Product Review: The Trimble Ranger 3

August 10, 2011  - By
Image: GPS World

The Trimble Ranger 3 being tested in its natural environment.


First of all, thanks to all those who wrote me about the Trimble Ranger 3 and suggested I pen a review.

Rules of Engagement

Many of my long time readers will know that I never write a bad review, which is why I found it interesting that an e-mail from a USAF captain fighter pilot in Afghanistan commented that I “seemed to really like” every unit I reviewed. So here again are the ROE (rules of engagement) for my reviews. I will never write a bad review, and believe me I see scores of “bad” (my evaluation) GPS units that I will never review or endorse in GPS World.

The Trimble Ranger 3 was never of any danger of falling into the “non-review” category. The Ranger 3 impressed me from the very first moment I saw the unit. First of all, it is designated correctly by Trimble, and the military and first responder users who wrote me, as a rugged handheld GPS-enabled computer, and it certainly fulfills all the requirements for that designation.

If you are looking for a GPS device the size of an Apple iPhone, this is not the device for you. The Trimble Ranger 3 is for the user, and many of you are warfighters and first responders who need a portable and rugged but powerful handheld computer with tightly integrated GPS capabilities that can connect and communicate, wired and wirelessly, with other users and servers. The Ranger 3 can accomplish all that and much more.

GPS Capabilities

As soon as I powered up the Ranger 3 for the first time, outdoors for this test, the stopwatch was running to see how long it took to figure out how to enable the unit’s GPS SiRFstar III chip and firmware and obtain an accurate position. This is the new handheld TTFF (time to first fix) scenario that I always go through, in the same geographic location, with any new unit. Some GPS units, even dedicated ones, fail miserably, but not the Ranger 3. Fortunately, the unit’s battery was fully charged when it arrived, and the green power button was obvious. The 4.2 inch TFT (thin film transistor) resistive touch, sunlight readable color screen fired up immediately with a Windows menu soft key, which led me via an iPhone like “flickable” scrolling screen to the GUI (graphical user interface) or icon labeled SatViewer, (version which comes with every Trimble GPS unit I have ever tested or reviewed. I tapped that GUI or icon and hit connect GPS and within 40 seconds had an “unaided GPS position,” or so the voice prompt from the unit informed me. Exactly 28 seconds later I had a “GPS-aided” position, again I was informed by the voice prompt, which can be turned on and off by user input. I found the voice prompts helpful because I did not have to look back at any menus to determine what type of position I was using. The initial position “unaided” was four feet or 1.33 meters from a surveyed reference position at my home, and the “aided” position was under a meter from the surveyed position. As I said, the first unaided position was pronounced 58 seconds after removing the unit from the box for the first time and hitting the power button. The aided sub-meter position was announced at 1 minute and 26 seconds after initial power on. Very impressive, and something very few units can accomplish today. Not even the best MUE or military user equipment available today can equal this feat right out of the box.

Afterwards I played around with the GPS advanced inputs but found very few settings that needed to be changed. It comes (default mode and with a default button) with SBAS capabilities enabled; in this case the FAA WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) was enabled. Had I been conducting this exercise in Europe, EGNOS or the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay would have been automatically enabled. There is also a tab for setting DGPS or differential GPS parameters, on or off or auto, and the unit software is designed for future enhancements. It incorporates an SBAS PRN designation capability, if you want to choose the SBAS PRN number manually, in case one is sending bad data and is NOTAMed (Notice to Airmen) or NANUed (Notice Advisory to NAVSTAR Users) out. Frankly, I just set the SBAS feature to auto and it worked flawlessly.

GPS Bottom Line

So the bottom line for the Ranger 3’s GPS capabilities is that the tightly integrated, aided GPS SiRFstar III receiver, compass, accelerometer, and 5 megapixel auto focus camera with auto flash and geotagged image capabilities enable almost endless possibilities for today’s ever-proliferating location-aware software to combine location, bearing, and motion data for use by our warfighters and first responders. Add these capabilities to the substantial communications features of the rugged handheld computer, and you have prodigious potentiality for the Trimble Ranger 3. There is not a single MUE GPS unit today that can touch the Ranger 3 for its tightly integrated GPS and subsequent capabilities and communications.

I also tested several new windows applications that I will not name now because they require considerable testing before I review or recommend them, but the cogent message is they integrated automatically and worked flawlessly with the Ranger 3.

Trimble SatView Software

I will, however, comment on the installed Trimble SatView GPS software on the Ranger 3. It is just so absolutely intuitive that you never really wonder about what to do next, which button to push, or box to check. Just push the button or tap the box or icon you think is the correct one and most of the time you will be correct. And if you aren’t, nothing is undoable. I intentionally push the “wrong” buttons in my tests just to see what happens, and with SatView nothing catastrophic has ever occurred. I have always been able to navigate back to where I needed to be.

The orbit inspired graphic depiction of the GPS satellites in view (almost always 12) and the satellites being used for your position (from 4 to 10+), to include SBAS satellites, is informative and useful. You merely tap on the PRN (pseudorandom noise code assignment) graphically designated SV (satellite vehicle) and it will open a tiny widow displaying the SVs PRN number, elevation, and azimuth. There is also a very useful graphical illustration of the current P (position), V (vertical), and H (horizontal) DOP for your position, which are also programmable simply by checking a box. Many of you say you don’t know or care about the various GPS DOP, even though Estimation of Dilution of Precision (DOP) plays an important role in determining the overall accuracy of your GPS position. For those of you who do care, the data are readily available on the Ranger 3. All the data, to include programmable mask angles and DOP parameters, can be automatically captured in a log file, saved, and downloaded for future use — a simple and intuitive task. I attached an 8 GB flash drive to the full-size USB port on the Ranger 3, and simply dumped the data log to a file on that device. The Ranger 3 saw the device as an extension of its built-in 8 GBs of flash storage (flash hard drive). You can also save data directly to the onboard flash memory. It is then a simple matter to export the data into an Excel spreadsheet and use however you see fit. Take it from me, not all datalogging programs are this simple and straightforward.

As the CEO of MobileEpiphany, Glen Kletzky, who produces some of the most intuitive software I have ever had the pleasure of using, once informed me, “Software that is inherently useful with an intuitive interface usually seems simple to the user, but underneath is usually very powerful and sophisticated. My goal as a software provider is to ensure the user never has to deal with the complicated bit
s.” In this regard, the Trimble SatView software as enabled on the Ranger 3 has met and exceeded the goals of simplicity, usefulness, exportability, and intuitiveness.

Trimble Ranger 3 Specifications

Now that we have covered the basic GPS functions, let’s look at the unit itself and all the Ranger 3’s integrated capabilities.

As I said, the unit is physically imposing, especially if you are looking for an iPhone-type device, which the Ranger 3 is definitely not. But neither can the iPhone accomplish all the tasks of a rugged, handheld portable computer with multiple scanners, readers, and numerous ports.


Physically the Trimble Ranger 3 is not small. It is 10.5 in × 5.2 in × 1.9 in (26.6 cm x 13.1 cm x 4.8 cm) and weighs in at 2.3 lb (1.04 kg), including battery and stylus. You don’t have to use the stylus, but for some functions it is more accurate than your fingertips. And of course, since this is a Trimble unit, to paraphrase that great entrepreneur Henry Ford, “You can have it in any color you desire as long as it is your basic black…with a yellow face.”

The Ranger 3 has an elastic (black, of course) hand strap that stores the stylus, and enables you to hang on to the Ranger 3 during all kinds of field maneuvers. The stylus is also tethered to the back of the Ranger 3, and that is handy as well. All in all, ergonomically it is a very well-designed GPS-enabled rugged handheld computer.



  • Texas Instruments AM3715 Sitara ARM Cortex A8 superscalar processor
  • 256 MB of RAM
  • 8 GB of Flash storage (serves as hard drive)
  • Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR
  • Wi-Fi (802.11b/g)
  • GPS receiver (SiRFstarIII, SiRFInstantFixII, WAAS, EGNOS/SBAS capable)
  • Electronic compass
  • Accelerometer
  • Three tri-color notification LEDs
  • USB 2.0 full speed host port
  • USB 2.0 high speed client port
  • Serial port, 9-pin RS-232
  • Secure Digital (SD/SDHC) card slot
  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 6.5 Professional
  • 4.2 in (10.6 cm) landscape VGA display, sunlight-readable color TFT
  • Resistive touch screen
  • QWERTY keypad with number pad, directional buttons and 4 programmable buttons
  • Speaker and microphone
  • Headset jack (3.5 mm stereo audio and microphone)
  • Operating system language options: Simplified Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish (customer selectable on initialization)


  • 5 MP auto focus camera with dual white LED flash
  • 3G GSM cellular data modem
  • LED Flashlight function
  • 1D barcode laser scanner


  • SMS Text Messaging Support
  • Microsoft Office Mobile, Mobile versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint & Outlook
  • Internet Explorer Mobile
  • Calculator
  • Microsoft Pictures and Videos
  • Calendar/Contacts
  • Windows Media Player
  • Messenger
  • Adobe Acrobat Reader
  • Notes/Tasks
  • Trimble SatViewer (GPS interface software application)


  • Customized camera and flash control through Microsoft Pictures & Videos software
  • (Geo-tagging camera software)
  • Flashlight mode control application
  • Trimble CellStart software application (cellular connection setup)
  • Trimble ScanAgent barcode scanning software
  • Trimble Ranger 3 Software Development Kit


  • Rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack
  • Black Elastic Hand strap
  • Stylus tether
  • Clear screen protectors
  • Display cleaning cloth
  • Quick Start guide sheet
  • Getting Started Guide on CD-ROM
  • International AC charging kit with four plug adapters
  • USB cable
  • Stylus with force-modulating spring tip (package of 2)
  • Audio port dust cover
  • I/O port dust cover


  • Standard soft carry case
  • Vehicle mount (compatible with RAM mounts)
  • Spare battery charger and12 V vehicle charger


  • Water: Immersed in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes
  • Water jet 12.5 mm diameter @2.5 m–3 m, 100 Liter/, min; IEC-529, IP67
  • Sand & dust: 8 hours of operation with blowing talcum powder; IEC-529, IP67
  • Drop: 26 drops at room temperature from 4 ft (1.22 m) onto plywood over concrete; 6 additional drops at –22 °F (–30 °C); 6 additional drops at 140 °F (60 °C)
  • MIL-STD-810G, Method 516.6, Procedure IV
  • Vibration: General Minimum Integrity and Loose Cargo test MIL-STD-810G, Method 514.6, Procedures I, II
  • Operating Temperature: –22 °F to 140 °F (–30 °C to 60 °C) MIL-STD-810G, Method 501.5, Procedure II MIL-STD-810G, Method 502.5, Procedure I, II, III
  • Storage Temperature: –40 °F to 158 °F (–40 °C to 70 °C) MIL-STD-810G, Method 501.5, Procedure II MIL-STD-810G, Method 502.5, Procedure I, II, III
  • Temperature shock: –31 °F/149 °F (–35 °C/65 °C) MIL-STD-810G, Method 503.5, Procedure I
  • Humidity: 90%RH temp cycle –4 °F/140 °F (–20 °C/60 °C) MIL-STD-810G, Method 507.5
  • Altitude: 15,000 ft (4,572 m) 73 °F (23 °C) 40,000 ft (12,192 m) –22 °F (–30 °C)
  • MIL-STD-810G, Method 500.5, Procedures I, II, III


  • Size: 10.5 in × 5.2 in × 1.9 in (26.6 cm x 13.1 cm x 4.8 cm)
  • Weight: 2.3 lb (1.04 kg), including battery and stylus
  • Color: Black with Yellow face


  • Processor: TI AM3715 Sitara ARM Cortex–A8 Superscalar Processor at 800 MHz
  • Memory: 256 MB RAM
  • Storage: 8 GB non-volatile Flash
  • Expansion: SD/SDHC card slot, USB host port
  • Display: 4.2 in (10.6 cm), 640 x 480 pixel, VGA TFT
  • Batteries: 11.1 V, 2500 mAh, 27.8 Wh Li-ion rechargeable pack1
  • I/O: USB host and client; 15 V DC power; 3.5 mm stereo + microphone audio port; 9-pin RS-232 serial port
  • GPS accuracy: 2–4 m with SBAS correction2
  • Radios: Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR; Wi-Fi 802.11b/g
  • WWAN radios: HSDPA 3.6 Mbit/s, Tri-band; HSDPA/UMTS: 850/1900/2100 MHz, Quad-band; GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz

CERTIFICATIONS: FCC, CE, R&TTE, IC (Canada), C-tick, GCF compliant, RoHS compliant, Section 508 compliant, AT&T certified, Wi-Fi Alliance certified, MIL-STD-810G, IP67, MIL-STD-461.

Torture Tests

The Ranger 3 is already in garrison with several of our warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I said, it was letters from our warfighters and first responders that first alerted me to the Ranger 3’s capabilities for wartime and disaster-preparedness purposes.

I have only been testing the Ranger 3 since early June, so many of you might erroneously assume that the freezing temperature, snow bank, and ice water immersion torture tests were not possible. Au contrair, mon ami —after all, this is the Rocky Mountains and there is almost always snow and ice somewhere to be found. This year, I found snow and ice and freezing water in the Snake River in Keystone and Breckenridge, Colorado, in June. Indeed, there was skiing at the A-Basin until late July. So the bottom line is the normal torture tests were inflicted upon the Ranger 3 and it passed with flying colors. And yes, before you ask, there have been several units that did not pass these torture tests, and they are dried out and mailed back to the manufacturers. A Trimble
unit has never failed to pass the tests, even a couple that were not rated as truly rugged with MILSPEC qualifiers. Trimble makes a quality product, and the company is evidently learning more about battery technology from Apple. The battery on the Ranger 3 lasted well over 30 hours.


As I mentioned earlier, the software applications on the Ranger 3 make it entirely suitable for warfighters and first responders. Plus, with the Windows software and operating system, the 3G GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phone features and Wi-Fi (WWAN, Wireless Wide Area Network) capabilities, the Ranger 3 can communicate almost anywhere in the world you can legally travel (it won’t work in North Korea). The Ranger 3 recognized my phone’s 3G-sim chip immediately, and after loading Skype, I was able to make and receive calls and download files via Wi-Fi. By the way, if you don’t know about transferring files, and I mean large files, via Skype’s direct IP chat capability, then give it a try. It is an amazing capability, especially for handheld computers like the Ranger 3.

While it is not necessary to use a headset with microphone for the communication capabilities on the Ranger 3, if you want any degree of privacy it is highly recommended. I tested several headsets, including a new Bose model that worked without any issues. No software downloads were required — all the headset models I tested were immediately recognized by the Microsoft Windows 6.5 mobile operating system.

The unit I tested came complete with the optional laser scanner and bar-code reader, which worked as advertised.

One feature that I found very useful but also one that is not aggressively marketed is the physical navigation pad with six buttons and scroll bars that can be operated with one thumb. With some practice you can use this navigation pad without ever resorting to the stylus or your fingers for inputs, other than text inputs of course. And in that regard another little touted feature is the Microsoft Word auto-completion software. The software suggests words with about, for me, 90 percent accuracy and learns as you go along. Within a particular document, the software will remember certain words and phrases and suggest them where it seems appropriate. For a rugged handheld computer with a small physical 56-key QWERTY keyboard with numeric keypad suitable only for thumb texting, the navigation panel and auto-completion software are a huge help and time savers.

Bottom Line

The bottom line for me echoes what Trimble says about the Ranger 3: “It has the outdoor rugged design and integrated features that users count on.” I think this is especially true for our warfighters and first responders, if my mail expounding the virtues of the Ranger 3 is an accurate barometer, and I believe it to be true.

I am certainly taken with this unit and highly recommend it. As usual with Trimble equipment, I am going to hate to send it back. If you are currently using the Ranger 3, drop me a line and let me know how you are using it and how you like it.

Until next time, Happy Navigating.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Defense, Opinions

About the Author: Don Jewell

Don Jewell served 30 years in the United States Air Force, as an aviator and a space subject-matter expert. Don’s involvement with GPS and other critical space systems began with their inception, either as a test system evaluator or user. He served two command assignments at Schriever AFB, the home of GPS, and retired as Deputy Chief Scientist for Air Force Space Command. Don also served as a Politico Military Affairs Officer during the Reagan administration, working with 32 foreign embassies and serving as a Foreign Disclosure Officer making critical export control decisions concerning sophisticated military hardware and software. After retiring from the USAF, Don served seven years as the senior space marketer and subject-matter expert for two of the largest government contractors dealing in space software and hardware. Don currently serves on two independent GPS review teams he helped found, and on three independent assessment teams at the Institute for Defense Analyses, dealing with critical issues for the U.S. government. Don has served on numerous Air Force and Defense Scientific Advisory Boards. He writes and speaks extensively on technical issues concerning the U.S. government. Don earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA; the Ph.D. is in progress.