[January 2012 Update: Some small revisions throughout, plus an additional section for the new 5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test]
Much of the basis for my reviews comes simply from lots of practice, often running searches in unusual or demanding circumstances. I’ve also run the beacon practice stations at various avalanche courses and ski patrol events, which provide an interesting opportunity to watch how other backcountry skiers react to different designs. I find this to be especially important, since often a feature that seems intuitively obvious to me will nevertheless baffle other users.
With that caveat aside, here are some brief descriptions of my formal testing. I also solicited feedback from all the beacon companies, and received very constructive information from all.
The very first thing I do when I get a new beacon is try to conduct a search without reading the user manual. Now to some extent I’m already somewhat familiar with the beacon design from what I’ve read beforehand. But I feel that the ability to use a beacon without any user manual familiarity is a good test of the inherent ease-of-use of the design. (Plus how many typical users are really going to read their beacon’s user manual carefully?)
Electronic Interference (RFI)
I conducted three types of tests for potential electronics interference.
First, I set up a target beacon to transmit, and then set up a nearby semicircle of test beacons in search mode. I approached each beacon with a GPS, a digital camera, an FRS/GMRS radio, and a basic CDMA-band (e.g., Verizon) cell phone, one at a time. While doing this I noticed no changes in the searching beacons’ displays.
Then I repeated the testing with the FRS/GMRS radio and the cell phone making a call. Noticeable interference occurred in some, but not all models, with ghosting, distracting noise, incorrect directional indicators, and other problems.
Next, I added an iPod to the mix of devices: now the interference was much worse, and occurred in all beacon models. My conclusion: never tour in potential avalanche terrain with an iPod! The potential to have the iPod still on (yet not noticed) during a search could cause serious problems with any avalanche beacon.
I tested a “smart” phone, specifically an iPhone, which runs on the GSM band (i.e., AT&T). I changed my testing protocol this time to mimic my prior range tests for initial signal acquisition, i.e., start from far outside the acquisition range and then keep walking straight toward the target until a signal was acquired.
I held the iPhone (while making a call, although this probably doesn’t make any difference, since the actual cell transmission band is unlikely to be the source of the interference) close to the searching beacon. I tested three beacons, all of which fared far worse than with the previously tested electronics devices.
Specifically, the Pieps DSP immediately ghosted with its symbols for more than three victims, a distance readout of about four meters, and nonsensical directional indicators. I stopped the test right there, since clearly the actual victim would be impossible to find with that kind of interference.
The Ortovox S1 immediately yet briefly ghosted, but then the screen cleared . . . and stayed clear until I was less than four meters from the actual victim: this was even more scary, since the searcher would be entirely unaware of the interference problem.
The Barryvox Pulse ghosted, but seemed to fare a bit better than the others, although the interference was still a serious problem. Given the obvious problems caused by a “smart” phone, I didn’t bother testing any additional beacons. My conclusion: keep any “smart” phone entirely off while touring in potential avalanche terrain!
Lastly, I tested whether an iPod or iPhone could interfere with a victim’s transmission. Instead of merely placing the target beacon (which here was a Pieps Freeride) on the snow, an assistant held the beacon pointing toward me, but also held either an iPod or iPhone close to the transmitting beacon. My range results while searching with an S1, DSP, and Pulse were the same as when the beacon was on the snow with no electronic devices on either end. My conclusion: if you care only about yourself (i.e., your ease of being found), then feel free to play those tunes and chat away!
My pinpoint phase accuracy test was inspired by an avalanche beacon review in the New York Times last year. As a native North Easterner, I feel obliged to take seriously everything the NYT writes, even on subjects where its editors probably know absolutely nothing. The NYT review commented on the large “box size” of one model, so I devised a test to attempt to replicate such results, as shown :
I suspect this would matter only if a full burial were somehow still relatively shallow. Therefore, although I report the results, and although they vary widely among beacons, I don’t think they’re very important.
Range for Initial Signal Acquisition
You would think range testing would be relatively straightforward. So did I. Wrong.
The first problem is what to count as initial signal acquisition. In general, I did not count a brief signal acquisition that then immediately disappeared (which often happens, i.e., a kind of brief “blip” that has you thinking, “wait, what was that?”). But if the acquisition was continuous, I then stopped my slow advance toward the target beacon to record the distance. By contrast, what to count as initial signal acquisition for analog acoustics is even far more subjective, but in general I counted a faint yet distinct “chirping” against any background sound.
Another problem is that many beacon models keep coming out with new firmware upgrades, which means having to run new range tests (as well as other tests). I appreciate their continuous innovation, but it sure complicates testing!
Next wrinkle is coupling – no, not that type of coupling (this is a family-oriented website!), but rather the orientation of the victim’s antenna (all beacons transmit on only a single antenna) relative to the orientation of the main axis of the searcher’s beacon’s housing (which can contain up to three receive antennas). So, do you test range during optimal coupling or worst-case coupling? My answer is, yes! In other words, I test for both, but focus only on the latter, as I think worst-case coupling is more important especially in establishing the minimum range that you can rely upon consistently (i.e., the search strip width).
The Tricky Perpendicular Search
I set up a tricky perpendicular search to test the respective abilities of the Pulse’s 360-degree rotating arrow and the S1’s grid-like screen to accurately locate a beacon whose transmitting antenna is pointing directly at the searcher while the searcher is pointing at a 90-degree angle to the transmitting beacon. I also included a DSP in this test just to confirm my hunch as to how a “traditional” beacon with a more narrow arc of directional indicators would perform.
Imagine an avalanche path or deposition zone that is twice the width of a beacon’s range in worst-alignment coupling. The victim is buried at the extreme edge of the beacon’s range, with the transmitting antenna pointing toward the center of the slide path. The searcher enters the slide path with the beacon pointing toward the center. I attempted to replicate this scenario by approaching a target beacon that was pointed toward me, but with my beacon at a 90-degree angle to the target.
Close-Proximity Triple-Burial (Signal Separation Models Only)
I have run many informal tests for the signal separation capabilities of the various marking/masking/flagging models, but I also set up the formal test diagrammed to right for a close-proximity multiple-victim burial.
Looks like a nice controlled test, but unfortunately this is still subject to significant variation. Why? In [very] quick summary, because of ever-shifting signal overlap, each test was actually different, as each test beacon was facing a different set of signals with respect to their timing with one another. Nevertheless, after at least several trials with each beacon, consistent differences between models become apparent.
Marking/Masking/Flagging Trade-Offs: The Triangle Range Test
I set up a triangle range search to test see whether the impressively reliable marking/masking abilities of some signal separation beacons might compromise their respective abilities to locate another beacon toward the edge of their initial signal acquisition ranges. I included the DSP to see whether its less reliable (though much improved over various firmware versions) marking/masking/flagging had the benefit of not compromising its ability to search for other beacons in a real life backcountry skiing avalanche accident.
Imagine a large triangle, with the searcher at one end, and a transmitting beacon at each of the other two ends (pointed toward the searcher’s end). The sides of the triangle are long enough to be toward the outer end of initial acquisition range (taking into account coupling alignment). The searcher walks toward whatever target the searching beacon gives priority. Once at the first beacon, that beacon is marked, and then the searcher sees whether the searching beacon can find the second transmitting beacon. If no signal is shown by the searching beacon, then the first target beacon is turned off, just to verify that indeed the problem with signal acquisition was caused by the focus on the first beacon, and not a range issue.
This test has now been discontinued in favor of the more demanding yet still realistic and quite revealing:
Marking/Masking/Flagging Trade-Offs: 5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test
I have now discontinued my Triangle Range Test in favor of this new test to see whether the impressively reliable marking/masking abilities of some signal separation beacons might compromise their respective abilities to locate another beacon toward the edge of their initial signal acquisition ranges.
This test sounds really easy, but the results can be surprising (in a bad way). Place the Far Target beacon 25 meters from the starting point, with its transmission antenna (typically in line with the long axis of the housing, though BCA beacons are at 45-degree angles, and Ortovox 3+ and S1+ beacons have the ability to shift among two perpendicular antennas, so they make for poor targets in tests like this) perpendicular to the searcher’s direction of travel. Turn the test beacon to Search. The test beacon should quickly acquire the signal of the Far Target beacon.
Okay, that was easy. Now let’s make it less easy. Turn the test beacon back to Transmit. Place another beacon, the Near Target beacon, 5 meters from the starting point. (Orientation doesn’t really matter since it’s so close — goal is keep the Near Target outside the 3-meter final search phase, but close enough so that its signal is very strong.) Go back to the starting point, and turn the test beacon to Search.
Any test beacon will lock on the signal of the Near Target. The Pieps DSP / DSP Tour will also pretty much right away show two victim icons, then once you take a few strides and mark the Near Target (which often will take two tries with the button), it will show the distance and direction to the Far Target. Sounds pretty easy, right?
Other signal separation beacons I’ve tried with this test will initially show only one victim symbol. Once the Near Target is approached and marked, even after taking several more strides so that the test beacon is partway in between the Near Target and the Far Target (i.e., the “Far Target” is no longer all the far away), the time for the second victim symbol to appear plus provide directional and distance information has varied from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Sometimes I’ve walked all the way up to the Far Target, standing directly over it, and counted out the time until I finally received a signal. I’ve even had one beacon often receive a second signal, but unfortunately the signal was not for the Far Target, but instead for the Near Target: following the beacon’s information, I reversed direction and went back to the Near Target to mark it again. [Note that I’m not providing results here for particular models, but rather in the individual beacons reviews — my vague references to various beacon beacon behaviors are just to provide examples of what these tests can reveal.]
Changing this test from the 5-25 variation to the 5-20 variation (i.e., the Far Target is only 20 meters from the starting point) makes this test much easier for the other signal separation beacons to perform well.
That’s it (for now). Also, remember that all of these tests are designed to examine the performance characteristics of new beacons that are presumed to be in good working order. By contrast, if you have a suspect older beacon, then check out this post:
Older Avalanche Beacon? How to Test It
If I can provide any clarification feel free to leave comments.
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.