I’ve got several gear-related posts planned this week, and this morning I’ll kick it off with a big announcement from Garmin International, the company that invented the first GPS dog-tracking system back in 2007, and in the process completely revolutionized the sport for many gundog owners and houndsmen. The Astro has been wildly successful, but in 2011 e-collar manufacturer SportDOG really upped the ante with the introduction of the world’s first combination GPS tracking e-collar, the TEK 1.0, something for which many hunters had been agitating.

But with Garmin’s subsequent acquisition of e-collar manufacturer Tri-Tronics, it was clear the company wasn’t going to rest on the laurels of the Astro’s success. The engineers have been busy, very busy, in the depths of the Garmin skunkworks, and this morning the company rolled out its own combination GPS/e-collar, the Alpha.

From the company’s press release: Garmin International Inc., the global leader in satellite navigation, today announced Alpha, a fully-integrated tracking and training system for hunters and their canine companions. “The Alpha GPS Track and Train system for sporting dogs is the result of our collaboration with Tri-Tronics®. Little more than a year after joining forces, we’re now able to offer the sporting dog world a no-excuses system that offers the best of both worlds: robust GPS tracking with built-in topo maps from Garmin and proven electronic correction from Tri-Tronics,” said Dan Bartel, Garmin’s vice president of worldwide sales. “And the Alpha is packed with great new features that make it completely unlike anything else on the market.”

What are some of those features? Well, the first thing that stands out is (Attention, Smartphone Nation!) the three-inch, glove-friendly, sunlight-readable touchscreen user interface, which is a departure from the button-based Astro. Ted Gartner, Garmin’s Director of Corporate Communications, tells me they went with a touchscreen display because so many people are familiar with them. It also offers the user a clean, uncluttered design.

There are, however, three dedicated buttons across the top of the Alpha. Those are your stimulation buttons, so if you need to make a correction right away, you can.

“The Alpha’s touchscreen presents the user with the information they need, while eliminating the “button clutter” that can be confusing. With everyone moving to smartphones, the touchscreen interface made a lot of sense. And the three dedicated buttons across the top make it easy to correct your dog at any time,” says Gartner.

The Alpha is waterproof, of course, with a nine mile range and the ability to track and train as many as 20 dogs. However, there are two really interesting features to the Alpha that separates it from other GPS/e-collars. One is its mapping capabilities. That’s a big plus for knowing where you’re going and what you’re going into.

“Garmin’s mapping capability has been an important feature on our Astro, and we’ve taken it a step further with the Alpha by pre-loading 100k topo maps of the entire United States. With topo maps, hunters not only know where their dog is, but they can see features like creeks, roads, trails, and ridgelines,” says Gartner.

The other cool feature is (Attention, Texting Nation!) is a function called “Buddy Tracker” that allows a party of hunters carrying Alphas to track not only their dogs, but each other, a pretty nifty feature. Not only that, they can send each other a variety of pre-selected messages like “help”, “come here”, “nice shot” or “you suck.” OK, so maybe that last one was a lie, but the ability to know where your partners and their dogs are can be a really useful function.

The Alpha’s dog tracker page will be familiar to Astro users. It features a three-axis compass, with color-coded arrows that indicate the direction and distance of each dog. And whenever a dog trees quarry or goes on point, the Alpha can give an audible or vibration alert. You can configure the collar to update every 2.5 seconds (versus the Astro’s 5 seconds), which is good for 24 hours of battery life when fully charged, or you can reduce the update rate to save juice. Overall battery life is improved over the Astro.

Two other features of the new TT 10 collar are a battery-saving “rescue mode,” which the collar automatically switches into when battery life goes under 25 percent, and an LED beacon that can be seen up to 100 yards away (houndsmen will like that feature). Another subtle but really useful feature of the Alpha’s dog tracking page is the dog direction pointer. Not only does the compass show you where your dog is in relation to you, but it also shows what direction the dog is running, which can be very useful in determining whether to give a correction.

The e-collar part of the Alpha is, of course, all Tri-Tronics and completely customizable. You can configure the stimulation and tone levels, change stim levels on the fly, and the most important thing is, you can give a correction at any time, from any screen.

As far as compatibility, because it’s a completely new product, the Alpha does not communicate with previous Garmin or Tri-Tronics products. It doesn’t interfere with any other product, so if you’re using an Astro and your buddy has a new Alpha there won’t be any interference issues, but you can’t synch your DC-40 collar to the Alpha, and you can’t use the TT 10 collar with your Astro 320, which reinforces the fact that this thing isn’t just an Astro slapped together with a Tri-Tronics collar and rushed to market. It’s a completely new product that, at least judging by the design and feature set, Garmin put considerable time and thought into.

I’m no engineer, but I suspect it’s tough creating something that combines all the functionality of the Astro, adds some nifty new features, and then on top of that, adds the capabilities of a top-of-the-line Tri-Tronics e-collar to the mix. It’s even tougher making sure the unit is easy for technology-challenged dunderheads like me to understand and operate. I haven’t had the chance to actually try out an Alpha yet, but when I do we’ll know definitively whether Garmin hit the mark for ease-of-use. If I can do it, then trust me, your average banana slug can do it.

Now what about price? Retail on the Alpha Track and Train system with one collar is $799.99. Extra collars for multiple dogs will cost you $299.99. It ‘aint cheap, but neither is a dog, and if you’re already running an Astro/separate e-collar set-up, you’ll just have to do your own cost/benefit analysis to determine whether the upgrade is worth it to you. But if you’re in the market for both a GPS tracker and an e-collar, then the cost of the Alpha is actually considerably cheaper than the comparable Astro and Tri-Tronics products purchased separately.

Look for a full review of the Alpha in the not-too-distant future, but if you just can’t wait, you can pre-order it right now at places like Gundog Supply.