It has been said that the advent of GPS and mobile communications have had the effect to remove the true essence of adventure from our travels and wanderings. However, from my perspective, enhanced communication can have the opposite effect, where you can proceed with the assurance that contact with the outside world can be maintained. Adventure is generally defined as to engage in hazardous and exciting activity, typically involving the exploration of unknown territory, with at times, uncertain outcome. Critics will argue that tools such using satellite communication put more inexperienced people into harms way with a false sense of security allowing you to carry a tool to fall back on where you might not have proceeded before without a “bailout” option. This debate could fill volumes and is not the focus of my post, but the actual general use and operation of the latest DeLorme inReach models is.
Mt Garibaldi, Dalton Dome and Atwell Peak in all their glory.
At least two models have preceded the Explorer and the biggest differing feature of the Explorer vs the inReach SE is the GPS function internal to the handheld.
First off, the overall build quality and assembly.
In comparing with the current standard for electronics design and assembly, the inReach gets poor marks. It proudly advertises the fact that it is designed and manufactured in the USA but I find a few shortcomings.
Materials: The housing is of what feels like much cheaper, more brittle plastic then what you may find on other outdoor electronic devices. The plastic clip on the back, meant to attach the device to a belt, straps or whatever seems dodgy and I would not trust a $400+ device hanging of a $0.02 poorly formed plastic clip. The Micro USB cover is a combination of a plastic out cover and a rubber grommet that fits over the USB connection to provide a level of protection, I would hesitate to call this waterproof. The cover does not clip positively and you have to fiddle with it to get it set. The overall size is about the same as Garmin GPS Map 64 or an old generation cell phone. Still small and light enough to be unobtrusive in your pocket.
Dicey Pocket Clip Removed.
Micro USB Cover.
Buttons: There are four buttons including the X, Check, SOS and a four way keypad. The SOS button is hard plastic that is locked by a sliding switch. The other keys are soft rubber with recessed graphics that give a soft click when pressed. There is an acknowledgement for powering on (or off) the device to prevent inadvertent activation since the rubber buttons sit proud of the front face and are very easy to press.
DeLorme advertises the waterproofness and durability with (IP67: 1 meter for 30 minutes) and (Mil-STD-810G for shock) respectively. The mill standard is given as a general standard, after some research, I found the specific test is 516.6. I will digress a bit here because I find this test interesting, digging further, the test method is defined as:
“The floor of the drop zone is two inches of plywood over concrete, which was determined to be the most common surface a device was likely to land on. Testers drop the device from a height of 4 feet on each of its six faces, 12 edges and eight corners, for a total of 26 drops”
First off..who the heck would be dropping this onto Plywood? A useless test, concrete directly and stone would be the most real world testing, so take these test passes with a grain of salt for electronic devices since we all know that usually a drop onto a real world surface for electronics is most often crippling…Hang onto your electronics.
Battery: The inReach uses an internal, non-removable Lithium Ion battery rechargeable through the micro USB slot on the side of the unit. The battery is spec’d at 2450 mAh (milli-Amp-Hours). Battery life will vary wildly depending on usage and screen brightness. I had one trip of around 4 hours of steady on, no GPS tracking but sending and receiving 4 messages and the battery indicator only went down 1 percent, much like a full gauge on a car, I find these gauges seem to go faster through the bottom half of the fuel than the top half. DeLorme states a 100 hr life with a certain tracking function to give a guideline. with basic message functions, I would assume the life would be much longer. Once plugged into a charger, it states the time it will take to reach a full charge, a nice feature.
Screen: The screen measured 1-3/8″ x 1-1/8″ and is reminiscent of first generation GPS technology of about 20 years ago. This is a serious lag in the visuals department. I have a feeling that DeLorme has decided that the vast amount of users would be paring this unit via Bluetooth to a smartphone so they have decided for that reason and price, energy use and space to use a tiny screen with basic resolution. Brightness is adjustable in 25% increments and at 100% the screen is easily readable in direct sunlight. I don’t like having to juggle two devices so a better screen would be welcome.
Input/Output Connections: Besides the obvious USB port used for charging and wired data transfer, there is an array of 4 contacts on the back of the unit under the removable pocket clip. These are not mentioned in the user manual and are likely the battery charge contacts for the RAM mount accessories.
Back of the unit showing a basic usage guide and the four contacts.
Functionality: I have to remind myself that the main function of this device is a two way satellite based communicator that works all over the globe with 100% coverage. While I obviously cannot attest that it actually works in 100% of locations on the globe I do know that 2-way communication works all down the west coast of North America down to Baja. I’ll get the GPS discussion out of the way first, the extra GPS functionality on the handheld alone is basically useless except for general trip details (not customizable) and a rudimentary relative position map and compass. There is not even a way to export your saved tracklog to external devices…You can save waypoints etc, which can display a grid reference and elevation data. I could only get the stated GPS accuracy to around 35 m. From what I can tell, the unit only uses the Iridium network for position data and not the US Military based or GLONAS system for GPS which provide much higher accuracy and reliability when navigating. The accuracy may not be with the satellite constellation, but may just be with the inReach GPS chipset… Normally with high sensitivity GPS units I can easily get a fix while indoors and under any sort of cover outside, they have evolved to be extremely reliable, the inReach is not this accurate or reliable in the GPS Nav department, it is generations behind…
2 way Communication: This is the absolute main and only reason that I purchased this unit. There are basic visual indicators that show you whether you have a strong or weak satellite fix (labelled as 2D or 2D) as well as a message indicator and a transmission indicator. navigating menus is reasonably straightforward and the layout is not customizable here either. In testing in mountain terrain, the messages seemed to send within a minute and received reply messages without issue. I did not test in deep cover of a ravine or thick forest canopy, but based on my experience with higher sensitivity GPS only units, I would take a guess that the inReach would likely take longer to send/receive in that terrain. You are allowed 160 characters per message and that seems to be plenty when communicating. Obviously not multimedia or other data can be sent, just text and position information. I have not had a chance to use the tracking function which serves to automatically upload your position data at preset intervals.
You receive an inReach email address that people can email you directly to in the formal firstname.lastname@example.org, you can text to phone numbers or message to emails.
Text is input via a non-QWERTY keyboard where you have to scroll through each letter. There is a predictive word function in the programming much like old style cell phones where it guesses the word after the first couple letters and you can hit a shortcut to save some key strokes. This seemed to work well. I could not tell if it “learned” common words you used or if it was stuck to its original programming…
Paired with a smartphone, typing is much faster and the Earthmate app lets you download some maps to your smartphone as well as operate the tracking and SOS functions. The Earthmate maps are nowhere near as good as some other products out there and the first thing I looked at had a mountain I frequent often mislabeled…
All in all, I would recommend this device for 2-way text communication over most other devices but it does not have much competition, I would however recommend to get the inReach SE over the Explorer for $150 less if you have other means for trip data tracking such as a dedicated GPS or a weatherproof smartphone. Check the Garmin GPS map 64s review on this blog.
Weakpoints: Overall housing material quality, Poor quality pocket clip, Small screen size and resolution, Low GPS accuracy/reliability, Earthmate app Maps are not accurate.
Strengths: One of the best (only?) 2-way texting device, Basic intended communication functions are done very well.