More than 18 months after the intended launch date, Ortovox released the S1. But, it was well worth the wait. This three-antenna, digital transceiver excels in multiple burial situations and provides a new, easy-to-understand interface. Although the S1 is not perfect, it is a big step up in the evolution of transceivers, and any unit that improves your chances of survival deserves praise. Now, we need to preface the review of any transceiver with two caveats.
One, we can only test simulations. As with any real crisis, equipment can fail, and you need to rely on up-to-date training, rescue plans and backups. A transceiver does not save a life. You need to know how to use it, take avalanche safety classes, follow regional snow reports and practice rescue situations. Two, the more we test transceivers, the more we realize that they can be a matter of personal preference. The unit you have trained on the most will work the best for you.
The S1 does not look like a standard transceiver. Instead, it’s built like a cell phone or a Star Trek communicator, and you carry it on a chest holster, which is attached by a bungee string. Though it looked odd to us at first, we liked this change immediately because it was quicker to pull out the unit and start searching than it was with our other transceivers. To start a search, all we had to do was pop open the S1. It transmits when closed and the unit goes back into transmit mode even when open if there is no movement (i.e. the searcher gets stuck in a slide). It can be used with alkaline or lithium batteries.
We were told that one of the delays in releasing the S1 was making it easier to open. However, we had no problem popping it open and holding it with gloves.
The S1’s display is easy to read and intuitive. The screen shows a body (or bodies in a multiple burial), and you align an arrow on the body with a center line that bisects the screen. The distance is shown at the bottom of the screen, and it was easy to follow the display information to another buried transceiver. However, it was a bit slower than a standard transceiver unit such as the Ortovox X1, since it takes more time for the S1 to process more detailed information.
That said, the S1's three antennas made it much easier once we were close to a buried victim than units with two antennas. The two-antenna units spike when they are close to a transmitting unit and spike again when you go past the unit. The S1's third antenna eliminates this glitch. Also, though we were quicker with the X1, we gave the units to a non-experienced rescuer, and she much preferred the screen on the S1 since it provided easy-to-understand images, much like a video game.
Now, the unit truly excelled when it came to multiple burials. It homes in on the closest signal. Once you find that unit, you flag it and move on to the next. The unit will show four burials on the screen and then find more once you flag. Then, you move on to the next closest burial. The S1 was quicker and easier than standard digital transceivers when it came to finding these multiple burials quickly. We searched for five transceivers from different companies, including a 15-year-old analog Pieps. There was no problem finding any of them. We searched with units close together or far apart and got a signal from as far away as approximately 70 meters, the maximum range as advertised by Ortovox. There are studies that minimize the importance of multiple-burial searching, but as far as we are concerned, the more prepared you are for the more different situation in the backcountry, the better.
The S1 comes with a built-in digital compass, inclinometer and thermometer. Some reviewers have brushed off these features as "bells and whistles," but they are, in fact, essential to the function of the unit. The inclinometer sets off an alarm if you tilt the unit too high or low to be effective (plus, it is an important snow-assessment tool). The compass helps orientate the multiple signals and flags. Furthermore, the S1 display has a sensor that provides a backlight in the dark. It's also possible to keep up with software upgrades and evolutions using the same hardware. We have heard some complaints that “simpler is better,” but as far as we could tell, the improved technology of the S1 in fact made it simpler to use.
There were some oddities. At times, the unit simply can’t catch up to the pace of a super fast search for close multiple burials. You need to slow down for it to process, and it shows a stop sign on the screen. This made us instinctively nervous. But this may just be a matter of not being used to the new format. In other words, there may be similar glitches and stalls in our day-to-day transceiver that we are just used to at this point. But these were truly minor. When it came down to it, this was a very fast, very intuitive, very smart piece of safety equipment.
We feel we have to end by again stressing that despite all the amazing advantages of the S1, no piece of electronics makes up for training. When it comes down to it, the best transceiver is the one that you practice on the most, the one with which you are most comfortable. That said, start practicing on the S1.
SNEWS® Rating: 4.5 hands clapping (1 to 5 hands clapping possible, with 5 clapping hands representing functional and design perfection)
Suggested Retail: $499