As many of you are aware, Garmin recently introduced its new and highly-anticipated combination GPS/e-collar system dubbed the “Alpha.”

I finally got the chance to see and use the Alpha on a recent Montana bird hunt, and in the next few blog posts I’ll be giving my initial impressions of the unit. But first, a little background. Garmin effectively invented the GPS tracking collar industry with its introduction of the Astro 220 a few years back. It became a smashing success, and has evolved through several iterations to the current Astro 320 and DC-40 collar system.

The Astro, however, is not an e-collar, so dogs do have to wear separate collars for the Astro and the e-collar, which also means you have to carry both a separate e-collar transmitter and GPS handheld. It’s not as cumbersome as it sounds, and with a little practice it becomes second nature, but the appeal of a combo GPS/e-collar system with one transmitter and one collar is obvious.

Enter SportDOG, which got the GPS/E-collar combo concept rolling back in 2011 with its introduction of the TEK 1.0. Soon thereafter, Garmin announced its purchase of venerable e-collar manufacturer Tri-Tronics, and pretty much everyone knew that Garmin’s version was in the works. And now that the Alpha is out and by all accounts doing very well, it’s obvious that combo collars, from whatever manufacturer, will continue to be a significant part of the market.

However, the introduction of the Alpha poses a tricky question for potential buyers, namely, is it worth the not-insignificant price? For those of us who don’t already own either an e-collar or an Astro but are wanting both, I think it’s a no-brainer, because of the functionality of the unit itself (which I’ll explain later in the review) and for what you get for the price. The Alpha one-collar system retails for $799, which is a chunk of coin. But for that price you’re getting both the Astro, which by itself retails for $599, and Tri-Tronics’ top-of-the-line Pro 500 e-collar, which is itself a $500 item. So not only is the Alpha cheaper than buying both the Astro and an e-collar, this new unit has quite a few new features and capabilities (again, some of which I’ll get to) that are lacking in either individual product. In essence, the Alpha’s whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Where the cost-benefit analysis gets a little more complex is for those who either already own an e-collar system they like, or–like me–are dedicated Astro users who have invested considerable time and money into getting comfortable with the “old-fashioned” Astro/e-collar set-up. Hopefully this review will help a little in making that decision.

So what’s in the box? First off, you get a newly-designed Alpha 100 handheld. For those of you used to the Astro handheld, this is a bit different. Gone are the buttons, replaced with a three-inch color touchscreen (considerably larger and brighter than the Astro’s) with three e-collar correction buttons situated above the screen. The unit itself is about the same size as the Astro 320, so ergonomically speaking, it’s a wash. Gone are the AA batteries that powered the Astro, replaced with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack. I admit that I greeted this change with a bit of suspicion. Although my older Astros ate batteries like candy, at least you could find AAs anywhere. Battery life, however, is a topic we’ll get too in the review. It was surprising. The Alpha has both mini-USB (for charging and downloads) and micro-SD slots for adding mapping info.

The Alpha comes with one newly-designed TT10 collar. One concern I heard mentioned about the collar was weight and size, since the collar will be performing both GPS and e-collar functions. The actual unit on the TT10 compared to the transmitter on my DC-40 collar is slightly heavier and slightly thicker. My tiny 35lb. setter had no issues at all toting it around her neck all day. There are two notable differences between the new TT10 and the older DC-40: the DC-40’s GPS antenna is integral to the unit, but the new TT10’s GPS antenna puck is once again located at the top of the collar, just like the old DC-30 collar was.

While I’ve never had any issues with my DC-40, some users have reported signal issues with the integrated antenna, so Garmin’s Ted Gartner told us that Garmin had learned its lesson on that one. Also, the new antenna (the one that communicates with the handheld, not the GPS antenna) on the TT10 is now made of aircraft cable, which I can attest makes a rugged and handy emergency lead when you’re trying to pull your dog off a porcupine. The one-inch nylon collars themselves are rugged, sturdy and removable so you can change collar colors to whatever you wish.

You also get the user’s manual (highly recommended reading), a waterproof quick-reference card, both 12-volt and AC chargers, charging dock for the collar, a mini-to-regular USB cord and a splitter that allows you to charge both units at the same time. The collar also comes with extra different-length contact points for dogs with heavy coats. And it’s all packaged in a very nice cordura Tri-Tronics training bag, which in my opinion is a big step up from the molded plastic cases the Astro comes in.

Build Quality: While certainly a subjective subject, the first two words that come to mind when hoisting the Alpha are “solid” and “tactile.” I’ve never used a Garmin product that didn’t seem well-built and rugged, but the Alpha seems extraordinarily well-engineered. Makes sense, i suppose, since it’s a brand-new product meant for demanding use. Both the collar and handheld are water, shock, and dustproof (I’ve had the chance to test the integrity of all three the past couple weeks) and although I was at first hesitant about the touch screen, it’s worked flawlessly so far.

The screen itself is recessed into the unit, which is a nice touch that will certainly help a bit with scratches, and while I have read of a few reports of issues with gloves, my unit works just fine while wearing a pair of thin shooting gloves. Any thicker than that, and I think you’d start having problems, not so much with screen response, but being able to touch the right icons with a bulky gloved finger.

Overall, out of the box the Alpha is, from an aesthetic, ergonomic and engineering standpoint, a winner. But of course that doesn’t mean much, other than it’s pretty cool-looking. How does it work? We’ll start delving into features and functions in the next blog…