ARE SATELLITE PHONES REQUIRED ANYMORE?

We test the  Garmin inReach  to find out if it’s time to retire the Satellite Phone

 

GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center.

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When an SOS signal is received from a satellite device on the supported networks, they notify your country to commence Search and Rescue efforts. For us Australians, this is a notification to the Australian Rescue Centre in Canberra and it’s all systems go.

 

Garmin has always been known for its satellite positioning technology, pioneering plenty of advancements in the industry. Its products predominantly lived in the adventure and fitness world, but more recently the company combined its bread-and-butter operations with two-way communications – acquiring the inReach product from DeLorne.

 

DeLorne is a company owned by the major satellite company Iridium which provides arguably the best consumer satellite communication systems in the world. When Garmin acquired the inReach brand, two new models were released under the Garmin namesake – one that comes with inbuilt topographic maps and hardware navigation aids, and one without.

 

Why release two different devices with such subtle differences? Well, such a seemingly small difference aims the product at two distinct markets: Those who need a do-it-all navigation device, such as hikers or mountain bikers; and those who simply need tracking and communications – likely to be used in conjunction with, say, a Hema navigator.

 

In both models, you get the ability to send and receive SMS via satellite; track and send your trip logs; and request SOS assistance – a real alternative to a Satellite Phone. Let’s call the one with the maps the Explorer+ and without the SE+. Respectively they will set you back $699 while the lesser is $599. Now that you know the models, let’s see what makes the product so unique.

 

 

The Unit

Fitting neatly in your palm, the unit is solid, entirely water and dust proof and relatively lightweight. In the box is a handy clip to attach to your day pack and the unit features the universal Garmin mount interface. Inside is a rechargeable lithium battery with up to 100 hours of battery life in its default logging mode. Charging is through a standard micro-USB cable.

 

The screen is made of plastic (which scratches too easily) and the button layout is simple. It’s clear the buttons were only designed for basic functions – but that’s okay – which brings me to my next point.

 

 

The App

Like it or not, everything these days is based on smart devices and if you want to play with the big boys, the integration needs to be seamless and reliable. Possibly the biggest feature over the previous models is the smartphone interface. But is it any good?

 

Well, yes! Load the ‘Earthmate’ app onto your mobile device, pair via Bluetooth and you have satellite-based SMS right from your phone. The app is able to access your contacts and send SMS from a local Australian phone number; whoever you message is able to reply straight back and you will be notified.

 

Also available in the app is access to the tracking functions, waypoints, routes and the compass – just like every other full-featured GPS navigation unit.

 

Another important (and very handy) function is the ability to obtain weather forecasts for your location, as well as multiple other locations – such as where you’re headed next. This uses the ‘Dark Sky’ service which I’ve found to be very accurate. There is also the option to obtain marine forecasts for a cost. The weather is accessible from both your phone and the unit. The app will also allow the SOS activation. But I’m probably going to use the hardware button on the side of the device if the time does come. Overall the app is well polished and something I’d be happy to rely on.

 

 

Navigation

Now if you’re a bit adventurous like me, you will probably see the unit getting a fair amount of use. As I mentioned earlier, the Explorer+ unit features the topographic maps and the hardware navigation aids come in handy when you decide to leave the fourby behind. I’m always up for a product that has more than one purpose – I’m a bit of a ‘cost per use’ kinda guy.

 

 

Safety

I mentioned the SOS button before; this is the business end. Fortunately, I haven’t needed to use the button, but they assure me it goes to Australia’s GEOS rescue centre where a search and rescue mission is launched. The differentiator of this device to others in the market is the ability for rescuers to make contact with you; thus finding out more about your situation to launch the best possible response. The simpler PLB type devices don’t allow this – and it could mean the difference between life and death.

 

 

Final thoughts

The device is tough and durable. It’s simple to use and, depending on your lifestyle, may provide more functionality in a single device than any SatPhone. The smartphone connectivity is excellent and I never had any issues… which surprised me. You will need to consider if the initial cost and subscription options (next page) suit your situation. Yes, the price is getting up there; and this is a huge consideration if a SatPhone is on your radar. Would I buy one over a SatPhone? Hell yes.

 

 

Subscription costs

You will require a subscription to use the device. They range in cost (the same as any other satellite communicator). The main differences are the included SMS messages and the tracking intervals. The good news for those of us that don’t travel all year is the ability to sign up for a month-to-month plan. Check out the Garmin website to find out what will work for you. Plans start at $20 per month.

 

 

Pros

Easy to use

Well built exterior

Excellent app

 

 

Cons

No touch screen
(we are in 2017)

LCD screen could
be much better

Limited accessories included in the box

More info: garmin.com

 

For more information: www.garmin.com/inReach

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