SkyQ Link WiFi Adapter
- Product Review (submitted on October 5, 2012):
Ok, a bit of up front exposition. The first unit I received didn't work in AP mode, and I don't have an iAnything to test it with. I also haven't had the opportunity to give it long term testing to know how it wears, etc. That said, I'm still giving this a five star rating (ok, maybe I'd have done 4.5 stars given the chance) largely because of how valuable of an asset I consider this to be, and also because of the excellent response I received from both the vendor and their Celestron contact in getting the defective unit replaced.
As additional background, I'd also been working on developing my own Bluetooth interface that would draw power off the scope AUX port just like this does, so if anything I should be a bit miffed that Celestron decided to release this about the same time I was almost done with my own version! That being said, this Wi-Fi solution accomplishes the same thing (and potentially more) in a beautiful package at an equivalent price point for anything I could have envisioned for a custom Bluetooth solution.
So, starting with the physical traits, the pictures do a pretty good job of showing what you have, with the whole thing encased in a nice molded rubber cover. Presumably that will be pretty good on a dewy night or if you were to drop the adapter. A nicely booted RJ-11 plug provides the interface to the scope AUX port (the same as your hand controller port) and the boot is molded into or right up to the rubber housing. That does cause some potential difficulty pulling the connector out since you have to get a finger (or something) under the unit enough to push in the tab and release the unit. Generally that's not a problem but I've found it a bit tricky with my big fingers. While I'm slightly nervous about the robustness of the arrangement if you connect and remove it regularly, or if you bump the mounted housing too often, I don't see how it could have been much better without having a long pigtail that would have then allowed the body to flop around as your scope moves.
The unit has a miniature slide switch on the side to change between “direct connect” and “access point” modes. The switch is nicely recessed in the shell providing good protection, so while you may need to use the tip of a pen to ensure you’ve switched it solidly, you typically won’t be switching it back and forth much (or accidentally). In direct connect mode, the SkyQ Link behaves as an access point, broadcasting an open SSID that you can connect to from your PC or iPhone/iPad using appropriate software from Celestron. While convenient for a peer-to-peer connection between a lone Link and computer, it’s not terribly convenient if you also want to be able to browse the internet on an existing network. Thus, the access point (AP) mode allows connecting the SkyQ Link to an existing Wi-Fi network after running through a few configuration steps using the SkyQ application in direct connect mode. The unit has three LEDs that show the different connections status indications, but unfortunately the current short instruction sheet that comes with the Link doesn’t provide any indication of the meaning of all the various flash behaviors. That does make it difficult if you’re trying to debug connection problems as I had to on my first unit. Celestron tech support was helpful on that point, but it just needs to get into the manual. From Celestron, “The first LED (towards the switch) indicates power to the module. The second LED is the network activity/Mode LED. In Access Point mode, it only blinks when it’s acquiring the network. Once it acquires the network, it goes out. You might only see it flicker on and off. If there’s an error acquiring the network, it starts to blink again at a slow rate. In Direct Connect mode, this light blinks when a device associates with it. And the third LED indicates serial data is being received or transmitted on the AUX interface.” Connection from the PC side (direct connect mode) is a typical Wi-Fi process where you look for a SkyQ SSID and connect. I’m assuming each SSID is unique so that if there’s a field full of Links in use, you’ll be able to identify yours if you remember the number that’s part of the SSID. When in AP mode, the SkyQ connects automatically to the network you pre-configured (see below) and should have LED indicators as above. The unit I had with the problem would give a brief blink once at startup and then act as though it was connected, but with no traffic indicators. With your PC connected to the same network, you should then be able to connect to the Link with the static IP address that’s been assigned.
Since I don’t have an iDevice to test with, I’ll concentrate on the SkyQ Link PC software. The first thing a user is going to discover is that the TCP/IP settings that the software defaults to are totally invalid for the SkyQ Link. Instead of the default IP address of the SkyQ Link of 22.214.171.124 and a port number of 2000, the software comes up with the local host IP address (i.e. your own computer) and a port number of 5555. Presumably the last developer to work on the software was testing against an emulator on his/her PC and that’s the way it shipped! The manual does have the correct information, but given that many (ok, me too) have a tendency to shoot first, ask questions later, and read the manual never, I suspect Celestron is fielding lots of tech support calls on this particular tidbit of information.
The software has the typical image based window that users of NexRemote will be familiar with. A picture of the SkyQ Link shows four status LEDs for the connection and traffic and right clicking on the image will bring up a context menu with all of the options. Also like the NexRemote, the software uses a tray icon instead of a task bar entry, so it’s easy to lose the interface and not realize how to get it back. However, given that this program is primarily designed as an interface to NexRemote or some other software that will actually control your scope, it makes sense to avoid cluttering up the task bar with the interface utility. There’s a nice configuration utility for setting up the AP mode of the Link, that can be started from the menu or as a stand-alone program in the Windows start menu. A simple dialog (visible at startup) is used to configure the Link software with the IP address (only supports a static IP address) and port number (should always be 2000) of the Link, as well as the virtual COM port that the software should use to allow other software such as NexRemote to communicate to your mount as though it was on a local serial port. Once you press Connect and the indicators show a valid connection, you’re pretty much done. Go to your favorite scope control software and take it from there!
So let me paint a picture about why I find this so exciting. First off, with NexRemote connected through the SkyQ Link, not only have you eliminated the need for a cable, but you no longer need the hand controller (that’s usually used for the serial cable) either! Thus, there’s less to trip over or wind up around your scope. Add a Microsoft XBOX wireless controller to the NexRemote and you have wireless pan control in addition to whatever star chart you’re using on the PC (although it would be great if Celestron would add some re-mapping features to the joystick function in NexRemote, since it’s woefully out of date). Couple that with the rotary joint built into the NexStar GPS (PLEASE bring that back in new designs, Celestron) and you have a headache free night of operation without any cords getting tangled up as you rotate. Granted this assumes no dew heater (a high power rotary joint would solve that, eh Celestron?) or other cabled devices hanging off, but to me the real power of this setup is for a night of visual observing, and not necessarily automating for astrophotography, etc.
A couple of final notes. I have no idea yet of the power consumption of this adapter. Most of my use is for plugged in AC powered conditions, so I don’t much care, but users who operate remotely on battery power need to worry about how much extra power consumption you’re adding. But since you also have to run a laptop or other device, you’re limited there as well. Also, while I’m sure the SkyQ app for iStuff is nice, the lack of Android support is disappointing. I understand the ease of catering to one platform, especially since the vendor of the Wi-Fi module used in the SkyQ Link provides their own iStuff interface for it, but Android has surpassed iOS worldwide. And while I expect my primary use to remain using SkyTools or The Sky or Starry Night to run a night of viewing, I’d like the option (and the general geekiness) of using my Android device to play with the SkyQ as well. Hopefully Celestron is listening.
So here’s wishing everyone Clear Skies! Get out there and enjoy your hobby.