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Hands-on Gear Review
Ortovox S1+ Review
Cons: More experienced users will have to slightly retrain themselves, expensive.
The Ortovox S1+ is one of the most technically advanced avalanche beacons on the market but it still has a few quirks and it takes a little longer to get used to the interface than more basic options. It was one of our higher performing products in nearly every category and was also fairly easy to use. However, it is different than all other contenders on the market because it doesn't follow flux lines in a conventional way and has more features and options than almost any other product out there. This is where some people have a hard time both because it feels different than any others they have used and typically the S1+ is more complex. The S1+ is easy to use for basic functions, searching and sending; but going through the icon based menu was sometimes more challenging than we expected. The S1+ was one of our top scorers for speed at finding a single victim or multiple victims and had a wonderful display for these features similar to a older style video game. We did notice that with the S1+ we had to move marginally slower than with some of the other top scoring products. While it is expensive, it is not that much more than its competitors.
The overall maximum range is among the best we tested, which allows large search strip widths. Its closest competitors are the Pieps DSP Pro and Mammut Pulse Barryvox. It is similar to both. In choosing between the three, it comes down to if you are comfortable with the more advanced digital display of the S1 or prefer a more standard display. Some of our testers (especially those with more experience) were more skeptical at first because the S1+ looks for victims and assists you in finding your victim in a totally different way. Unlike all other models we've ever used, the S1 doesn't assist you with directional arrows to help you stay on a flux line to find your victim in a traditional way. Instead it uses "sensors" (hence the name S1) and calculates distances and angles of the flux lines and takes you straight to the victim. You just line the body icon on the screen up in your "sights" and walk. If you are only doing a few trips a year, this product might be a little too complex and maybe not be for you, but for intermediate to advanced users the S1+ has plenty to offer and with a little practice can be super fast.
RELATED: Our complete review of avalanche beacons
Analysis and Hands-on Test Findings
What Sets The S1+ Apart
We consider the S1+ a potential game changer like the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS was years ago. The Tracker was the first digital beacon and way easier to use than the competition of the time. Fast forward to today – the S1+ similarly stands out with new technology that is likely to be the way of the future. How the S1+ works is, it still uses flux lines and the same 457Khz frequency that everyone else uses but instead of traditional beacons that use a directional arrow to help the user stay on the flux line, the S1+ instead uses sensors and calculation to located the buried beacon, and display it using a body icon on the screen which then the users just lines up in the hash marks and walks straight to. This display's superiority is even more obvious in multiple burials where the S1+ gives a "lay of the land" type view, where the user can see each buried victim on the screen at the same time, each with its own distance number and different sized icon to help differentiate the closer and farther victims. That said, Ortovox has had some issues with its software and we feel it isn't quite there yet, but each year it gets significantly better. We do think that maybe one day it's possible that all beacons will be like this: three antennae and able to take you straight to the victim without having to follow the flux line in the traditional way.
The Ortovox S1+ has one of the better overall maximum ranges among products available on the market today and has a maximum range around the mid 50 meter range. The S1+ along with the Pieps DSP Pro had the second longest ranges for a digital beacon and where both around 3-4 meters less range than the Mammut Pulse Barryvox, which we didn't think was a big deal. The S1+ did have better range than all the others we tested. The new S1+ has 5-7 more meters of range than the older S1. The S1+ also has an analog mode but we thought that this feature only added around 10 meters of range and required more skill than it was worth.
Ease of Finding a Single Victim
In some ways this is the most user friendly beacon we tested. It is the only one that takes you straight to the victim. You don't follow flux lines (so you do not have to "spiral" in), a system that all other beacons use. Instead of displaying directional arrows and distance, the S1 shows the victim(s) on a map. It almost feels like a basic video game – line the victim up in the sights and make the distance numbers get smaller.
Ease of Use in the Fine Search
The Fine search is the bracketing portion of the search, for our tests we included the last 5m as well in our findings here. Searching for one victim with the S1+ in the fine search is easy and intuitive, its really like a old school video game, just line the body up in the sites. We thought this was incredibly easy to use but we couldn't move quite as quickly as the Pieps DSP Pro, the Mammut Pulse Barryvox or the Tracker 2. It wasn't a big difference but it was noticeable.
Ease of Use in Multiple Burial Situations
In our tests, whether in the hands of a professional guide or a backcountry novice, the S1+ preformed near the top in our mutliple burial tests because of their "lay of the land" style display". Multiples are where the S1+ technology really excels because pf the S1+'s ability to show the user where all the beacons are in relation to each other rather than just displaying distance numbers. It shows up to three victims with the distances displayed under each victim, which is by far the easiest model to interpret for multiple burial searches. You can then hide the victims you are not searching for and later unhide them. The processing speed was a little slower than the Backcountry Access Tracker 2, Pieps DPS and the Mammut Barryvox Pulse but not by a lot.
Smart Antenna Technology
New for 2011, the S1 became the S1+. The + is just a feature that the Ortovox 3+ already had and now is featured in the S1+. The + is the transmitting antenna and affects only the transmit mode and has no effect on the beacon's search abilities. It basically chooses which is the better antenna to transmit from, thus giving the wearer a better chance to be found. Kinda sweet.
Revert to Send Mode
The S1+ has a revert to send mode, so that in the event that you are hit by a second avalanche while searching, your beacon will eventually switch back over. While there is some debate as to the level of usefulness of this feature because of the odds that it will still be with you, it is for some people, an important feature. What's nice with the S1+ is that this is an optional feature that can be turned on or off. If the function is on, it can be adjusted to Revert to send in 30, 60, or 120 seconds of no movement.
The S1+ like several other higher end contenders on the market today, has updatable software. You either have to do this in a retail store or mail it in for a small fee. Updating the software is important as there were some early problems with coarse search.
The S1+ has a built in inclinometer. This is a cool feature we often find ourselves using and recommending to AIARE Level 1 students to help devolve a better eye for guessing slope angle, but we don't know if we love the idea of always taking it out to measure slopes.
The S1+ has a group check mode similar to the Barryvox Pulse's group check mode and a typical function check preformed by most backcountry recreationalists every time they go out. The S1+'s group check goes one step further, beyond the typical tests of making sure everyones beacons can send and search the S1+ also checks the other beacons' transmission frequencies to see if they have suffered any frequency drift similar to the Pieps DSP Pro's function.
Comfort to Carry
The Ortovox S1+ has our favorite harness system among all the products we tested. It is very comfortable and well labeled making it easy to put on. While we liked several other of the harness systems including the Mammut Pulse Barryvox, we thought the S1+ was the best. If you are someone who likes to carry their beacon in a zippered pant pocket then the S1+ is good but not excellent. Its "flip phone" style closure is a little thicker than others but surprisingly not by much and isn't as articled as some of the other options out there.
While this beacon is very easy to use, it does have a longer learning curve than most because it is quite different. This learning curve occasionally results in seasoned veterans finding it "weird" at first. There are many different icons and instructions that are mostly intuitive, but some require reading the user manual to figure out. Plan on a little extra time to get comfortable with its menus and icons before using it.
We also noticed that this beacon is a little slower under three meters and we felt it was a little slower than many other triple antennae designs during the "bracketing" phase of the search.
It does not automatically turn on when you clip the waist strap. This means you have to remember to turn it to transmit mode. Not a big downside but it would be nice if the auto feature was restored (it was in past models).
There have been some problems reported when searching at the maximum of the coarse search range. The beacon will point you away from the victim until you are out of range.
Ortovox S1+ versus The Mammut Pulse Barryvox
The Ortovox S1+ is like no other product, but if you where to compare it to another contender it would be the Mammut Pulse Barryvox. Like the Pulse Barryvox the S1+ has a pile of features and functions with several options on most. Being able to interpret what's best for you takes some time and experience and while the basic functions of both are well designed and easy to understand they have so many other things, that more experienced users will get the most out of them.
At nearly $500 the S1+ is one of the more expensive options on the market. The S1+ does have new avalanche beacon technology and like any new technology it is almost always more expensive, though the S1+ has steadily been coming down in price. When the S1+ first came out it was closer to the $600-$650 range and now it retails for around $500. So while it costs more than a lot of other more basic models the S1+ certainly serves up a lot of features and technology for the extra cash.
The Ortovox S1+ is a super capable beacon that's not for everyone. This is where the S1+ really is unique, because in some ways it's super easy to use and really intuitive, while searching for victims it can make more sense to beginners as well as seasoned veterans. On the flip side the layout and the shear volume of features make it harder to get completely dialed.
— Chris McNamara and Ian Nicholson
OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews
Most recent review: December 31, 2013
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