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Highgear Altitech 2 Digital Compass

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Originally bought to assist in aligning our satellite Internet uplinks, the Altitech 2 proved to know more tricks than a liberal in an election year. All things considered, its tricks are better, and a lot less likely to get it indicted for corruption.

The Altitech 2 looks like a digital watch on steroids. In keeping with its rugged nature, it has a carabineer clip rather than a strap. Playing with its buttons will reveal that it’s an altimeter, barometer, digital compass, thermometer, watch and a stopwatch. I don’t think it knows how to make tea, but you can never be sure any more.

The various functions of the Altitech 2 are well implemented, and clearly based on state-of-the-art hardware. This having been said, all its features are accessed through four buttons and a small LCD screen. It has a notable learning curve, and not everything it does will prove quite as useful as you might imagine.

The altimeter function of the Altitech 2 is arguably most complex performance. It’s a real barometric altimeter, just like the ones installed in light aircraft. A barometric altimeter actually works out changes in altitude based on changes in barometric pressure. If you know your altitude at the beginning of a journey – or the prior to take-off, in the case of an airplane – the altimeter will be able to determine your subsequent altitude by working out how much the barometric pressure has changed.

The altimeter in the Altitech 2 has a range of -2,305 to 30,045 feet – it’s easy to tell when you’re getting anywhere near the extremes of its operation, as you’ll be dead.

The catch in using the Altitech 2 as an altimeter is that it needs to be calibrated to the current altitude each time its used. If you’re planning a hike into the mountains and you know the absolute altitude of where you start from, it will tell you how high you are whenever you’re curious. If you fail to set it up before you leave, however, it will just provide changes in your relative altitude, which can be a bit nasty.

The accuracy of the Altitech 2’s altimeter was impressive.

The barometer function of the Altitech 2 was also extremely precise, and it even attempts to predict the weather based on its findings. It almost always wrong in this respect, but no more so than any other technology attempting to do so. I can’t help feeling that reducing the hardware required to generate inaccurate weather forecasts to something that will clip to your jacket is an improvement.

The digital compass provided by the Altitech 2 – our ostensible reason for buying it – is another of its superb bits of technology, with a tiny catch. Unlike traditional mechanical compasses, which locate north by looking for the earth’s north magnetic pole, the compass in the Altitech 2 appears to measure changes in the planet’s flux density. Flux gate compasses are inherently more accurate and are less likely to encounter interference from nearby magnets. The Altitech 2’s compass can be digitally adjusted to allow for local magnetic declination, the difference between true geographical north and magnetic north. It does, however, have to be calibrated before it’s will enjoy its full measure of accuracy, a procedure that involves its owner standing outside and turning in circles while the compass looks for true north. Try not to do this when anyone else is watching.

The stopwatch in the Altitech 2 can do split and lap modes, best and average times and it will run for up to 24 hours. I’ve yet to meet anyone who could do the sorts of things stopwatches are called upon to time for anything like 24 hours.

The case of the Altitech 2 is metal, rather than plastic, and can survive a considerable measure of abuse without even getting scratched. Ours certainly has. The display has a soft blue backlight which is bright enough to read the digits by, but not bright enough to destroy its user’s night vision.

The only catch inherent in all the functionality of the Altitech 2 is that it has a substantial learning curve. That it comes with two paper manuals and a DVD should probably serve as a warning as to how much effort will be required to truly master it. Running all those toys with four buttons just has to call for some reading.

The Altitech 2 makes navigating across unfamiliar terrain a bit easier, and it’s well worth what it costs in this capacity. It’s second to none at aligning a satellite Internet uplink, too – although I got the sense that it feels a bit put out by such work, and would rather go hiking.