Facewest Transceiver Review 2011-2012

Edited November 2012 to include the Ortovox Zoom

This is our 3rd transceiver review. The Review 2007 is pretty dated now but you may like to read the Review 2010 before you read this one, especially as it includes the 2 antenna and analogue transceivers. We have started this review from the standpoint that a 3 antenna digital transceiver is the minimum technology you should have. If you are buying a new transceiver then you should not consider buying a model which is not triple antenna digital. I know this excludes some of the older and lower cost models but we feel that the technology and ease of use is worth the extra cost.

Transceivers in this review are;

  • Mammut Barryvox Pulse (3.2)
  • BCA Tracker 2 (r4.0)
  • Ortovox 3+ (1.1)
  • Mammut Barryvox Element (1.0)
  • Pieps DSP (8.2)
  • Ortovox s1+
  • Ortovox Zoom

There are a few features which are now pretty standard across the transceivers.

  • Updatable Software - All the units tested have the ability to have the software updated as things are improved.
  • Body Harness - All the transceivers use a harness and holster arrangement where the transceiver can be carried in the holster on the chest/stomach or detached and carried in a pocket (but never a pack!). All the holsters were fine, but the Pieps DSP was the most basic but the lightest whilst the Ortovox 3+ Bag was the most encompassing but a bit fiddly to get the transceiver in and out.
  • Directional Information - All the transceivers stop providing directional information 2 or 3 metres out from the target to prompt you into the final phase of the search. There is some discussion about the best pinpoint method but everyone agrees about removing the arrows at about 3m to prompt you to change what you are doing.

Below are a few comments to go along with the search videos to highlight the differences between the transceivers. There is a demo video of each transceiver performing the same double burial search. I have not included a video of a simple single burial test as the way that the transceivers are laid out in the simple double burial test is effectively the same. In the configuration used I find one transceiver and then the next one in series as I am 10 metres closer to the first transceiver when I start out.

  • Mammut Barryvox Pulse (3.2)
    The Pulse is the most user configurable transceiver in the test. Just about every setting can be changed but here we have used it in the basic mode with everything at default. As an experienced searcher you could decide to change things but this will not be applicable to most people. The Pulse is however the only transceiver to offer this. The Pulse has an On/Off/Search switch and 2 buttons but during a standard search only 1 button needs to be used. The Pulse is the only transceiver to have a full pixel LCD display so can show the most variable arrow positions in search mode and also things like the owners name and phone number etc. during start up. The latest 3.2 software has a new set of tones (shared with the Element), now as well as the tones changing as the distance to target changes the Pulse and Element use a very noticeably different tone when the transceiver thinks you are not heading in the optimum direction. It's the same information as the arrow/lights not being in the centre of the display but it works really well in getting to check your heading. By default the Pulse (and Element) now use the runway approach method instead of standard pinpoint bracketing at the end of the search. Mammut's research suggests that pinpointing wastes more time than it saves for the inexperienced and they would be better doing a spiral probe search from the point where the distance starts to go back up. If you prefer bracketing, it is of course still possible just the display does not prompt you to do it (again this is configurable). The Pulse has the most bells and whistle but works really well in default basic mode.

  • BCA Tracker 2 (r04)
    The Tracker 2 is the simplest transceiver in the test. It does have a special search mode but it is very unobtrusive as BCA do not want you to use it unless you know what you are doing. The Tracker 2 has an On/Off switch and a big pull down search/send switch. The display uses a 5 position LED display to keep you headed in the right direction and a LED numeric display for the distance to target. No other graphics are used. The Tracker 2 will only give you information about the strongest signal it is receiving and guide you to that signal. It has a light to alert you that it is receiving other signals which is again unobtrusive as BCA do not want to distract you from the primary task of finding that strongest signal. The Tracker 2 is the fastest transceiver at processing the signals received and it's display updates the fastest. This is most noticeable during the final pinpointing phase of the search. BCA's mission was to make the Tracker 2 simple and fast as they believe these qualities are more valuable than the other digital processing features and I have to say that I agree with them.

  • Ortovox 3+ (1.1)
    The 3+ searches and masks like most of the transceivers in this test but with the addition of the Smart Antenna. The Smart Antenna attempts to optimise it's own detection but choosing which one of it's antenna to transmit with depending on it's orientation. A feature unique to Ortovox. The 3+ has a on/off switch, send/receive switch and a masking button. The on/off switch is a pain because it also opens the battery compartment and I keep doing that, although once the unit is on, it makes no difference. You enter search mode by moving 2 tabs apart on the top and a button pops up. Push the button down again to go back to send. On the face of the 3+ is the mark button which is the only thing needed during a search. The display is LCD and has a 5 position directional arrow which can be hollow or filled in, distance display and concentric circles for pin pointing. The circles display gradually fills in as you get within a couple of metres of your target and then opens out as the distance goes back up, accompanied by a corresponding tone change, the searcher is very aware if they are moving towards or away from the target. Unusually the 3+ only uses 1 AA battery but has roughly the same battery life as the others on test. For all but professional fleet owners battery life and cost is not a consideration. The speaker hole on the 3+ is just below the mark button and I found that my thumb kept drifting over the hole and muting the sound. Maybe it's just the way I hold it but the hole could have been further up away from your hand.

  • Mammut Barryvox Element (1.0)
    The Element is the Pulse's little brother. It shares the same case, holster and general style. It is the Pulse with all the options removed and just used with the presets. However the Element does not have the compass which although not visible on the Pulse is used to make the directional information more stable and I think (but am not sure) is referenced when using masking. The Element also only has 1 button not 2. The Element shares the same basic direction and mask methods as most of the other units. It has the same really effective tones as the Pulse that we have already discussed and the landing strip pinpoint method. Both the Element and Pulse also have a turn around feature for when you are on a good heading but moving away from your target. Same info as the distance numbers going up but just another way of alerting you. The Element does not have a full pixel display like the Pulse so uses a set of graphics like the other units on test. The directional arrow has 5 positions plus little icons to display how many signals are being received and the turn around icon. In use the Element and 3+ are very similar and did a good job in this search scenario.

  • Pieps DSP (8.2)
    The DSP is a fully featured transceiver more like the Pulse than any of the other models. It is not user configurable but does have several modes and functions. The DSP has an on/off/search switch and then 3 buttons, scan, mask and back. You can perform a simple double search using only the mark button and I didn't use the back button at all, but having a switch and 3 buttons does make the DSP complicated. The DSP has a segmented LCD display with a 5 position arrow, numeric distance display and icons for multiple transceiver signals. The DSP has 2 unique features; the ability to detect and eliminate signal overlap and the scan function. Whilst the DSP is transmitting it also using one of it's other antenna to look at other signals. If it detects another transceiver within 5 metres which is overlapping with it's signal it will change it's own transmitting in order to reduce or eliminate this overlap. This could help other digital transceivers perform complicated burial searches. The scan function gives an overview of the search area and tells you how many signals are detected under 5m, then under 20m and then under 50m. The scan function also removes any digital masks that are being used and reduces the range of the DSP but also looks for transceivers which are transmitting outside the accepted norm (generally old analogue F1s) and if any are detected the DSP stays in this mode. The scan function is a good thing to do when no signals are being received at the end of a search.

  • Ortovox Zoom
    The Zoom has a on/off switch, send/receive switch and that's all. Simplicity is the key with this unit. It works very well in single search mode, and is quite simple to use in multi burial mode. It is probably the simplest unit to become familiarised with, but does not have some of the user configurability features or software upgradability found on the other models. This is a great choice for the recreational skier who clearly won't do enough practice for those missing features to be worthwile. The Smart Antenna attempts to optimise it's own detection by choosing which one of it's antenna to transmit with depending on it's orientation. A feature unique to Ortovox. You enter search mode by moving 2 tabs apart on the top and a button pops up. Push the button down again to go back to send. The Zoom only uses 1 AA battery but has roughly the same battery life as the others on test. For all but professional fleet owners battery life and cost is not a consideration.

The good news is that all these transceivers perform this simple search very well and are very easy to use. The only real difference all the transceivers being that the BCA Tracker 2 uses a special mode where as all the others use a digital masking patch. The spike that occurred when the receiver was at 90° to the fluxline has been eliminated by the 3rd antenna and with only a small amount of practise it's easy to become a reasonable searcher. Since roughly 95% of rescues are done using single or simple double burial searches this is very good news all round. There is now more time to be gained from proper search organisation and effective shovelling than from speeding up the transceiver search.

Please go back and read that paragraph again. Do not agonise over which transceiver to get, but spend time with your friends, practise, learn how to organise a rescue properly and learn how to dig effectively.

Now we can look at other incidents with 3 burials, which account for less than 5% of real world incidents. Here I found very variable results from nearly all the transceivers. Sometimes they performed well and were able to mask 2 transceivers and find a 3rd but at other times the results were terrible. Either 2 transceivers were masked by a single patch, the searcher was led back to the first masked transceiver after masking the 2nd, or transceivers kept disappearing and reappearing during the search. These problems are generally caused by signal overlap between the buried transceivers but also by the processing of the signals. I varied the units being searched for, their positions and orientation but always received very variable results. I would say that the units coped well 70% of the time and failed the other 30%.

The only 2 units which performed consistently well in these tests were the Mammut Barryvox Pulse and the BCA Tracker 2. The Pulse seems to have much more sophisticated masking software than the others including it's baby brother the Element. The Tracker 2 has no masking function but uses the special mode. The special mode does not actually mask the found transceiver but sort of allows you to see past it. The simplicity of this system made it much more reliable. I felt that in this nightmare situation with any transceiver you either knew what you were doing or you didn't.

I would like to reiterate that this close proximity multiple burial situation hardly ever occurs. When it does occur you have to have 3 people buried and a minimum of 3 searchers and more like 5 to be rescuing the third person at the same time as rescuing the first. I think that the transceiver manufacturers are promoting features that you don't need, which don't work consistently!
HOWEVER all the transceivers tested did a good job at the burial situations that occur 95% of the time.

In summary, I think that the average searcher is served very well by a number of triple antenna avalanche transceivers. I would not be worried about skiing with someone using any of the ones we have reviewed here. If I was buying a new transceiver I would get either the Mammut Barryvox Pulse or the BCA Tracker 2.