Garmin inReach Mini Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Small, two-way texting
Cons: Complicated to compare costs, texting on device is very slow
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Our Analysis and Test Results
Garmin makes what amounts to a revolutionary leap in miniaturization with the inReach Mini. Of course, the miniaturization comes with some compromises. The on-device texting interface, navigational attributes, and battery life all suffer just a little from the smaller size. However, given how most people use their satellite messenger, these compromises might go entirely unnoticed. The core of our testing team noticed exactly no drawbacks to the down-sized profile of the Mini. To cut the weight and bulk of a piece of equipment for human-powered adventures by half, with so few compromises that experienced users literally don't notice, is a tall order. In this case, the end result is a product that is an easy pick for our Editors' Choice award.
All the communication devices we tested can be used to summon help in the event of an emergency. The inReach Mini does so with a paid subscription. Any emergency message is routed through a for-profit call center employed by Garmin. In short, you push the "SOS" button, and a signal is sent, via satellite, to headquarters. That dispatch center now knows your location, some rudimentary identification information (which you added during registration), and that you have some sort of emergency. At this point, you need not do anything more. Dispatch will contact local resources.
If you have information about your emergency that will help rescuers respond, you can send out these details with the Mini. It requires some preplanning, and familiarity with the device and its function, but sending more nuanced information to emergency responders is possible. Short of two-way voice communications as provided by a satellite phone or radio, two-way services like the InReach products provide the best possible emergency messaging service.
Emergency messaging differences between the InReach Mini and its two-way communication competitors are subtle, but the end result is the same. You can send a "y'all come" message containing location data, and follow up with more details on your situation. These are the most sophisticated emergency notification devices available today. The SOS message sent from an InReach Mini is received and handled by GEOS Inc., a for-profit, private-sector entity that specializes in various forms of remote emergency dispatch. Interestingly, all the private-sector devices and services that we test and that offer emergency messaging employ GEOS dispatch services.
The sibling predecessor of the inReach Mini revolutionized backcountry communications with the ability to send and receive texts. The Mini continues this, just in a smaller form. Texting with the InReach device is a little different than with your smartphone (no media, and no group texts, for instance), but it is familiar enough to be easy to operate.
The two-way texting functionality of the inReach Mini is matched by only a few products on the market. Others might edge ahead with an included on-device keyboard. Otherwise, clarity and reliability are pretty consistent across the board.
Our primary request for future iterations of the Mini or app is to have text chains continue seamlessly on satellite, cellular, and wifi. Other options include this in a pretty standard fashion, so it cannot be that difficult. It is the lack of this that makes the Mini currently share its Editors' Choice award. With seamless messaging, the inReach would again top the field alone.
Garmin programs the Mini to work with the global Iridium satellite network. With patience and an understanding of the realities of all satellite communications (i.e., that steep terrain, buildings, and vegetation compromise or block all satellite signals), the Mini works all over the world.
Many other tested devices use the same Iridium network. In side-by-side testing, we didn't notice any difference in the reception of any of these devices. There was some speculation that the smaller form of the Mini (and associated smaller antenna) would result in poorer reception. In the open terrain and fairly steep valleys of Wyoming's Southern Tetons (Coal Creek, on the Teton Pass road, to be specific), the message sending capability of a handful of recently tested Iridium devices was identical. In further testing, the other Iridium-enabled devices have message transmission rates and reliability on par with the inReach devices.
Ease of Use
You pay for the smaller stature of the Mini by sacrificing some ease of use as compared to the bigger inReach devices. The Mini needs to be recharged more frequently and sending messages straight from the device is harder.
In reality, these drawbacks are minor. You have two main options for texting with the Mini (Garmin smartwatch users have another option that most do not). You can text on your phone using the Garmin app or you can text directly on the Mini device. Of these, texting with the app is far and away easier than texting on the device.
Similarly, the battery life compromise of the Mini isn't actually that big of a deal. For weekend to week-long trips, we found the 50 hours of claimed battery life to be more than enough. That is 50 hours of usage. The device turns on and off quickly, so you only burn battery when texting. On longer trips, you will likely be equipped to recharge phones and camera batteries and other electronics. In this case, you can top off the Mini too.
For those who wish to eliminate or reduce their smartphone use in the backcountry, be aware that the Mini will tie you back to that phone for contact and communications.
The Mini is so small that you need a real good reason to leave it behind on any sort of remote adventure. For even the shortest trail runs in the wild, the 4 ounces and minimal bulk are easily justified.
In a nod to the power of miniaturization, the Mini is smaller than just the batteries of the satellite communication options 15 years ago. And it does more than those outdated bricks ever dreamed of doing.
Comparing the costs of these devices is tricky. The initial purchase price is easy to compare, but that is only part of the equation. Many of the satellite communicators we test also require subscription costs, with services varying among the different devices and subscription fees. We've examined all the options and have found that the inReach Mini, over a long enough time frame, isn't actually horribly expensive. There are certainly products that come in at a lower initial price, but for what it does, no product is a better long-term value than the inReach.
If you really want to nerd out, we offer a price comparison chart in our main review.
Overall, the inReach Mini scores on top of the heap among satellite messengers and personal locator beacons. It does all the important things that any device on the market should and is one of the smallest products available. It only makes a few battery life and usability compromises, but for solid communication and custom messaging, this Editors' Choice winner has yet to be beat.
— Jediah Porter