Hunting Dog Gear: The Garmin Alpha GPS/E-Collar System, Part II
I’ve been able to use the Garmin Tri-Tronics Alpha for a few weeks now, both in the field (albeit in...
I’ve been able to use the Garmin Tri-Tronics Alpha for a few weeks now, both in the field (albeit in a somewhat limited fashion) and running the dogs at home, and while I’m not familiar enough with the unit to give a definitive review of all its capabilities, I can offer a few thoughts on what I think of it so far. I can say that I have become comfortable enough with using it that I have packed away the Astro and will be using the Alpha by itself once quail and pheasant seasons open up here in Oklahoma and Kansas, and for a bumbling, anti-change technophobe such as myself, the fact that I’ve (sort of) caught on quickly to the Alpha’s basic functions reflects fairly well on its Joe-average usability.
If you want a thorough breakdown on all the Alpha’s capabilities, I recommend Steve Snell’s overview of the Alpha over on gundogsupply.com. Steve, who has more bird dogs than most pro trainers, was one of Garmin’s beta testers for the Alpha and knows it inside and out. These are simply the initial thoughts of a first-time user with basic (some would say non-existent) technical acumen.
When you turn the Alpha on, this is what you get: a screen with a maps icon on the upper left, a compass icon on the upper right, and the setup, mark, new hunt and dog list icons below. The setup icon is where you, obviously, set up your unit. Press the button, and you get a menu for the system settings, dogs, tones, maps, tracks, etc. The training icon allows you to set stimulation types, base levels, change the function of the training buttons above the screen, etc. I had no issues whatsoever figuring out how to change stim levels on my dog, or how to configure the buttons.
Touch the mark button and you’re presented with a list of options to tag for your present location. “Covey” is the one I use the most, as you can mark every bird contact you make, record how many you shot, and then over the course of a season you can overlay all that information on to a map or database. Cool stuff. The Dog List icon takes you to the dogs (or more specifically the named collars) that are currently synched to the Alpha. Here you can add or delete dogs as needed (figuratively speaking, of course), while the “New Hunt” icon is just as it was on the Astro.
The Alpha is, of course, also a full-featured handheld GPS, so hitting the arrow at the bottom of the screen scrolls you down to a, quite frankly, dizzying list of features and functions that are related but ancillary to the basic function of the unit. Compass, trip computer, waypoint manager, track manager, etc. Like all of Garmin’s GPS units, it’s an impressive piece of kit. But back to the track and train functions. On the main page, if you touch the compass icon (and provided your collar is synched to the unit) this is what you’ll see. The compass will be familiar to Astro users. The settings across the top will not. Those are the e-collar training settings and levels. I have mine configured from left to right as Momentary, Continuous and Tone.
As you can see, I’ve got momentary set on six, continuous at 10 and tone. The three tactile buttons across the top correspond to the levels directly underneath them on the screen. Regardless of what you’re doing or what screen you’re on, pressing those buttons will give you a correction. They override everything. And what’s really cool is that pressing a correction button also makes the drop-down stim level screen appear. So if you find the pre-set correction isn’t working, you can instantly up the level right there. It’s quick, intuitive and even I picked up on it fairly quickly.
I actually had the chance to try this out in Montana. I was hunting alone one evening, just the dogs and myself, when an antelope, apparently mistaking my white, 35-pound setter for the white ass of another antelope interloper, came charging over a rise, right by me and directly at the dog. Chaos ensued, first with the antelope chasing Jenny, then Jenny, who is deer-broke but apparently not antelope-broke, chasing the antelope. Not being familiar enough with the e-collar’s stim settings, I had the levels set fairly low. Too low, in fact, to elicit any response from the small white speck on the horizon that was my dog. But three quick taps on the + button and Jenny saw the light. It was quick, intuitive and despite only having used the Alpha for a few days, I managed to give a correction, adjust, and give another correction as quickly as I could have with my regular e-collar.
A few more impressions after a few weeks use: Another seemingly minor but really useful feature absent on the Astro is the directional arrow on the Alpha. In the Astro, you have a single arrow showing your dog’s location in relation to you and how far out he is. But the Alpha has added a feature called “running pointers” that changes the regular “running dog” icon to a small directional pointer that shows you which direction your dog is running. If you have bigger-running dogs or hunt in terrain where you’re often out of sight of your dogs, you’ll use this function, a lot.
One of the things that really surprised me about using the Alpha versus using the Astro was how much I used the maps function on the Alpha. That’s the icon on the top left-hand side of the main page, and touching it reveals the next upgrade to the Alpha over the Astro: the built-in 100k topo maps. I didn’t think I’d use this feature much, but after a few weeks I’ve discovered that I’m using the map page to track my dogs almost as much as I’m using the familiar compass-based dog tracker page.
Battery life is significantly improved over the Astro, at least from my experience so far. I thought I’d miss the convenience of AAs in the Astro. I don’t. Battery life is given as 20 hours for the handheld. Mine was used every day for a week in Montana before I needed to charge it again. I used to have to change out the AAs in my 320 about every day. As for the TT10 collar, it has much longer time between charges than my DC30 or DC40 collars. Garmin states 24 hours of battery life for the TT10 collar at the 2.5 second update rate, and I’m inclined to believe it. At the two-minute update rate that goes up to 44 hours. Granted, I wasn’t using the Alpha all day, every day from sunup to sundown, but I easily exceeded, by a fair amount, the battery life I was getting from my Astro for the same amount of time.
Coming from a two-device Astro+E-collar system with two handhelds hanging off my vest, I quickly came to appreciate how much easier it is carrying the single Alpha unit. It’s just less hassle. And that goes double for all the chargers, cradles, etc. you have to cart around with separate GPS and e-collar units. Now everything fits in one small bag. No more Medusa’s Head of wires, cables and chargers.
I’ve been really impressed with the performance of the touch screen. It’s bright, easy to see and read in sunlight, and when you touch it, it works. That pretty much covers my requirements.
Have I used the Alpha enough to say without qualification that it’s the bee’s knees? No. But I will say I’m damn impressed so far. Seriously, if you can navigate a smart phone or even a television remote, you can figure out the Alpha’s e-collar and GPS settings: how to customize them, and also how to utilize them quickly and effectively. It’s an old cliche, but if I can do it, anyone can do it. I have to admit that I was a bit nervous making the transition from a traditional e-collar transmitter to the Alpha, but so far I’m having little trouble doing so. Now will that change once bird season starts and I start using the Alpha on a daily basis in the field? Maybe. But based on how much I’ve used it so far, I think the Alpha, like the Astro before it, is going to be a winner for Garmin.