Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Beacon Review – Preproduction Model

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | March 25, 2010      
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(Editor’s Note: 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. Craig Dostie gave us his take on the Ortovox 3+ a few weeks ago, and with the stunning amount of work Jonathan put into this post, I figured we should get it up sooner rather than later, so here goes.)

Ortovox 3+

Ortovox 3+ demo unit, production unit will have rubber armor.

The Ortovox 3+ offers much of the same advanced functionality of Ortovox’s flagship S1 but with a more traditional (relatively speaking) user interface, a smaller & lighter housing, and at $349 MSRP the lowest price point of any signal separation model (i.e., marking/flagging).

This review is for a March 2010 preproduction model — production models should be available by June 2010. Throughout the review I note anticipated differences, and I plan to update this review once regular production models are available. For a quick overview of what the entire Ortovox line will look like for the 2010-11 season, see my previously published Ortovox 3+ preview.

Note that although my preproduction unit has a rather subdued gray & black color scheme, a second color scheme will be offered, which looks like it will perfect match for my rando race suit (seriously — well, not a serious concern, but it will be an interesting mix of green, gray, and white).

Also, since many potential purchasers might be wondering how this new signal separation model from Ortovox compares to its flagship S1, I prepared a summary chart for the two models which you can view at the end of this post.

Interface and Controls

The production model is anticipated to have a switch with three positions: On <> Off <> Battery Compartment Open. 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.)

How to tell at a glance if the beacon is transmitting? The LCD screen displays a pulsing graphic, which is visible from behind a mesh part of the harness system’s pouch. Speaking of the harness, the 3+ is typical of current designs with a pouch and tether, but when stowed away after use, instead of having to wrap the straps around the pouch, they can be neatly tucked away inside a second pouch that unfolds for this purpose.

To switch to Search, on the top edge of the beacon housing, use a finger on each side of the edge to pull apart a switch. (This is very similar to the old Ortovox M2, except the harness is not integrated into the switch.) To revert to Transmit, just bump in the part of the switch that popped up previously during the changeover to Search. Furthermore, the beacon will revert to Transmit after sensing two minutes of user immobility. (Unlike the S1, this function can not be modified, but is a good interim solution to the problem of beacons accidentally reverting to transmit and subsequently messing up a rescue by confusing the searchers.)

The search interface is relatively simple: LCD screen with directional indicator in one of nine positions (filled-in arrow when at center; otherwise outlined arrow) along with numerical distance readout. Just one button for flagging, making the 3+ the only signal separation beacon with a single button. 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!

Although many more cursory reviews at other publications often make claims for various beacons as smaller or sleeker or lighter than average — even when the scale turns up realities of mere fractional ounces of difference — the 3+ really is smaller and lighter. The unit is a little over two-and-a-half ounces lighter than the S1, but only a little over an ounce lighter than the BCA Tracker 2 and Ortovox D3. I don’t think anyone can notice weight differentials like that when strapped to your chest, although personal comfort for how and where a harness system rides on your chest can definitely be an important factor (but a factor that I don’t attempt to assess, given how different people are built, well, differently). Pictures of the housing’s front might make you wonder about its ergonomics, but the two large vertically oriented rubberized cylindrical shapes on the back make the 3+ very easy to hold.

Unlike any other multiple-antenna beacon, the 3+ runs off of not the typical 3xAAA batteries these days, or the older 2xAA configuration (or ARVA’s unique 4xAAA), but instead a single AA. (Yes, the 3+ still meets the standard for 200 hours of transmission followed by the ability to search for an entire hour.)

How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Pinpointing

Initial signal acquisition is via a combination of sound, one of nine directional indicators, and distance readout. The directional indicator is solid when engaged in the center, and otherwise it appears in outline form.

In the final search phase, within two meters, as measured by the beacon, the directional indicators disappear, a circle now appears around the distance readout, and semi-circles around the edge of the screen increase in width thus converging on the circled distance readout as you get closer to the victim. (As with any beacon, distance shown is not necessarily the actual distance to the victim, as is the case with all beacons.)

How It Works: Multiple Burials

The display shows between one and three victim symbols. The directional indicators and distance readout are displayed exclusively for the beacon with the strongest signal. Once that beacon is found, pressing a button marks/masks that beacon, and then the 3+ focuses exclusively on the next-strongest signal. If more than three victims are detected, the beacon will also display a “4+” next to the victim graphics (even though it really should be “=>4” or “>3” or, come to think it, why, “3+” — although the “3+” model designation is referring to the number of antennas!)

How It Works: Being Found

The 3+ will be the third beacon model to offer a unique feature to try to enhance the survival of its user, as opposed to the more typical goal of enhancing the effectiveness of its user as a searcher.

The Barryvox Pulse was first with survival tech, utilizing a secondary frequency to transmit data indicative of a victim who is still alive. But this feature works only for a searcher also using a Pulse beacon (or possibly the upcoming ARVA Link). Second, the most recent firmware of the Pieps DSP periodically shifts the transmit pattern in an attempt to avoid signal overlap with an adjacent victim. But this can cause a searcher’s mark/mask on a DSP to become undone if the pattern shift is misinterpreted as yet another victim coming onto the scene.

So what does the 3+ beacon do that’s so unique? First, as background, a typical multiple antenna beacon has two relatively large antennas for directional interpretation when searching, along with a very small third antenna for resolving vertical issues (which become important during the final search phase). However, all beacons transmit on a single antenna. Until now.

If the Ortovox 3+ senses that the user has come to a rest, and hence might be buried (functions that both the S1 and Pulse currently perform), the 3+ will also assess, based on the vertical orientation of the beacon, which of the two main antennas will allow searchers in the horizontal plane to maximum their initial acquisition range of the 3+’s signal. In other words, the 3+ will switch transmit antennas in an attempt to maximize how far away searchers will first pick up the 3+ victim’s signal.

How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Fine Search Phase

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.

For the final “fine” search phase, the graphic with circled distance indicator and converging semicircles works well. The third antenna eliminates all spikes and nulls in the pinpointing phase and the box size is small (even though the smallest distance readout I could get in my testing was 0.2 meters, as opposed to 0.1 or 0.0 on some other models).

How Well It Works: Multiple Burials

The victim count on my preproduction unit was accurate (even with multiple old F1 beacons, which with their continuous carrier background signal and long transmission On time are inherently difficult to separate out from each other). The single button for marking/masking/flagging was easy to use and reliable — not always perfect (as no signal separation model is), and maybe not *quite* as reliable as the S1 and Pulse, but definitely a notch about the DSP. (I know that sounds like an assessment that should be more quantitative instead of qualitative, but because of the luck of the draw in how signal overlap can occur across even dozens of trials, that means hundreds of trials would be necessary in order to determine during exactly what percentage of searches a signal separation beacon will momentarily lose a mark/mask and/or be slow to determine the number of victims).

Unfortunately, given the deliberately shortened range on this preproduction model, I was unable to test for range issues when searching for a second beacon after focusing in on the second beacon. (See my Pulse and S1 reviews for their problems with this, although this seems to be have been resolved with the latest firmware releases for the 2009-10 season.)

How Well It Works: Being Found

The good news is that my tests show that the 3+ does indeed seem to shift its transmission from the antenna along the long axis of the housing to the antenna located along the short axis of its housing when the beacon is buried vertically. The means the transmission will never be coming from an antenna in the vertical plane, which is an advantage because the searcher will always be coming in from the horizontal plane (unless the search is via a helicopter-mounted beacon).

The bad news is that this doesn’t matter very much.

Confused? That’s okay, because this is inherently confusing. That is, just because the transmission is emanating from the same plane as the plane within which the searcher’s beacon is oriented does not entail optimal coupling alignment. When the 3+ shifts to its short axis antenna, that antenna could be perpendicular to the orientation of the searcher to the 3+ victim. My testing configuration essentially simulated this situation (along with many other possible setups). The results were that searching with a Pulse (which I used for its relatively consistent initial signal acquisition distances when running multiple trials of the same configuration) for a 3+, the range drop-off for a vertically oriented 3+ (with the front of its housing facing the searcher) was almost exactly identical to that of a horizontally yet perpendicularly oriented 3+. But that’s not much help, since the drop off in horizontal yet perpendicular configuration was already 47 percent, increasing only very slightly to 49 percent when vertical. By contrast, with an S1 as the target, the range drop-off was 36 percent when horizontal yet perpendicular and 59 percent when vertical.

If you’re obsessing about the particular figures, then don’t, because here are some numbers to throw you for even more of a loop. In this same round of testing, my default M2 target dropped off 27 percent when horizontal yet perpendicular, but only 11 percent when vertical. Furthermore, different targets can vary widely from one another in their initial signal acquisition ranges even in optimal alignment: in this round of testing, the Pulse on average detected the 3+ about seven meters before it found the M2 or S1. (This differential matches up with the only other test I’ve seen for target range variation.) But that seven-meter differential paled in comparison to how that same Pulse was detecting that same M2 about 19 meters sooner in a range test only four days earlier. Different times of day? Different nearby sources of interference? (For an extreme example of confounding variation, check out another tester’s Session #5.) Or maybe just chalk it up to luck of the draw: even in back-to-back trials (I typically conduct just three for each combination of searcher + target + orientation), initial signal acquisition can vary by over four meters.

Bottomline: the 3+ partially mitigates some of the very worst range shortening that can occur from the orientation of its buried user, but searchers will still experience large variations in initial signal acquisition when searching for a 3+ beacon.

Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?

Many kinds!

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. Even as an economist writing beacon reviews, I hesitate to offer financial predictions in this context, but I expect that in North America the 3+ will be duking it out with the Tracker 2 for marketplace dominance.

Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon

“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.”

Ortovox comparison table.

Ortovox comparison table.


Shop for avalanche beacon.

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.)


14 Responses to “Ortovox 3+ Avalanche Beacon Review – Preproduction Model”

  1. ryan March 25th, 2010 12:14 pm

    Too bad the harness search and transmit function. I always found this to be a great feature of the older ortovox beacons. You never had to worry about remembering to push a button to make sure you are transmitting. I can’t tell you how many times i have checked friends who strapped on the their trackers but forgot or incorrectly set their beacon to transmit.

  2. MB March 25th, 2010 2:13 pm

    Great initial review! For experts, who should be able to become competent using any modern three antenna device, I suspect the lower weight and smaller size will be of high interest!

    I personally like the ability to scroll (Pulse Advanced Profile) and other customizable features, but find that novice/old schoolers often find too many settings confusing. Seems like the 3+ could also be a great option for “guest” use…

  3. Jonathan Shefftz March 25th, 2010 5:36 pm

    MB, my thoughts exactly.

    Also, we should have a link up soon to some video I shot — production values are nothing to get excited about (to say the very least…), but I thought video would be helpful in demonstrating the different screen displays.

    And Tracker 2 review should be up soon. (I’ve a demo unit since November, but this review will be for the current production version.)

  4. John T March 25th, 2010 11:12 pm

    Simple is better. Even experienced backcountry skiers can get flustered when it’s their buddy under there… the simplicity of the user interface of the 3+ hearkens back to the old F2 which was nearly “panic proof”. As a geek in my professional life, I could easily be seduced by all the bells and whistles on the S1, but I think the 3+ will be the ticket for me (assuming the performance numbers turn out comparably)

  5. Nick March 26th, 2010 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the great review. The video is great – translates some of the review into a more understandable format.

  6. David Aldous March 29th, 2010 10:22 pm

    Thanks for the review. Is that LCD display backlit at all or is it just a standard LCD?

  7. Jonathan Shefftz March 30th, 2010 5:09 am

    Yes, it does have a light that helped to illuminate the screen when I went into a dark room. (I can’t remember though if the light was always on, or if it came only when it sensed dark conditions.)

  8. Jonathan Shefftz September 1st, 2010 2:50 pm

    Update: the beacon should be available at U.S. retailers by the end of this month (i.e., September).

  9. Tom November 3rd, 2010 9:40 pm

    Good review, however I am now even more torn over whether to choose the S1 or the 3+ for my new beacon. The S1 is appealing due to its range, simplicity of screen directions, and ability to update the firmware. The 3+ is appealing due to its smart antenna, and its overall simplicity. I am leaning towards the S1 but do wish it had the smart antenna technology. I feel as though the S1’s longer range and upgradable firmware out weigh the 3+’s smart antenna. The compass, thermometer, clinometer on the S1 are nice but not a factor in the decision.
    Cost aside this is still a tough decision.

  10. Lou November 4th, 2010 7:45 am

    I’d swing towards the 3+ if you’re an early adopter, as from everything I’ve seen and heard the antenna system is amazingly effective. But you know how this stuff goes, sometimes it is best to give new products a few months of vetting by the hardcore early adopters before you commit.

  11. Halsted November 12th, 2010 2:26 pm

    Check out the recent review of the Ortovox 3+ transceiver on Beaconreviews.com. They gave the 3+ a five star rating.


  12. Jonathan Shefftz November 12th, 2010 3:15 pm

    My demo unit just arrived now – will be put through the paces at this Sunday’s avalanche course, then I’ll report back on any differences from my preproduction unit.

  13. Joe D November 24th, 2010 6:04 pm

    Looking forward to your update on the 3+. I am especially interested in what you found the receiving range to be. When do you expect to publish?

  14. Jonathan Shefftz November 24th, 2010 7:57 pm

    Unfortunately I had the beacon only for the weekend, and I was too busy Saturday with prep for teaching the avy course, and then Sunday we didn’t have enough time during the beacon practice to conduct any formal range tests.
    I’m supposed to be finally getting my own beacon in a week or so. (I know, I’ve said that before, but unfortunately I haven’t been to get one for myself given the limited production so far — although oddly enough REI already has it on sale.)

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