery life. An ‘always on’ Bluetooth connection and cellular data connection will suck a smartphone battery dry in just a few hours. This is not a Trimble issue, but something that must be taken into consideration when putting devices like these into the field to collect a day’s worth of data. Better make darned sure you’ve got that in-car phone charger along with you!

There are still a lot of unknowns with regards to the capabilities of this system. Is the Leap receiver GLONASS capable? Does it allow data collection without the RTX connection? What about cost? I’ve read reports that the Leap hardware will run just under $1,000 and the RTX data correction service will be an additional $400/year per device. If you have any understanding of how much RTK compatible GPS receivers cost, and how much a VRS data service costs you will realize that $1,000 for the hardware and $400/year for the data service is a bargain.

Where I think Trimble stumbles is that they have slaved the Leap to their Terrain Navigator Pro (TNP) software. My impression is that TNP is a moribund product and Trimble is trying to breath some life into it by slaving it to a very capable hardware package. My hope is that Trimble quickly migrates the Leap software interface to other products like its own TerraFlex cloud service and even develops a plug-in that allows Leap data streams to be read by products like ArcGIS Online mobile applications.

– Brian

A Tale of Two Trimbles

Earlier this year Trimble released its newest generation of the Juno data collectors to the market.  Unlike the previous generations of these devices (the original Juno S and the later Juno 3 series), the new Junos come in several different flavors depending on which business line within Trimble you purchase yours from.  Those purchased through Trimble Mapping & GIS distributors are labeled the Juno 5.  Those purchased through Trimble’s Mobile Computing Solutions distributors are known as the T41.  They are all based on the same hardware platform.

To confuse things even more, you can get either device running different operating systems, either Windows Embedded Handheld 6.5 (aka, Windows Mobile) or Android 4.1.

Back in May my organization got its hands on a loaner 5D unit and I was initially impressed with the hardware but thought the Windows OS was holding the whole package back.  At the time I viewed it as an outstanding piece of hardware saddled to an operating system that badly limits the unit’s performance and potential.  I was eager to get my hands on the T41, hoping that the current version of Android would unlock a lot of the performance potential of this device.  About a month ago my organization purchased one 5D and one T41 to test.  We were looking for an upgrade to our Juno 3D handhelds (very good devices, by the way) and were intrigued by the possibilities of the Android-based Juno T41; something we could run the ESRI ArcGIS and Collector apps on along with Trimble’s new TerraFlex app.

The 5D (left) and the T41 (right)

When we received the units and began to test them I made a number of quick observations.  As I initially wrote back in May, the hardware is first rate. From the smartphone form factor to processor speed to screen resolution and clarity under a wide variety of conditions to the GPS module performance.  This is a seriously good piece of hardware.  Back in May I complained that the 5D lacked the ability to receive signals from the Russian GLONASS system.  I still feel it’s a shortcoming of the unit, but in actual use it may not matter.  The overall performance of the GPS receiver in these new Trimbles is outstanding, with fast acquisition and the ability to hold signal lock under some very tough conditions like under full tree canopy cover.  The GPS performance is so good I’m not (too) bothered by the lack of GLONASS capability.

One feature we did not test, and probably never will, is the 5D and T41 performance as an actual cell phone. While a cell phone data plan would greatly enhance the usefulness of these devices our organization is not willing to pay the cost to get these units activated as cell phones.

Where the 5D and T41 stumble are the operating systems.  I’ve already touched on my issues with the Windows OS in my earlier posting, but let me expand a bit here.  I understand why developers like Trimble stick with Windows Embedded Handheld.  Trimble has over a decade of experience developing for the Windows Mobile environment.  Most of their field data collector and survey system software like TerraSync was developed specifically for the Windows Mobile environment.  I get it. Windows Embedded Handheld (WEHH) is stable and well understood and has proven itself in enterprise environments.  So has Windows XP, and like XP WEHH isn’t getting any better with age.

It must be a terrible time to be an enterprise mobile software developer working in the Windows environment.  Microsoft is starting to release Windows 8 for mobile devices similar to the Juno, but by necessity these devices must connect with a compatible desktop computer for data transfer and application updates. Windows 8 on the mobile device isn’t backwards compatible with earlier versions of Windows on the desktop, yet corporate America has yet to embrace Windows 8 and will likely be sticking with Windows 7 for several more years.  What’s a developer to do? In Trimble’s case they stick with what they know and what their customers seem to be demanding – don’t give me anything I can’t sync with Windows 7.  The problem with WEHH on the Juno 5D is that the software can’t seem to take full advantage of what the hardware offers.  It’s like putting square wheels on a Ferrari.  This comes to light when working with the 5D’s camera.  The camera is a very good 8 megapixel unit with dual flash.  It takes great pictures.  Too bad the WEHH camera control software sucks. It’s slow, difficult to configure and the controls are not intuitive.  It’s like working with an early Windows CE-based smartphone, which is essentially what you have with the 5D running WEHH.  The issue of hardware ‘throttling’ really comes to light when you compare this 5D camera experience with the camera on the T41 running on Android 4.1. The camera experience on tht T41 is entirely different and far more satisfying because Android does a much better job of interfacing with the camera.  It’s like you are working with an entirely different camera hardware module but it’s really an OS performance issue.

Before moving away from the discussion of WEHH I do have to add that the performance of enterprise apps like TerraSync and ArcPad is very good on the 5D.  Everything works as advertised, and the additional processing power of the 5D along with the larger screen size and improved resolution (over the Juno 3-series devices) makes for a great experience in the field.  The new Trimble SatViewer application is also a great improvement over the old GPS Controller module found on other Trimble WEHH devices.

Now on to the T41.  While the performance of the 5D was something of an expected disappointment, the performance of the T41, and Trimble’s vision of how the T41 fits into their overall product line, comes as an unanticipated and surprising disappointment.

I’ll leave aside any discussion of the T41 hardware – everything good I’ve discussed about the 5D hardware applies to the T41.  Bottom line – the hardware is great.

At first glance Trimble’s choice of operating system is also great.  The unit comes pre-loaded with Android 4.1.  I’m testing Android 4.2 on a Google Nexus 7 tablet and I’m about to admit that this version of Android is good enough to pull me away from my beloved iOS devices.  Android is not an ‘enterprise’ OS and can’t run applications like TerraSync or ArcPad, but there are a number of very good lightweight apps like ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps and Trimble’s own TerraFlex app that uses a cloud data storage paradigm.

The problem is that the T41 comes with Trimble’s in-house version of Android 4.1.  It was developed using the open source version of Android and has not been certified under the Android Compatibility Program.  This means that the T41 can’t get access to the Google Play Store for installation of any one of the thousands of Android apps available through that environment.  This includes ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps and even Trimble’s own TerraFlex app.  Not even Google’s own Google Maps, Google Earth or the GMail app can be installed on this device!  This is a serious oversight.  I know plenty of surveyors and GIS professionals who depend on Google Maps and Google Earth on smartphones to support things like work crew routing, initial survey reconnaissance, survey control recovery and other tasks, and use programs like Google Drive to access project documentation in the field.  There’s also no reason you shouldn’t be able to use GIS apps like ESRI’s ArcGIS and Collector apps on this device.

Trimble’s decision to not get this operating system certified is baffling.

No Android Compatibility
certification means
no Google Maps,
no Google Earth,
no native GMail support,
no Google Drive support,
no ESRI or Trimble app support
and the list goes on…

Worse yet, Trimble makes regular mention of the Trimble App Store in their product documentation and even includes the link to this app store on the T41 when they ship the unit.  The problem is, other than two crippled Trimble apps – the free versions of MyTopoMapViewer and Terrain Navigator Pro – there’s nothing else in this app store. You can download apps to this device from the Amazon app store, but most of the apps available there are either older versions of what’s available on Google’s app store or are formatted specifically for Amazon’s Kindle devices.

Trimble App Store icon
What’s in the Trimble App Store?
Not much

I honestly thought I was missing something here.  Surely Trimble has something better for the T41 that I just couldn’t get to.  Perhaps a real app store that I just needed the right permissions to access or a software upgrade that would allow me to link to the Google Play Store.  My local distributor put me in touch with Trimble’s Mobile Computing Solutions (MCS) tech support and I quickly found out that no, what I got is all there is.

Apparently Trimble views the T41 as an ‘enterprise only’ unit.  This means enterprises have to develop their own specific apps for it using the Trimble Android SDK.  This is an OK approach, but there is still no reason to not have the OS version certified by Google.  It’s just stunning to think that Trimble would ship an Android-based data collector that can’t access Google Maps, Google Earth or even run Trimble’s own Android-based data collection app!

I have heard rumors that Trimble is re-thinking this approach to the T41 and may be working to get its version of Android certified by Google.  If and when this will happen I don’t know – Trimble MCS hasn’t been very forthcoming on the topic.

So where does this leave us when considering the 5D and the T41?  Taking into account the unit cost (about $1,800 each) and the operating system issues shared by both of these devices I have to say that they are not worth the investment, particularly when you consider that Trimble still offers a very capable handheld unit – the Juno 3D – at about half the cost.

If Trimble releases a version of Android that allows access to the Google Play Store I’ll come back and do an updated review, but for now I simply can’t recommend either of these devices.


Trimble TerraFlex

Trimble released their cloud based data collection solution called TerraFlex yesterday and I spent much of the day playing with it on both the iPhone and the Juno 3D.

Some observers (including me) thought TerraFlex would be a shot aimed at ESRI’s ArcGIS Online product. It is clear, however, that TerraFlex is a very different animal.  Whereas ArcGIS Online is a map-centric platform against which you collect data, TerraFlex is a forms-based data collection platform that uses simple maps only as a background.  TerraFlex is better described as ‘TerraSync lite’ and the focus is on simplified data collection tasks using a variety of handheld devices like iOS and Android smartphones and Windows Mobile devices like Trimble’s own Juno-series data collectors.

All projects start with forms, and TerraFlex provides an easy to use web interface for creating the data collection form.

The TerraFlex form creation page.  It is surprisingly simple to use.

Once you create a form you upload it to the TerraFlex ‘cloud’ (hosted on Amazon’s EC2 cloud servers) as part of a data collection project.

A data collection project consists of one or more data collection forms

Once you have the project uploaded to the TerraFlex cloud you can log into TerraFlex from your mobile device, download the project and its assigned data collection forms and start collecting data.

TerraFlex uses Google Maps/Earth as the map interface.
It’s your ONLY map option!
The forms interface on the data collector is
very easy to use.   The use of drop down selections
greatly simplifies the collection tasks

You can set your options on your data collector to sync the new data immediately over any available network connection (cellular data or wi-fi) or set it so sync only when the device is back under wi-fi coverage (this will reduce data plan usage on devices like the iPhone).

Once your data is synced with the TerraFlex cloud you can go back in to the desktop web interface and view the data, do basic edits and export it for use in other packages like ArcGIS or AutoCAD.

The TerraFlex desktop data management interface

Overall I was impressed with the ease of use of all components of the TerraFlex system – from the forms creation on the desktop to the data collection on my iPhone to the data management back in the desktop interface.  Part of the ease of use stems from the fact that there’s not a lot there!  Remember, this is not a complex web mapping package like ArcGIS Online.  TerraFlex is a simplified data collection tool and at that task it excels.

Trimble also got smart with the pricing.  TerraFlex is licensed by the individual user vs. a software license tied to a particular piece of hardware as with TerraSync.  A TerraFlex license cost is $250 per user per year.  The subscription is tied to the individual and Trimble doesn’t care what device(s) you use or how much data you collect.  Two hundred and fifty bucks may seem like a lot, but if you’ve ever priced other GIS data collection software like TerraSync (over $1,000/license) or ESRI’s ArcPad (about the same) or even an ESRI ArcGIS Online subscription (which starts at $2,000 and has much higher management overhead) suddenly the cost of a TerraFlex license looks downright reasonable.

Of course at this price the list of what you don’t get is pretty long.  There’s no data position correction capability either through the use of a virtual reference station or via post-processing.  The data import and export options are also very weak.  This area in particular needs a lot of work.  Your export options are either KML, .csv (spreadsheet) or the ESRI ArcGIS XML format.  The .csv format has some issues because the software concatenates the lat/long data into a single spreadsheet cell, making it tedious to parse the latitude and longitude data into separate columns for easy import into GIS and CAD.

But this is a first generation product and I’m sure things will improve.  Trimble provides support via their TerraFlex forums and their technical people were jumping right in yesterday and answering customer questions.  I’m sure they are compiling a list of future improvements, and the great thing about cloud-based services is that you don’t have to wait around for a service pack release.  Things get updated in the background and are immediately available across the entire user base.

Overall I like what Trimble has done here. We’ll keep an eye on this product as it moves forward!

Trimble Juno 5

I got a chance to spend a few days playing with one of the new Trimble Juno 5 handheld data collectors and thought I’d give some initial impressions.

I’ve been discussing the Juno 3 series handhelds a lot lately on this blog.  They are great devices that offer a lot of functionality at a reasonable price point.  I think Trimble would agree.  My sources tell me the Junos 3 series have become one of Trimble’s most popular selling data collectors.  But as good as they are, the Juno 3’s still have some limitations.  First is processor speed.  The Juno 3 uses a relatively low capacity 800 mhz Samsung processor and there’s a lot of overhead involved in just running the operating system, Windows Mobile 6.5.  It shows.  The Juno moves like a turtle on a cold morning when executing some processor or graphics intensive processes.  Still, they have proven to be stable & reliable devices and we rarely have crashes or lock-ups.  Things may run slow, but they run.
The next drawback is the screen.  It has a measly 3.5″ QVGA screen that offers only 340 x 320 pixel resolution.  It’s ‘touch sensitive’ only in the sense that if you imagine your finger as a stylus and stab the screen pretty hard with it (and in the right place) the screen will react.  Virtually all functions require the use of a hard stylus.  There are two good points about the screen, though.  First is that it’s readable in sunlight.  Second is that the low resolution graphics put as little demand as possible on the already slow processor chip sets.  From that perspective I guess the screen functionality is acceptable.
Last year Trimble announced the new Juno 5 series of data collectors.  While the Juno 5 doesn’t replace the Juno 3, it offers a new ‘smart phone’ form factor.  When I first read about the new Juno I dismissed it as a gimmick, a repackaged Juno 3 designed to appeal to the GenX crowd that can’t work with anything that doesn’t look like an iPhone.  But a few weeks ago at the ESRI Southeast Users Conference I got the chance to handle one and was initially impressed.  First, this thing is BIG, and it’s HEAVY.  Think a Samsung Galaxy S4 on steroids (though it’s not made by Samsung).  This Juno is heavy as in solid & rugged.  It impresses as a serious piece of hardware.  Next, the screen.  Lots of screen real estate and sharp as a tack with great resolution and contrast.  As good as most current smartphones.  I was impressed and I left the conference determined to get my hands on one to test.
As luck would have it my friends at NEI were more than happy to oblige.  They loaned me a Juno 5D for a few days as part of a larger hardware test and I got to spend a few hours getting to better know this new beastie.
The hardware specs are available on Trimble’s website so I won’t regurgitate them all here, but we see improvements over the Juno 3D in two key areas – the CPU, which was switched to a 1 Ghz Texas Instruments processor, and the screen which is a WVGA TFT panel offering 480 x 800 pixel resolution.  I have to assume there’s an upgraded graphics processor too.
For those who have experience running either the original Juno S series or the Juno 3 series devices, the improved performance of the Juno 5 is an attention getter.  Finally, a device fast enough to make Windows Mobile so responsive you’d almost think it doesn’t suck.  The screen responds to finger gestures just like you’d expect a smart phone’s screen to respond.  No stylus needed.  Heck, the Juno 5 doesn’t eve come with a stylus!
The two Junos side-by-side.  The screen on the 5D
is not just larger, but the quality and resolution is
exponentially better.

Trimble also put a lot of thought into the case design.  The Juno 3 series devices are well built and water resistant, but the case integrity is highly dependent on a number of rubber plugs that cover all the little ports the thing has – power, USB & patch antenna.  The 5D cleverly reduces the number of ports needing covers by combining the USB and power connector and designing the connector as an uncovered but permanently sealed series of small contact pads.  The layout looks similar to the old serial port connection.  The charger/synch cable has a connector end with a number of small spring loaded contact pins that mate with the contact pads on the device, and the whole thing is secured by two tried and true thumb screws.  I first ran into a similar arrangement with my DeLorme PN-60 GPS.  It’s a design that eliminates the possibility of water intrusion and ensures the connection stays tight even under rough conditions like being bounced around in a car.  It works great.

The USB/power connector (on the left).  This ‘port’ is unprotected simply
because it’s weather sealed and doesn’t need any protection.

The Juno 5D is a smartphone with a big screen and it runs a number of power hungry applications (like Trimble’s TerraSync or ESRI’s ArcPad).  It needs a big battery, and the battery accounts for much of this unit’s weight.  The battery cover is screwed to the back of the case with 12 miniature Torx head screws, and I’m guessing the manner in which it’s attached plays a large part in the Juno’s overall ruggedness and water resistance.  Reports are that the 5D has a shorter usable battery life than the 3D.  I believe it.  It’s just the nature of the technology.  The 5D is just a more power hungry device.  Based on my limited testing I think you can expect to get at least 4 continuous hours of field data collection out of one of these handhelds before having to go for a recharge.  By the way, Trimble reports that the battery is replaceable, but it must be done by an authorized Trimble repair center.

Rear of the 5D case showing the battery cover
and 8 mp camera with flash

Trimble also gave the 5D an 8 megapixel digital camera with flash.  Compared to the somewhat muddy, low contrast pictures the Juno 3D’s 5 megapixel camera delivers this one is pretty good.  Not iPhone good, but still not bad.

So how did it perform in the field?  I ran some simple point feature collection jobs around my office building using ArcPad.  Uncorrected accuracy was as expected – about 5 ft. for those points under open sky.  Running ArcPad on the larger, brighter screen was pretty interesting.  The high screen resolution renders the normally fuzzy low-res ArcPad icons in sharp detail, but they were pretty small as presented on the display.  It took a bit of practice to figure out just where to tap to get them to react.  But once I got that figured out I was off and running.  The 1000 mhz processor allows ArcPad to run pretty snappy, and there was no system lag when choosing to collect a point or move to a different screen. The digital camera is still slow to launch when collecting a photo point, but not anywhere near as slow as on the 3D (which is glacially slow).  Since ArcPad passes the photo collection process over to the Windows Mobile slow, clunky camera interface I don’t think we can expect much more of a performance improvement here.

Based on my limited testing I really like this new unit.  It’s a clear step up from the Juno 3 series in performance and features.  But it’s not perfect…

First, price.  This thing retails for a whopping $1,800.  That is about $700 more that the Juno 3D.  Ouch.  Is the improved form factor, screen size and resolution and faster processor worth an additional $700?  I’m not really sure considering that the Juno 3D is still a very capable device and can do everything the 5D can do, albeit just a bit slower.  Keep this price factor in mind as we move forward in the discussion.

Let’s next consider GLONASS, or the lack of it.  Really Trimble?  Really?  Trimble seems to want to position their GLONASS-capable devices towards the premium end of their hardware line.  That may have been an OK marketing move a few years ago, but today just about every smartphone and new consumer GPS coming onto the market is GLONASS capable.  Heck, Garmin’s bottom-barrel low price leader, the eTrex 10 (currently selling for $103 on Amazon), has been GLONASS capable for over a year now!  The days of GLONASS receivers being a ‘premium’ product are long over.  Wake up Trimble.  At this price point I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the 5D be GLONASS capable.

Next, software.  You pay $1,800 for a very capable piece of GPS hardware but it comes with no native navigation package and the ability to add apps is very limited.  No mapping or navigation software, nothing to casually collect waypoints or GPS tracks with.  Now, I realize this is a ‘professional data collector’, but it would be nice if Trimble ported one of their consumer-grade iPhone or Android apps over to the Windows Mobile OS and included it free on the device.  TerraSync and ArcPad are great data collection tools, but lousy street navigation tools.  As a geospatial project manager I expect a device with this capability to offer more software features.  There simply is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to use it for things like work party navigation and jobsite familiarization, job check-in/check-out, have an eReader for portable document management, etc.

Last, I experienced a few lock-ups on the device while running ArcPad 10, mainly when trying to collect photos.  All of these lock-ups required a system reset, and all collected data was lost.  It seems to me that a firmware or OS upgrade may be in order.  I’d be hesitant to put this device into the hands of work crews until this issue is corrected.

So, is the Juno 5D worth the investment?  Certainly you can get all the functionality of the 5D in the much less expensive 3D.  However, the new smartphone-like form factor of the 5D is very compelling, and the performance improvements it brings to the Juno line mean something in the real world of field data collection: a better form factor, better screen, faster overall performance.  But the shortcomings are glaring and could have been easily addressed by Trimble before they released this device to market.

At the $1,800 price point I think the 5D is worth the investment only if your organization needs the improved performance this Juno provides.

But let’s look into the future.  I think the 5D shows us where Trimble intends to take this very successful line of handheld data collectors.   We will never see a new Juno that looks like the 3D.  The smartphone ‘experience’ is where the field is headed.  From that perspective the Juno 5D is a good first effort.  It’s going to be very interesting to see what future versions bring.