We received two of the latest Pieps Pro IPS transceivers at the end of December from our sponsors Black Diamond UK to review their latest flagship beacon. Black Diamond is the parent company of Pieps.
The launch of this Pro feature transceiver should be viewed in the context of the issues that Pieps and Back Diamond branded transceivers have had in the last couple of years. For those who are unaware, a significant fault developed with wear on a number of the on/off/search switch of models in their range that allowed the switch to accidently move between send to off. The response from Pieps / Black Diamond was slow and fragmented depending on what part of the world you lived in. The result was a significant loss of trust in the Pieps brand– especially in the North American market.
It is through this lens that Pieps is slowly rolling out the Pro IPS, with a soft roll out in its homeland of Austria.
We train approximately 100 students every year in avalanche rescue and have done so for 15 years; from trainee mountain guides and mountain rescue teams through to recreational users on a single day rescue course, and undertake avalanche incident investigation work each season. We like to believe we have a decent grasp of what works in the real-world versus what the manufacturers of transceivers think should work.
For the last 15 years we’ve been firmly entrenched in the Barryvox transceiver camp, initially with the Pulse and then the Barryvox S. It’s important to understand each beacon manufacturer has its own ideas of what works and how they anticipate the user will interact with their units. With that in mind we are almost certainly biased against the non Barryvox universe.
We’ve had the transceivers over a month now and here are our first impressions.
Out the box
Out the box first impressions are positive. First thing is that it looks completely different to the beacon you are using now. Its unique feature being its fold up aerial that automatically places the unit from send to search. This feature is visually simple to recreational users when operating in a high stress situation. Any concerns that this leaves the unit vulnerable to breakage were pretty quickly dispelled. The quality of the plastics used in its construction are different from anything we’ve seen before: it feels like a resin/ high impact plastic which is apparently fibre reinforced for strength. It has an integrated rubberised grip panel and feels very ergonomic in the hand with its function button placed under your right index finger: perfect, as long as you’re right handed! The unit is compact and its slimness is to be welcomed for those who prefer a trouser pocket carry.
The transceiver operates with 3 AAA batteries – no rechargeable battery weirdness for fleet managers to negotiate.
The Pieps set up requires blue-toothing to their mobile phone app. Registration and Pro level functionality are all set for the unit from the app. Downloading and connecting to the app was straight forward. I’m fast becoming a technical dinosaur and found it quick and simple to set up.
The body harness is easily adjustable and seemed to fit well. Pieps also include a second dynamic cord to allow for a trouser pocket carry set up – the harness having its cord sewn into it.
The group check mode is simple to engage and works in a very similar way to other latest generation transceivers utilising a 1 m restricted distance check that is disengaged when the unit is put back into send mode by folding the aerial back down. Group check is offered with a yes/ no option every-time on powering up with no need to keep buttons pressed down or scroll through a menu to engage it.
For those familiar with Pieps transceivers the simplistic backlit screen layout will be familiar. The Pieps screen displays an X alternating with a large ‘AR’ on the screen indicating that it is in auto revert mode. As a flagship transceiver in 2024 it feels like Pieps has missed an opportunity to upgrade its visual user interface. The Ortovox Diract and the Mammut S and soon to be released Mammut S2 transceivers feature high resolution screens which provide much more detailed information and instructions. Using two letter codes on a safety devise for people who may only use the unit a couple of weeks of the year is outdated. Certainly, less is more in low frequency/ high consequence situations, but not if the price is clarity. That said, those familiar with Pieps transceivers will feel right at home with the screen interface as it mirrors the rest of their range.
As with the BT Pro, haptic feedback is utilised (fancy way to say that the beacon vibrates to get your attention at key moments) which is frankly kind of awesome.
Buttons are well laid out (much better so than previous Pieps models and in our opinion any other transceiver currently on the market). The buttons are rubberised and are very firm to engage and cannot be accidently activated. Good. This deliberate firm button engagement comes at a price: the buttons are difficult to operate wearing thick gloves or mitts. Bad. We’ll report on how they wear in the long-term review, but they appear pretty bombproof.
One of the key innovations touted on the IPS is that in send mode it offers a reduction of the effects of EMI (electronic magnetic interference). This advance is welcome. Pieps state the user should still respect the 20/50 cm rule for send and search which makes sense. We’re deep in the technical here and we don’t feel qualified to verify the effectiveness of the technology but Pieps are confident that the close proximity of electronic devices won’t inhibit the maximum distance a transmitting beacon can send out its signal. Certainly, addressing EMI is a growing issue in the industry with the amounts of electronics we all regularly take with us when skiing, and anything that assists in its prevention is to be welcomed.
Here’s what Pieps have to say about their EMI system:
IPS – INTERFERENCE PROTECTION SYSTEM IN SEND MODE PIEPS IPS is a unique technology that continuously monitors the effects of electronic interference on the beacon by processing the interfering signals and adapting to them IMMEDIATELY. In this way, your PIEPS PRO IPS will provide optimum transmission performance despite any interference that may occur.
IPS – INTERFERENCE PROTECTION SYSTEM IN SEARCH MODE The PIEPS IPS technology provides the optimal electronic hardware platform for avalanche beacons. This technology allows the signal to be received and processed SIMULTANEOUSLY on the X andY antennas. This unique Dual Antenna Signal Processing (DASP) feature enables an optimal and reliable detection. In addition, compared to other beacons that have a typical design with a fixed arrangement of X and Y antennas, PIEPS PRO IPS achieves the MAXIMUM DISTANCE to a user’s wearable electronic devices, such as a smartwatch, GPS wristwatch, etc., due to the design of the X antenna.
PIEPS Advanced Signal Verification | Support in SEARCH mode Only a verified signal is displayed. Your PIEPS PRO IPS will not confuse you by displaying “ghost signals”! This function has been optimally implemented with PIEPS IPS technology.
External interferences and distance recommendations All avalanche beacons are inherently sensitive to sources of electrical and magnetic interference. Therefore, we recommend to keep the minimum distance in SEND mode: 20 cm, and in SEARCH mode: 50 cm to electronic, magnetic as well as metallic influential factors (cell phone, radio, key ring, magnetic lock, action cams, avalanche backpacks, etc.).
In practical terms what this looks like from the user point of view is that the search pattern size indicated on the screen reduces down from 80m from 20m when the unit detects EMI.
Deep in the Pro user Woods
Interestingly, a key feature on the IPS unit hasn’t been touted much by Pieps: the upgrade of the scan button that first appeared on their BT Pro model. It’s now a dedicated button separated from the other buttons that in Pro mode allows toggling between up to three buried victims. A bit like the BCA Tracker 3’s Big Picture mode. In multi burial scenarios’ where the user is trying to build their mental map of the incident site this scan feature can be a very powerful tool. It works well and becomes additionally useful when addressing very close proximity burial marking failures in connection with the unit’s analogue mode and toggling.
Also aimed at advanced users is a deep burial feature where the units third antennae calculates the minimum reading is greater than 2 metres and offers an extended fine search display.
Finally, for AvSAR trained users the ability to employ analogue mode, key to performing sound checks at the 10m and 3 m range to establish how many beacons are within a confined search area to assist building a mental map of the avalanche scene. This technique is used in flagging failures due to signal overlap. Analogue mode is disappointing on the Pieps with the analogue volume increments being too great. The IPS produces poor analogue audio feedback – as if it has been filtered. It still works in the context of performing 10 m & 3m sound checks, but in this mode isn’t nearly as intuitive to use as the Mammut S which also provides a digital visual display while providing much more adjustable and nuanced analogue audio feedback when in manual mode.
That said using the analogue mode in conjunction with the scan and toggle mode is an effective alternative search method to address flagging failures in very close proximity burials, and I’m sure because of that Pieps would argue the analogue audio feedback is therefore less relevant. We should also bear in mind that we are very deep in the woods when discussing such complex burial scenarios: the chances that it could arise and someone appropriately trained will be on hand is unlikely to say the least.
Ease of use in High Stress Situations
During recent avalanche rescue courses (ARC) we gave the IPS to a mixture of basic and advanced recreational users and deployed them in a variety of avalanche scenarios of differing complexity. Users feedback was that they found the basic operation of the unit intuitive, with positive comments about the physical size and hand feel of the unit and its ease of use in its basic non pro set up.
Early days, but this is a significant upgrade to previous Pieps units. Successful strives have been made in the complete redesign of the physical unit.
- The unit feels very well put together and robust.
- Bluetooth interface works well on setting up.
- App set up and standard batteries will appeal to fleet managers.
- The interface will feel very familiar to those who have experience with Pieps / Black Diamonds previous beacons.
- The scan and toggle features work well & will appeal to advanced users.
- EMI management and visual warning to reduce search strip size.
- The low resolution screen interface is simplistic compared to some other manufacturers flagship models.
- Poor analogue mode giving poor audio feedback without digital visual information.