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Ortovox Diract Avalanche Transceiver News

Ortovox preannounced the Diract and Diract Voice transceivers in January, 2021. The only differences between these two models are the addition of verbal instructions and the colors. Ortovox provided Jonathan Shefftz with preproduction transceivers for one week. This article summarizes his initial impressions of these transceivers.

BeaconReviews does not review avalanche transceivers that have not been released to the public, because there have been numerous cases of manufactures announcing new transceivers years before they are released. Consider this a sneak-peek rather than a full review.

Disclaimer

Almost all my previous beacon evaluations have been conducted for units that I personally owned, or – more rarely – that were long-term loaners of production models. By contrast, this was for preproduction samples, labeled as Sample and with preproduction firmware (version 0.6, which oddly enough seems to appear only upon shutdown, not startup).

We were cautioned not to use the units for any real touring in avalanche terrain given their preproduction status, and warned that we might see some error messages. I did see "SEND Function Disrupted" several times, but that might have been caused by placing multiple units in transmit mode very close to each other.

My evaluation timeframe was very limited—I was only able to use these transceivers for five days before returning them.

My evaluation was first conducted indoors for the harness and ergonomics, then on snow at a ski resort's magic carpet slope to observe a less-experienced partner's reaction to the beacon, and finally in my backyard (snowless, alas) for some follow-up tests.

I also received from Ortovox some schwag, with a retail value in the low two hundreds. (And those merino wool base layers sure are nice!) I did not though receive a user manual, but my standard protocol is to test a beacon first without reading the user manual, as an additional evaluation of the intuitive nature of the design.

Verbal Instructions

Although I find the "Diract" series name somewhat unappealing, the "Voice" appendage to the flagship model is perfectly appropriate: it talks to you! (In nine different languages!)

This has four potential advantages:

  1. The searcher need not be so fixated on the screen that visual clues on the snow surface are overlooked. Many avalanche victims whose airways are critically buried nevertheless have a limb still visible above the snow surface. And such clues really have been overlooked in real searches.
  2. When flipping back from Search back to Send, the beacon says "Send Activated," which is a very helpful warning, as many real searches have been botched by one would-be searcher inadvertently wandering about all unawares in Send. However, the beacon did does not say anything like "Search Activated," which I would have liked to hear (even before the instruction to run along the search strip widths).
  3. The beacon says many of the same things I say to my students when teaching avalanche safety classes! Especially helpful were to the instructions to Run when appropriate at first, then eventually to Get Down To The Snow Surface. Another favorite, once within the final three-meter search phase yet then having gone far outside that range was You Were Closer announced in a synthesized tone that sure sounded like it contained some combination of disappointment and admonishment. (Although that might have been my imagination!) Kind of like having a coach right there by your side, telling you what to do (or even what you did wrong).
  4. Ortovox's marketing material includes statements from a consulting psychologist that voice instructions are calming in a panic situation. Obviously, the verification of this claim is far beyond both the scope of my expertise and the extent of my evaluation.

Overall, I found that the verbal instructions matched up well with the visual display. And the "Turn Around" command wisely has a deliberate distance lag built into it so that the searcher is not getting constantly turned around.

As for the effectiveness of adding verbal instructions to the visual display, my less-experienced tester found that feature very helpful. For me personally, being so "into" beacons, I already feel like any beacon is talking to me. Perhaps with more use I would appreciate the verbal instructions more, but based on my brief evaluation I found them neither distracting nor enhancing – and to emphasize, that is just for me, personally.

Searching Basics

Other than the use of voice, the search functionality is identical in the Diract and Diract Voice.

The switch into Search is one of my favorites ever, an orange tab that is kind of flipped out and rotated forward so that it obviously protrudes out, pointing forward with SEARCH and an arrow. My testing partner took a couple minutes to figure this out, trying at first to manipulate it in pretty much every possible way except the intended way. Although once used, it should immediately become memorable for any user.

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Barryvox

I did not have time to thoroughly test the initial signal acquisition range. But when my partner was using his own BCA Tracker3 and I was using a Diract, we were consistently tied almost exactly, with the two target beacons randomly oriented. So on the shorter end of the spectrum for sure. And just visually, I was a lot further away from the target that I would like to be. I followed this up with an inline target, comparing a Diract versus a Mammut Barryvox S, which probably has the longest such range on the market. In this informal test, but over several trials, the Barryvox S always locked onto a consistent signal at roughly twice the range of the Diract.

Directional indication for the Diract was excellent, via a rotating arrow, as opposed to the more typical fixed number of arrows pointing off a various angles. Although I did not have enough time to examine the display capabilities in detail, the full LCD display seemed roughly comparable with the market-leading display of the Barryvox S.

By contrast with the directional indicators, distance indication was less impressive. The numbers consistently went down at first, but then jumped from a little under seven meters directly down to a little over three meters, with no intervening distance readouts. This jumpy performance was repeated over many trials, even at a very slow walking pace, far slower than a searcher should be walking in a real search.

Once in the fine search , the distance indicators worked perfectly for me. And the signal suppression feature worked flawlessly each and every time I used it. And no ghosting, even though one of the two targets was an ancient Ortovox F1, notorious for its continuous carrier signal.

But once the first beacon's signal was suppressed, the second signal took a long time to be found. Perhaps only several seconds, but the lag was disconcerting, and could lead to searcher confusion. And the lag was always there on each search.

Controls

The On/Off control is a small membrane-style button, deliberately (I think?) somewhat difficult to access, which strikes me as a sound design. At first, I thought the unit was not charged up since it would not power up. But then I realized that the button is press-and-hold, not just press. My recruited tester had the same initial confusion. That should immediately become memorable for any user. But for a searcher trying to turn off the beacon of a victim who has already been found and extricated, perhaps not so obvious.

The other selectable functions are activated by a prominent membrane-style button in the front, which is used for signal suppression too. For signal suppression, the button functions with a quick press. But for functions like the Group Check and Standby mode (i.e., On, but in neither Send nor Search), it's press-and-hold, with a circular graphic counting down the remaining seconds until the function is activated.

The automated switchover from Search to Send employs a new feature. To review, the first beacon models to employ an automated switchover relied on a simple time algorithm, i.e., if you're still in Search after X minutes, you probably have been buried by a secondary avalanche (or else you're the world's worst searcher), so the beacon would switch back into Send. Improvements since then among various models have included a motion sensor to sense if you have been standing still for some number of minutes (once again an indication that you have been buried by a secondary avalanche, or else you're the world's laziest searcher), and whether or not you've pressed any function keys. Ortovox's twist is to add a light sensor to the screen, so that if you switch to Search, but now the beacon screen is enveloped in darkness, that's a pretty good indication that you have been buried by a secondary avalanche (unless you have tucked the until back into the pouch while still in Search, in which case you're once again vying for the status of the world's worst searcher).

And speaking of being buried, both models continue Ortovox's ability to switch transmission antennas, so as to avoid transmission in the worst-case vertical orientation. However, if the beacon is buried in the horizontal plane, then the beacon has no way of determining which antenna is pointing more directly toward the searching party. So although this feature is potentially useful in avoiding a worst-case vertical transmission, it is unable to sense what the best-case transmission antenna would be in a horizontal burial.

Harness

Both of the Diract series models have a nicely rounded off rectangular shape, with effectively grippy rubber on the sides. Both have a mainly blue front to the housing, with some orange accents, then either a gray or black secondary color. Other than that, and the model name, the units appear identical to each other.

The harnesses are also identical, a typical tethered-pouch design, but with a very clever Velcro flap closure that opening pull up also pulls out the beacon. (Somewhat ironically, when trying to think back to where I had experienced a somewhat similar design, I started setting up some target beacons, and remembered that Pieps DSP Pro and Sport used a ribbon for the same effect to remove batteries from their compartment.)

A RECCO reflector is also integrated into a harness strap. Rescuers who might be involved in a RECCO search should know if they have a reflector, so it doesn't confuse a fellow rescuer performing a RECCO search.

The clip design strikes me though as reversed: sewn into the harness, so it cannot be used to clip the beacon onto a belt buckle or zipper when carried inside a pocket. Affixing some random little clip onto the beacon lanyard would of course be a trivial addition, but I was puzzled at this reversal of the typical design.

The Velcro pouch closure could also be improved by increase the portion of the non-Velcro portion of the tap closure, as the relatively small extension could be difficult to grasp with bulky winter handwear.

Battery

Uniquely, the power source is an internal battery that rechargeable via a USB-C port, which is also the means for firmware updates. Given that the battery life meets at least the official spec and is claimed to be optimized for colder temperatures, I suspect that a typical user could go an entire season without recharging. And if you are off on your month-long ski mountaineering expedition to Whereveristan, you probably already have all manner of USB cables and solar chargers for your various devices. So although unique for beacons, this strikes me as a strength. (Unless you'll really miss the annual ritual of removing batteries from your beacons, less the corrosion from one dollar worth of batteries ruins a ~$400 beacon.)

Conclusion

The Diract model, sans nomenclature appendage, looks to be a competitive baseline beacon model, albeit in a field of many such competent models. Strengths include the internal rechargeable battery, a quick-removal harness design, and a streamlined yet highly effective user interface with an excellent display. Drawbacks based on my brief evaluation include some aspects of searching that are inferior to competitors (although that could be improved in the final production firmware), i.e., short initial signal acquisition range, sudden drop-off in distance indicators from from around seven meters to three meters, and a noticeable lag to lock onto a second signal after suppressing the first signal.

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BD Recon BT

The Diract Voice model is identical to the baseline Diract but with the addition of the verbal instructions. For someone like myself, who is really "into" beacons, based on my brief evaluation, I did not find the verbal instructions to be a feature sufficiently compelling for me to plan on using this model for my personal touring over other beacons in my personal quiver.

However, for more typical recreationalists, based on my instruction over many years at avalanche safety courses, and based on my observation of a less-practice touring partner trying the Diract Voice, I think this model could make a major difference in many searches by eliminating all-too-common errors. Even just the two phrases of Get Down To The Snow Surface and You Were Closer have the potential to save lives. Therefore, I highly recommend that any recreationalist in the market for a new beacon should seriously consider the Diract Voice once available.

The irony of sorts though is that the Diract Voice will be priced toward the higher end of the range, which is a price point typically occupied by more feature-rich models that appeal to professionals. But all of these price differentials among competing models are relatively small. I hope that the higher price of the Diract Voice will not be a financial deterrent for the target audience who could greatly benefit from its verbal instructions.

Jonathan Shefftz