WildSnow Beacon Reviews Intro and Index
The new for 2011-12 Pieps DSP Tour avalanche beacon combines a simple user interface with a marking/masking feature for multiple burials. Along with its big brother, the slightly pricier DSP (sans any appendage in the name), in my testing the Tour has the longest reliable range of any beacon with full directional indicators.
Overall, if you like the original DSP, but want to save ~$100, and don’t care about a couple missing functions, then this is definitely the beacon for you. The Tour is also competitive with the various offerings in its price class from other companies. Note that since the Tour is essentially the DSP without two of its buttons, throughout this review I sometimes refer to the “Tour/DSP” to indicate observations based mainly upon prior testing with the original DSP, but that I believe also apply to the new Tour model.
Interface and Controls
To switch the Tour avalanche transceiver to Transmit, depress and then slide the three-position switch on the front face of the beacon so that it’s flush with the housing. How to tell at a glance if the beacon is transmitting? Look for a light flashing through the pouch’s mesh material.
To switch to Search, depress and then slide (realistically a two-handed maneuver) that same switch even farther, so that it protrudes from the other end of the housing. To revert to Transmit, bump the end of the switch.
The search interface is simple: two-digit LCD numerical display, five LCD directional indicators, and one single button.
Firmware can be upgraded. The inaugural version (as well as the latest version for its big brother DSP) is 8.2 (as of Fall 2011).
Pieps Tour/DSP runs a sophisticated self-test upon start-up. Just be sure to keep the Tour/DSP away from another beacon during start-up, or else when it attempts to receive its own signal the amplification from an immediately adjacent antenna can cause the Tour/DSP to report an error. (The Tour/DSP will still function normally after this happens, but the error code, with the explanation available in the user manual, would be somewhat disconcerting if you don’t know the cause. This is also unlikely to occur in the field anyway, unless two users are huddled up against one another while powering on the Tour/DSP, and is something I’ve experienced only during testing when I’ve been holding multiple beacons, as opposed to turning on my beacon in the morning for an actual tour.)
Also be careful to keep any magnet away from the beacon. (Note that magnets are used in some jacket clasps, glove keepers, and professional-level two-way radios.) Although the Tour/DSP three-position switch looks mechanical, its operations are actually magnetic, and a magnet in very close proximity can switch modes. But the Tour/DSP will revert to its intended mode as soon as the magnet is removed.
How It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
Initial signal acquisition is via a combination of digitized acoustics, one or two of the five directional indicators, and distance readout.
The directional indicators disappear at 2.0 meters, and the distance readout goes down to a potential minimum of 0.1 meter. (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 greater-than-three victim symbols. The Tour 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 Tour focuses exclusively on the next-strongest signal. The only way to erase a mark is to switch the beacon out of Search mode (and into Transmit), then (quickly — for reasons that should be obvious!) back into Search.
How Well It Works: Initial Signal Acquisition > Secondary Search Phase > Final Search Phase
The Tour and DSP have the longest consistently reliable, fully directional range of any beacon on the market. What do I mean by reliable? I have run some range tests in which other beacons essentially matched the DSP when the beacons were positioned relative to each other (coupling) for the best signal. But in the opposite case the DSP has a very small range drop-off compared to other brands across many different range tests.
The third antenna eliminates all spikes and nulls in the final search phase. The distance readout usually goes down only to a 0.3 reading (instead of the 0.1 that it seems to be capable of, or the 0.0 that some other models display), but the box size is still very small at about a tenth of so of a square meter (i.e., the area over which the same distance reading will be displayed).
How Well It Works: Multiple Burials
The Tour/DSP’s marking/masking has improved significantly over its many firmware versions, and now works reasonably well. But compared to the newly abundant signal separation competition from other companies, in a close-proximity triple-burial (which I consider the toughest yet still realistic test for signal separation beacons), the victim count is not as reliable and the marking/masking button does not always take effect upon the first press.
Furthermore, although older F1 beacons can cause more persistent undercounting and/or ghosting for all signal separation beacons, the problem is more pronounced for the Tour/DSP. The Tour/DSP is supposed to display a symbol for such a beacon to indicate possible lack of confidence in the information Tour/DSP displays. Nonetheless, often when searching for an F1 I just end up with three regular victim symbols instead of one “old beacon” symbol. Then again, the Tour search function has fewer potential distractions then most of its competition, so as is often the case, it’s a matter of trade-offs and personal preference.
Most notably, the Tour/DSP performs so well in my “5-25/5-20 Walk-the-Line Test” (see my test notes for details) that it doesn’t even seem like a test at all for the Tour/DSP. Specifically, this search configuration examines whether a searching beacon is so fixated on the first close-by signal that it acquires and subsequently marks/masks that it subsequently has trouble (to various extents) finding the next, further-away signal. But not the Tour/DSP, which nearly instantly at the starting point displays two victim symbols, then after marking the first signal (albeit often requiring a second press of the button) immediately displays the direction and distance to the next, further-away signal.
Overall: To What Kind of Person Does This Beacon Appeal?
The Tour has wide appeal. For a single-burial search, it functions in a simple, straightforward matter, and the marking/masking feature has improved significantly over the years (in its DSP incarnation). The range at which full directional indicators function is impressively reliable.
Alternatively, by paying an extra ~$100 for the original DSP version, you gain a frequency tester (very useful if your partners have older beacons — which they shouldn’t, but such is the reality sometimes), a scan feature (which counts the number of transmitting beacons in three different radii and simultaneously erases any marks on those beacons), and the capability to search for the new Pieps TX600 alternative-frequency transmit-only beacon (for dogs or stashed gear).
Overall: What Thoughts Go Through My Backcountry Skiing Mind If a Partner Has This Beacon
“My partner has a very easy-to-use beacon interface, with no distractions from extra buttons or displayed messages… he will pick up my signal from a long ways away, regardless of how he holds his beacon, unaffected by any closer beacons he has already marked, and with full directional indicators… my partner had better be prepared to deal with possible slowdowns, frustrations, and ghosting during a multiple-burial scenario.”
A victim’s Tour/DSP (or Pieps Freeride) transmission can also be temporarily suppressed by the Pieps iProbe, which is essentially a probe with a miniature search beacon in its tip. The iProbe can detect the signal from any beacon, and works the same way regardless of what beacon the searcher has, or even if the searcher has any beacon at all. More, for a guided party equipped entirely with the Tour/DSP (or Pieps Freeride), a guide with an iProbe could reliably suppress any located victim’s transmission so that the signal would now effectively be marked/masked for all other searchers too. (This feature is pretty nifty to demonstrate: turn a Tour/DSP or Freeride to transmit, set up a bunch of people standing nearby with their beacons on search, press the mark/mask feature on the iProbe, then watch as all the other searchers’ beacons go silent.) Key feature though is that if the iProbe is moved away from the target beacon, then the beacon will begin to transmit again. So the victim’s signal will continue to be suppressed only so long as that iProbe is in place showing the victim’s location.
(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.)