WildSnow Beacon Reviews Overview
My March 2010 post for the Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Beacon Review – Preproduction Model included an introduction from Lou that:
“Here at WildSnow.com we’re somewhat leery of reviewing pre-production beacons. But the cycle of development to retail production continues to compress, and with a trusted manufacturer it’s indeed possible to bring you a fairly “real world” accounting of what to expect.”
Now that I [finally] have a production model, Lou’s assessment rings true in both directions. Rather than rehash my entire review of the preproduction model, or append that initial review with new information, this follow-up review focuses exclusively on those aspects of my production unit that differ from the preproduction 3+ I reviewed in March 2010.
Interface and Controls
In March I wrote that:
The production model is anticipated to have a switch with three positions: On, Off, Battery Compartment Open.
And indeed it does. Some on-line commenters have complained about initially trying to turn the beacon off and instead opening up the battery compartment so that the battery falls out. Possible, yes, but any actual 3+ owner who can’t figure out how to correctly operate this switch after using the unit a few times is just not the person you want as your backcountry skiing partner, regardless of beacon choice.
I also wrote back in March 2010:
The 3+ performs a self-test upon start-up and will report any errors. (Unfortunately in four different codes — I hope the production version includes a “cheat sheet” sticker or something similar to affix to the back of the unit’s housing.)
That same button is also used for the companion beacon check, which like the S1 includes frequency drift, transmission On time, and transmission total cycle time. Unlike the S1, the 3+ reports any errors not with relatively intuitive graphics, but rather with one of seven error codes (i.e., representing all seven possible combinations of the three different failures) — I hope that the production model will provide a “cheat sheet” for the back of the beacon!
Unfortunately no such sticker comes with the beacon, so I suggest making your own, otherwise the potentially significant benefit of the detailed error reporting will be unavailable in the field.
How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Fine Search Phase
In March 2010 I wrote:
Unfortunately I was unable to test initial signal acquisition because of the deliberately shortened range in this preproduction model. But once within its deliberately shortened maximum distance readout of 20m, the directional indicators and distance readout performed as they should.
Initial signal acquisition range is . . . well, as always, confusing to test! This is because of trials variation, differing opinions on the relative importance of optimal versus suboptimal coupling range, and exactly what to count as initial signal acquisition.
With those caveats aside, and focusing on suboptimal search configurations (which are important in setting the search strip width), in my latest round of testing, I found the 3+ to be roughly comparable to the Pulse and Tracker 2 (counting the T2’s directional indicators, not merely the distance/strength readout), which is at the lower end of the scale for current models, although still generally acceptable. (But note that although the 3+ usually started immediately with both directional indicators and distance readout, the sound didn’t kick in until a couple meters later.) And as always, the Pieps DSP is the range champ for suboptimal search configurations, although the Pulse in its rather obscure single-antenna backup-to-backup mode is a close match for pro users willing to delve into that optional search mode.
I expected the secondary search phase to be very straightforward: ever since BCA pioneered the use of two antennas to allow directional indicators in its original Tracker DTS way back in 1997, this has pretty much been a matter of just doing what the beacon tells you to. In other words, no difficult multi-burial scenarios, no dealing with spikes and nulls in the final fine search phase, no complicated test for perpendicular orientation upon initial signal acquisition, just the heart of a basic search.
But then I came across this video, starting at about 3:26 —
To attempt to replicate the erratic behavior shown in the video, I set up a very simple search in which the target beacon was pointed at the direction of the searcher’s travel. The 3+ always handled this just fine, engaging the solid center arrow as I walked toward the long axis of the target beacon.
I then tried a more difficult setup, although this was really just only a slightly less easy setup: I started 40 meters from the target beacon, but the target beacon’s transmitting antenna pointed about 45 degrees away from my direction of travel. Since I had to follow a curved flux line, I expected any beacon to swing me out to the side at first, then straight for awhile, then curve me back in toward the target. Of the limited control beacons I used, the BCA Tracker 2 and Barryvox Pulse did just that, and very reliably so. The Ortovox S1 took a more direct path, although its indicator arrow bounced around a bit, but this is very much at the quibbling level here.
Unfortunately, in some trials with some targets in some locations, some 3+ units provide potentially confusing readings for such a search, both for initial signal acquisition, but far more importantly right in the heart of the search.
Enough caveats for you? Okay, first the caveats explanation, then the problem.
Caveats: I have replicated this on the past three days in three different locations, one with obvious sources of generalized area-wide (as opposed to on-person) electronics interference (ski resort base area), one with no such obvious sources (edge of golf course bordered by forest, with any residences fairly distant), and one with conceivably suspect sources (college playing field). But Marcus Peterson, the head of Ortovox USA, was unable to replicate this on the fourth day in a fourth location, using my beacon, even though he experienced the same problems I did during our joint session on the third day. Furthermore, on those three prior days, not all targets produced the problem, and Marcus’s 3+ unit did not exhibit any problems when I searched with it. Plus even when I was using my unit to search for the targets prone to generating the problem, many searches proceeded flawlessly. [Dec 22 edit: here is a link to a video on one such search, with any back-and-forth being rather trivial.]
Now for the problem: the directional arrow can swing back and forth wildly (even at 90-degree extremes) when just at the point when a beacon should behave very reliably.
To help with visualizing this, I shot some videos. As for potential interference from my small digital camera (Canon SD1400 IS), I had plenty of flawed trials with the camera off in which exactly the same behavior occurred. (Plus because of the zoom function the actual distance between the 3+ and the camera is much greater than it appears.) Here are links for two such potentially confusing searches:
So how challenging a problem is this? As for how difficult it is when it actually occurs, watch the videos and judge for yourself. As for how likely it is to occur in a real search, I have no idea. Might it be restricted only to a certain batch of units? Maybe (since Marcus’s unit performed fine when I searched with it). Might it be restricted to only certain targets? Maybe (since some limited trials with other targets resulted in perfectly acceptable searches). Might it be restricted only to locations with area-wide electronics interference? Perhaps (since Marcus reports his test site turned up no such problems). I wish I could provide more definitive conclusions, but even if I conducted many thousands of trials with many different batches of units and many different types of targets in many different locations, I still probably wouldn’t have a definitive answer.
Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
I answered the above question back in March 2010 with:
The 3+ has similar functionality to the Pieps DSP and Barryvox Pulse in “Basic” user profile, but at a much lower price point (although I’m sure some users will still prefer various aspects of the DSP and “Basic” Pulse over the 3+ given how much personal preferences can vary). Those who want even more advanced functionality (and have some more money to spend on a beacon) will probably still favor the S1 or the Pulse in “Advanced” profile. And at the other end of the techno spectrum, those who want to keep everything even more simple and don’t feel the need for an automated marking/masking/flagging feature specific to multiple burials will probably still favor the Tracker 2. (And those looking to spend even less money yet still wanting a three-antenna beacon with multiple burial indicator might be attracted to the rebranded $299 Ortovox Patroller Digital.)
Despite all that competition (including from Ortovox’s own models!), the 3+ is likely to have very wide appeal: an easy-to-use interface combined with advanced multiple-burial-specific features, all at an attractive price point.
Yet possibly, the occasionally erratic behavior in some search configurations with the current firmware is a potentially significant caveat to my earlier conclusion.
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon
In March 2010 I wrote:
“My partner should be a whiz at multiple burials.”
“I should still establish my search strip width based upon suboptimal antenna orientation, even though the 3+ eliminates the possibility of a vertical oriented transmission antenna.”
To that I now add, “My partner should be prepared for some potentially confusing back-and-forth directional indicators in the secondary search.”
Please see Ortovox comments about above testing and results, here.
WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index
(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)
WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt (Mt. Greylock) ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche safety instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England, he works as a financial economics consultant.