This is our 4th transceiver review. The Review 2011-2012 is fairly similar and the transceivers which were tested in that review have not been re-tested for this review. The main differences since the last review is updated software, which is described where applicable, and some newer devices which are now included. You also may like to read the Review 2010 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 as those transceivers which are not are just more difficult to use.
Transceivers in this review are;
Mammut Barryvox Pulse (4.0)
Mammut Barryvox Element (1.0)
BCA Tracker 3
BCA Tracker 2 (r4.0)
Ortovox s1+ (2.0)
Ortovox 3+ (2.1)
Pieps DSP Pro (3.0)
Pieps DSP Sport (3.0)
In the reviews below 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 (4.0) 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 function. 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 has 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 3.2 software gave it a new set of tones (shared with the Element), 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. The latest 4.0 software has updated the fine search functions to what Mammut call 'Intelligent' search. This basically involves the transceiver directing the user with arrows through the fine search and then displaying a 'probe here' icon when you're in the right place. Mammut's video below shows this. The other features version 4.0 updates is the Expanded first signal display which effectively means you'll detect a transmitting signal sooner allowing you to start the coarse search earlier. It also updates the direction display quicker, using the the integrated compass making direction changes smoother and easier to follow.
The Pulse has the most bells and whistles and is the only option if you want to be able to fully personalise how the transceiver works in a search. It does work really well in default basic mode as well.
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 default 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. The Element is updateable, but no updates have been released yet.
BCA Tracker 3 The Tracker 3 in use is similar to the Tracker 2 but is smaller,lighter and has a signal masking function. It is the thinnest and lightest transceiver in this review. It has a locking rotating switch on the top which is used to switch between off, transmit and search. It also has a button on the front which is used for Signal Supression (marking) and Big Picture Mode, however as with the Tracker 2 Special Mode button it is unobtrusive as BCA do not want it to be used unless you know what you are doing. The direction and distance display is the same 5 position LED display above the numeric display. Underneath the numeric display is another display which consists of 2 people in brackets and a plus sign. Various combinations of this display tells you when the transceiver is receiving 2 or more signals and some information on the distances between them. This is designed to tell you when you should be using the Signal Suppression feature and if there are likely to be issues with multiple victims in close proximity. Like the Tracker 2 the Tracker 3 is very quick to update the display as BCA are standing by their belief that this is more important than having lots of different features. The Tracker 3 is updateable, but no updates have been released yet.
BCA Tracker 2 (r04) The Tracker 2 is now quite an old model, but is still popular as it has a lower price point and is so simple to use. 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 an 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 very fast at processing the signals received and it's display updates very quickly. 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. The Tracker 2 does have a special search mode which is not signal supression but a narrowing of the search arc which only 'sees' transceivers directly infront or behind but not at the sides. This can simplyfy a crowded search area. Again it is very unobtrusive as BCA do not want you to use it unless you know what you are doing.
Ortovox S1+ (2.0) The S1+ is the same as the popular S1 but with the addition of the Smart Antenna feature which attempts to optimise its own detection by choosing which antenna to transmit with depending on its orientation. The S1+ is a bit like an 'old school' flip phone, it has a twist switch on the side which turns it on and off, then when it's closed it is in transmit mode and as soon as you open it it moves to search mode. There is a locking button the other side to the switch which has to be pressed to close the S1+. It is also unable to be switched off when open in search mode. There are 2 buttons which can only be accessed when the transceiver is open, the OK button and the Menu button. Each button has a different function depending on what you are doing with the transceiver, the function of the button is indicated with a symbol on the bottom left of the screen for the OK button or bottom right of the screen for the menu button. The display is a full pixel display so the direction indicator is more precise than on units with a 5 position display. When it gets to 2.5m from the victim it switches to a tendency display for pinpointing which shows the distance to the victim with a circle which closes in as the distance decreases. The circle increases in size and the arrows indicate when you start to move away from the victim. Where the S1+ really excels is in the rare occurrence of multiple burial situations. It can detect up to 5 separate signals and display them on the screen with a distance to each victim. It has a flagging feature, which allows the user to flag a victim from 3m. Flags can also be removed without leaving search mode. There is also a 4+ function which should be activated if the S1+ is detecting more than 4 victims. The 2.0 software update has improved the search sound and the flagging sound for better clarity. It also now makes a sound when within 3m of a victim before the display changes at 2.5m. They have also removed the password feature - an odd feature found on the original version.
Ortovox 3+ (2.1) 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 antenna to transmit with depending on it's orientation. A feature unique to Ortovox. The 3+ has an 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. The 2.1 software update has made the search sound and flagging sound clearer and it also makes a sound when 3m from the victim preparing you for the change to the pin pointing display at 2.5m. It also indicates the which antenna is transmitting on in the first 20 seconds and has a new warning display of "EE" for the self test/partner check.
The Zoom has an 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. 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. 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. It does have a light to alert you if there is more than one signal being received, but there are no other functions to assist or confuse in a multi burial situation. This is a great choice for the recreational skier who clearly won't do enough practice for those missing features to be worthwhile. 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. 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.
Pieps DSP Pro The DSP Pro is a fully featured transceiver similar to the Mammut Pulse and Ortovox S1+. It is not user configurable but does have several modes and functions. It has an off/send/search sliding switch with a lock and 2 buttons on the front; scan and mark. You can perform a simple double search using only the mark button, the scan button is used to access the the other features of the DSP Pro. It has a segmented LCD display with a 5 position arrow, numeric distance display and icons for multiple transceiver signals of 1, 2, 3 and 3+. Whilst the DSP is transmitting its also using one of its other antenna to look at other signals which may influence a search. If it detects another signal which is causing interference it will change its own transmitting in order to reduce or eliminate this. This could help other digital transceivers perform complicated burial searches. Features unique to the Pro over the Sport are the scan function, a more comprehensive parameter check of received signals, a frequency check for received signals, a 3D inclinometer and compatibility with the Pieps TX600 dog collar. 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. It can also be used to remove any digital masks that are being used. The comprehensive parameter check and frequency check can be used to check the send signals of other transceivers to ensure they are transmitting within acceptable parameters. The DSP Pro has an auto revert search to send feature, which will switch it to send mode from search mode if it remains motionless for 1 minute. By default this feature is switched off and can only be switched on by a service centre (Facewest are a Pieps service centre). It is software updateable and the latest version 3 adds some features to the partner check and a symbol showing if auto revert is on. Version 3 also optimises the performance of the DSP Pro.
Pieps DSP Sport The DSP Sport is much like the Element is to the Pulse in that it takes the design and features of the DSP Pro and removes the additional features leaving just the mark function, which can be found on all the intermediate level transceivers here. The DSP Sport has an off/send/search sliding switch with a lock and a mark button on the front. Like the DSP Pro it has a segmented LCD display with a 5 position arrow, numeric distance display and icons for multiple transceiver signals of 1, 2, 3 and 3+. The mark function works in exactly the same way as it does on the DSP Pro allowing you to mark a victim and move off to search for another victim whilst others are digging for the first. Whilst the DSP Sport is transmitting it also using one of its other antenna to look at other signals which may influence a search. If it detects another signal which is causing interference it will change it's own transmitting in order to reduce or eliminate this. This could help other digital transceivers perform complicated burial searches. The DSP Sport is software updateable and the latest version 3.0 software adds the auto revert search to send feature which will switch it to send mode from search mode if it doesn't detect any signal changes for 4 minutes. However, by default this feature is switched off (even when the update is completed) and can only be switched on by request to a service centre (Facewest are a Pieps service centre). Version 3 also optimises the performance of the DSP Sport.
The good news is that all these transceivers perform this simple search very well and are very easy to use. 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.
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.