inReachSE

Text messaging from sea has long been an option either via expensive internet at sea connections or via cheap (i.e. not reliable) systems like the SPOT Messenger, which do not have global coverage, but there has yet to be a simple low cost system that works EVERYWHERE at sea. And none of them allow you to send text messages via your own cell phone…. that is, until a few years ago when DeLorme first launched the InReach line of satellite messengers. And we are not alone in having difficulty finding another product that’s won as many marine and outdoor innovation awards as the InReach.

What is a satellite messenger?

Satellite messengers allow you to send text messages when you venture out beyond the coverage of cellular networks and shoreside VHF marine band radios. A number of units perform this basic feature but our favorite, the  DeLorme inReach SE, also perfumes SOS alerting, Follow-Me tracking/Find-Me locating and wireless connection capabilities for smartphones and tablets with truly global coverage anywhere in the world. The inReach also allows you to map your routes, send text messages, post updates to social networking sites and broadcast distress messages.

Another key feature of InReach is that it connects to the best satellite communication satellite system; Iridium. Because of Iridium’s whole earth coverage, any limiting factors would be solely due to terrain or other conditions that prevent line of sight to the Iridium satellites. The system works universally at sea but if, for example, you bring it hiking in a deep slot canyon or an unusually narrow mountain pass, you may not have the direct line of sight to a satellite that’s needed. The inReach works under heavy forest cover, even triple canopy, but it is possible that in some locations the canopy may be dense enough to block line of sight. In these or other instances where line of sight is unavailable, you will know your message has not reached the satellite because you will not receive a message confirmation and the signal LED will flash red. I owned a previous version of the InReach and never witnessed this flashing red light of death. In short Iridium is the system preferred by special forces, military and executives the world over because it has rock solid service the other satellite systems can’t match.

The “old” InReach was universally loved by nearly every reviewer. It won Outdoor Gear Lab’s Editors’ Choice award because it was by far the most reliable and easy-to-use satellite messenger they tested. They said it also was “the only device we tested that allows your to reliably receive messages”. And in a head-to-head test of satellite communications devices Practical Sailor (PS) rated the unit “Recommended”, which is top honors for the magazine. Inreach shared top billing with BriarTek’s Cerberus Cerberlink, a competing product retailing for nearly twice the price of the Inreach, and the Iridium Extreme 9575 which is really a satellite phone that also does text messages and costs well over $1000! According to PS “The inReach is a buoyant, robustly constructed unit that has the highest waterproof rating of the test group, including the SPOT and Cerberus… The inReach is a robust, well-designed unit that brings a lot of features to the table, not the least of which is two-way communication, for a reasonable price.”

The majority of Amazon.com reviewers rated the inReach five stars but a handful of bad reviews dropped the overall score of 3.5 stars, respectable enough but hardly enough to be recommended by TheTeakRail.  We found the inReach to be a solid performer when we tested the unit last year aboard the S/V gCaptain but we ended up selling the unit because of one fatal flaw, the same flaw mentioned in most of the negative Amazon review… the bluetooth connection. For us the inReach always had a rock solid connection to the Iridium satellites but the connection between the device and our iPhone proved troublesome. This was a serious issue considering the fact that in order to send and receive text messages, the unit must connect to smart phone or tablet. Sure, the most important features, like sending position reports to friends and distress messages to rescue authorities, could be activated from the device itself but I had trouble  finding a friend who was interested in real time updates of my position and, as far as distress messaging, I still prefer to stick with my EPIRB. In short, without the ability to reliably send and recieve text messages to cell phones, the device found little use aboard our yacht.

InReach SE

In April Delorme announced an update to what it calls “the most affordable satellite communicator”; the InReach SE (Screen Edition). I was relieved to discover that the update includes more solid bluetooth connectivity to your device. Delorme reports they improved the bluetooth connection in both the new inReach SE and the latest version of the “old” inReach unit (which is still available on the market). We have not had our test unit long but, so far so good, and other testers collaborate DeLorme’s claim.

But better connectivity is no longer an essential feature because the new SE version comes equipped with its own screen. According to DeLorme the new “on-board color screen and a virtual keyboard allow you to send & receive text messages , operate service modes, and configure user settings without the need for a companion deviceInteractive SOS. Send & receive custom text messages directly with the emergency response center to describe your situation in detail, improve emergency response, and stay in touch for mutual status updates. All from a single device.”

We must admit that, while sending a text message via the on-screen interface is fairly intuitive, the device lacks a keypad so entering each letter of your message only slightly less frustrating than programing an old VCR via a remote. That said receiving text messages is as simple as glancing down at the device and, as mentioned, you can send texts via your iPhone… the onscreen keyboard is just a nice “extra” feature you’re only likely to use if a rogue wave or discharged battery renders your iPhone useless.

Ben Ellison, the blogger behind Panbo, and our go to source of marine electronics expertise is one of the few bloggers who has reviewed this, still new, device. He says “Just putting the color screen on the inReach makes it a lot easier for people to understand all that the system can do. It also makes the handheld a lot more versatile. A user will now be able to have a two-way text conversation with a search and rescue center without needing a smart phone or tablet attached via Bluetooth, which might not be possible in the circumstances. Similarly it will now be possible to type a custom email, Tweet or Facebook entry — with your position and a link to your mapped position — while, say, sitting on the rail of a racing sailboat (the SE is IP67 waterproof). Plus you won’t need to remember various flashing LED signals to know if you have an incoming message or that tracking is enabled…”

 

Criticism

As with any new and innovative product the positive reviews are not universal. While most experts agree that both the inReach SE and the Iridium network it connects to are solid for sending and receiving basic text messages a number of hikers, cyclists and active landlubbers lament the fact that the SE doesn’t have any “advanced” GPS features. This devices does have an onboard GPS and will display your position but it doesn’t have any mapping features or the ability to do things like provide detailed weather charts. Personally I would love a device that downloads GRIB weather data files and displays them on a chart but the lack of this feature is not the device’s fault… the Iridium Short Burst Data (SBD) service used by the SE does support downloads. As far as interactive maps, we are happy that DeLorme left out this feature. Including it might have technically feasible but would have made the interface more complicated. Plus we much prefer to use an onboard ECIDS or chart plotter and, if the need to view charts on a mobile device arises, we can simply fire up our favorite iPhone charting app.

Plenty of other critics exclaim that the InReach, along with all other satellite messengers, are not a replacement and are not a safe replacement for a certified EPIRB (Or PLB). They are correct (kinda). InReach comes with a certified IP68 rating wich means that the unit is rustproof and able to withstand immersion up to 3 meter for 48 hours but it does not meet the more stringent testing standards of a USCG certified EPIRB or PLB. We found the build quality of the InReach to be good, and better than most competitors, but one glance at the device and it’s clear that the InReach is not as strong or durable as an EPIRB. SOS message at 5 watts of power, compared to 0.4 watts for the Spot 2 Satellite Messenger, and 1.6 watts for the DeLorme.

Like the inReach EPIRB’s need to be registered before use but EPIRB’s come with no monthly service fees. And EPIRB messages go directly to the United States Coast Guard who can immediately start looking for you while pressing the distress button on the InReach sends your distress to a commercial emergency coordination center that must then relay your distress to the coast guard.

For these reasons and more I will not be ditching my EPIRB anytime soon but the InReach does have one lifesaving feature that EPIRBS don’t support… two way messaging. When the USCG receives a distress from a traditional EPIRB they no nothing about the nature of your distress. Is your vessel on fire? How many people are injured? Can the injured people be lifted via helicopter or do they need to be transferred via boat? All these questions go unanswered until the first Coast Guard unit arrives on-scene. The InReach, however, allows for two-way communication. Like during a 911 call, when you press distress on the InReach dispatchers will collect more information on the nature of your distress and the USCG will tailor their response appropriately.

Two way communications also means that a dispatcher can send you updates, in real time, on the status of the rescue team. Will the rescue helicopter arrive in 10minutes or 30? You can ask the dispatcher this question via the InReach but, after activating an EPIRB you are kept praying (that the team will arrive) and wondering (did anyone receive my message?) until the helicopter is spotted on the horizon.

Finally, with an InReach, rescue teams can send you short instructions like “Attempt CPR” or “Launch a flare now”. These instructions can’t be transmitted via epirb.

Personally I carry an EPIRB for distress messaging, a satellite phone phone for conducting business and checking in with loved ones and a satellite messenger for sending and receiving text (which are much cheaper than satellite voice calls). In the event of an emergency I will activate my EPIRB first then follow up with a direct call to the USCG’s Rescue Coordination Center, then follow their directions for estabilishing further communications. If I did not own a satellite phone (or if my phone fails) I would use the InReach instead.

In short, portable EPIRB’s (called Personal Locator Beacon’s – PLB) retail for about the same price as an InReach so,  if you do not own one then go buy an EPIRB first. If you already own an EPIRB then purchasing a satellite messenger, as backup and in order to establish 2-way communication with rescue teams, is generally a good idea.

Conclusion

Delorme’s InReach SE is currently the best satellite available and, at a retail price of $299, is also reasonably priced. This wishing to save a few bucks will consider purchasing the “old” InReach model which sells for $249 retail but can be found for slightly less. We believe the extra $50 is well worth the price for the extra security and convenience of an onboard screen but the old model is still a solid contender… just make sure you check that the model you purchase is the latest revision to avoid bluetooth connection problems

Links:

(not alone) http://www.panbo.com/archives/2013/04/inreach_se_will_the_screen_do_it.html#comment-408572

http://www.practical-sailor.com/issues/37_27/features/Pocket-Sized-Satcom-Devices-Iridium-InReach_10997-1.html

http://www.panbo.com/archives/2013/04/inreach_se_will_the_screen_do_it.html#sthash.1HShrhGy.dpuf

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007I782J4/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B007I782J4&linkCode=as2&tag=gcaptaincom-20

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B007JM2O3S/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B007JM2O3S&linkCode=as2&tag=gcaptaincom-20

Unmentioned sources:

http://www.backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/reviews/display_reviews.html?forum_thread_id=78521

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