Oct 05 2012

Review: Ortovox 3+ avalanche beacon


Ortovox 3+ avalanche transceiver with carrying case

The Ortovox 3+ is easy to use, and carries well.

The 3+ from Ortovox is a fresh breath of simplicity in the beacon world. It doesn’t go overboard with brainiac features, at least, not overtly. It doesn’t provide the directional clues of the S1, but it can still separate the various signals, only without getting confused like the first gen S1 did.

Therein lies perhaps the most compelling reason to own the 3+. It can easily distinguish between multiple signals, but it keeps its eye on the strongest signal when inside of 20 meters. Not only are you the user not being confused with multiple signals to distract you, apparently neither is the microprocessor anymore.

3+ avalanche transceiver display when searching for a signal

The 3+ traces out a grid pattern until a signal is detected.

Signal Logic
The result is that when there are more than three signals, which in the real world spells disaster, the 3+ stays single mindedly on the strongest signal. That doesn’t mean it isn’t keeping track of the others, but it keeps the clues on the display focused on one until you locate it and “mark” it, effectively masking out that signal so the next strongest one can be located.

Marking is much simpler with the 3+ too. With every other beacon, except the new S1+, marking a signal involves holding the mark button down for a length of time – how long is never consistent. But, with the 3+ it just takes one quick press of the mark button and it nails it, blotting out that signal until you switch to transmit or off.

One found, one to go, 15 meters to the left.

In the range department the 3+ is no slouch, but it isn’t winning any awards either.  On a good day it can detect signals as far as 43ish meters away, but it won’t lock on a signal reliably until it is closer to 35 meters away, at which point it might say 40. As with most beacons, distance accuracy is not a strong point until you’re within 20 meters of a beacon.

For a least-coupled signal, often a vertical burial, the range might drop to 30 meters before you pick the signal up, but then it will still give pretty accurate distance inside of 20 real meters.

Less than 2m away to victim #1, with a 2nd victim within 20m.

Once a signal is locked in, the 3+ chirps with a single beep every period until you get inside of 20 m. In a noisy environment you might have trouble hearing it. From there it beeps twice, then three fast beeps every period down to 5 meters. When you’re in this close the beeps increase until they roll together.

Smart Antenna Technology
The 3+ is the first beacon to offer something from the transmit side to improve the speed of being found by choosing whichever of two antennas is the most horizontal. Theoretically it increases the odds that the transmit and receive antennas will be optimally coupled resulting in a strong signal. It will definitely help as long as the buried beacon is on a low angle slope, which the toe of most avalanches are.

Signal bars on the display pulse up and down when transmitting.

LCD Display
The display of the 3+ is simple, and intuitive. It shows distance numbers and a directional arrow on an LCD display. There’s a backlight for low light conditions, and it reads well in direct sunlight. Arrows and distance are replaced by a circle that shrinks as you get closer, or expands when you pull away with the distance inside the circle.

It also provides a set of error codes when it first turns on, but you need the manual to understand what they mean. As long as it switches to a pair of pulsing bars in the lower half you’re good. To check a companion’s beacon, hold down the mark button while turning it on. It will show two zeros if a beacon within 1 m is operating correctly. If no transmitter is detected within 1m, two dashes (“- -”) are displayed.

About the only thing that confuses the 3+ is the same thing that confuses nearly every other beacon – one of those simple analog beacons with a long, ragged pulse that routinely jams the signals of other beacons and confuses the searching transceiver. In that case, response time gets even slower, or has more aberrant displays that can confuse the user. No worse than other digital beacons, and arguably less confused by that situation since the most common source of such a signal is the granddaddy of avalanche beacons, the Ortovox F1. Maybe there’s a genetic understanding between the two. ;)

A sleeve tucks in the back of the carrying pouch, then inverts to swallow the beacon and straps for an uncluttered package ready to be stashed until the next tour.

It is no problem if an old analog beeper is the only signal, or if it is more than 20 meters away from any other signal. Of course, searching for a single beacon is a piece of cake. The 3+ plus handles two signals with equal applomb, and things don’t get challenging at all until there are three, and in this situation the variability that enters can’t be consistently described. As long as you can remain as calm in a real situation as you can in a practice search, 3 or more signals should be no problem. (Good luck with that at the front line.) More than three? The display will indicate that with a 4+ next to the 3 victim icons.

As ever, Ortovox provides a shoulder sling harness that is easy to wear, with a back pocket on the beacon pouch for stuffing the straps when you’re stashing it in your pack between tours. You’ll use that more than the search function and be thankful for such a simple convenience. The beacon is tethered with an elastic cord to the harness pouch, and the cover is a mesh so you can see the pulsing display to know if it is on.

S/W Updates
As with most modern digital beacons the software can be updated. Ideally this won’t be necessary but as history has shown, there can be advantages to upgrading once a year.

If you’re in the market for a new beacon, this is the best of the bunch from Ortovox. Accurate readings, decent range, with excellent signal separation and superior marking and it does all this with only one AA battery. Not shabby at all.

MSRP: $350
Weight: 7 oz. (198 g)
ePower: Single AA alkaline battery

© 2012