Garmin Alpha Reviewby Geoffrey English
The Garmin Alpha 100 is a tracking/training collar that combines the industry leading Garmin GPS tracking system with 45 years of dog training collar technology from Tri-tronics in one handheld device.
Garmin Alpha System
Photo by: Author
The Garmin Alpha collar will update the dog's location as often as every 2.5 seconds while giving you the ability to instantly control your dog with the training collar - all from one handheld device. The unit is expandable up to 20 dogs and powered by a Lithium Ion battery giving it the ability to run for up to 34 hours on a single charge.
The Alpha 100 handheld features a 3 inch sunlight readable touch screen color display that can be operated with one hand and is glove-friendly. It is waterproof to IPX7 standards which means the handheld case can withstand accidental immersion in one meter of water for up to 30 minutes.
The touch screen allows for you to easily switch between dogs and allows you to configure your system to your specific needs - we will get into that in a moment.
The one drawback for folks running the Garmin Astro or Tri-tronics collars - it's not backwards compatible. You cannot use your existing DC30, DC40 or EXP collars with the system. Sorry.
So what makes the Garmin Alpha different from the Garmin Astro?
Faster Update Rates
Well for starters, the Alpha handheld can be configured to update with your dog's location, speed and direction ever 2.5 seconds - compared to the Astro which was only capable of max update rate of 5 seconds. The only downside with faster update rates -- they tend to draw down the battery faster than when configured to update at slower rates. The Garmin Alpha 100 can be configured with update rates of 2.5 seconds, 5 seconds, 10 seconds,30 seconds, and 2 minutes. So you have the ability to control how quickly the collar will discharge its batteries. However, even when set to update every 2.5 seconds our initial field testing gave us runtimes of 24-26 hours per full charge and 34-36 hours on a full charge when set to an update rate of 5 seconds.
Speaking of batteries - Garmin has greatly improved their battery life of this collar when compared to its predecessor the Garmin Astro DC40. The Astro Dc40 has a battery life of 22-24 hours on a single charge when set to a 5 second update rate. While we are seeing battery life of 34-36 hours on the Garmin Alpha when set to the same update rate. That is a significant improvement that you'll come to love the next time you forget to turn off your tracking system when you leave the field.
Photo by: Author
The handheld transmitter batteries for the Garmin Alpha are a rechargeable battery pack. This means you don't have to run out to the store before each hunting trip for a fresh set of batteries. Simply bring your charger along and you're all set. Heck, the Garmin Alpha even comes with a car charger so you can completely charge your system (collar and handheld transmitter) while in route to camp. The battery life of the transmitter is 18-20 hours on a single fully charged unit. You can even buy additional battery packs that can be switched out in an emergency.
Collar Beacon Lights
Another new feature I really like on the Garmin Alpha is the LED Beacon Light built into the collar which can be activated from the handheld. You don't have to be a coon hunter to enjoy this feature - anyone who walks their dogs at night will benefit from the peace of mind that other people can see the dog in low light conditions. You can set the collar light to different settings such as: illuminate continuous, slow blink and fast blink.
Like increasing the update rate on the collar, activating the beacon light will draw down the battery faster than when the unit is running without the light activated. Our tests have shown that you will see your battery life cut in half when operating the collar with the beacon light set to continuous illumination.
Number of Dogs
The Garmin Alpha can now track any combination of 20 dogs up to 9 miles away (depending on terrain). You no longer need to worry about where your hunting buddies are while in the field. By simply enabling "Contact Tracking", you can track your buddies handheld transmitters just like you would track other dogs on the system. However, your hunting buddies will appear on the screen as a different icon making it easy for your to distinguish them from your dogs. The only drawback we have found with "Contact Tracking" is that it tends to draw down the battery slightly faster because of the ongoing need to locate the other handheld devices and updating your system.
The Garmin Alpha comes pre-loaded with 100K Topo Map software which includes all 50 states. Yes, you hear me right, Garmin Astro users. What is normally a $100 option for Astro users - Alpha users get loaded on their systems standard. Hardly seems fair... These maps are great and if you shell out $29.99 / year, the Birdseye Satellite Imagery will be able to show you real-life view of roads, buildings and terrain along with Topo maps.
Garmin Alpha Geofence Feature
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Rescue Mode Feature
By enabling Rescue Mode on your collars it gives you the peace of mind that as your collar starts to drop into a critical battery level - less than 25%, Rescue Mode will automatically switch the collar into an update mode of 2 minutes which will give you an additional 12 hours to locate that dog. This is a great feature that is going to save some folks sleepless nights worrying about their lost dog. However, it is NOT enabled by default. You must turn this feature on for each collar under the Collar Settings Menu on the handheld device.
Geofence and Radius Alerts Feature
The Alpha 100 Tracking System now offers a unique feature called “Geofence” that allows you to define an area (either property lines - Geofence, or a specified distance from your handheld - radius alert). If your dog leaves the Geofence or wonders beyond the radius you have set into the system, you immediately receive an alert on your handheld. While hunting over big running pointing dogs in thick coverts, radius alert will tell you exactly when your dog gets out a little too far for your liking. Furthermore, radius alerts are specific to the collar itself - so if you have one dog that tends to move on birds while the others are seasoned veterans, you might want to keep the less experienced dog a little closer so you can get into position while he is still locked up on the bird.
Ok - Enough about all the bells and whistles of the Garmin Alpha... how about tracking and training dogs. Well folks, here is where the rubber meets the road and Garmin has not disappointed the upland hunter in the least...
Tracking Dogs with the Garmin Alpha couldn't be easier. The Alpha gives you two ways to track your dog - the Compass Screen or the Topo Map Screen.
When running a single dog I prefer the compass screen for locating a dog that is on point or has treed an animal. The interface is simple and easy to interpret. If you have ever used a compass, you would be familiar with this screen. The electronic compass has a color coded arrow that corresponds to the dog in your system and always points in the direction of the dog. The distance the dog is away from you and whether he is moving or stationary, it is indicated at the bottom of the screen. This makes navigation in thick coverts very easy - Point and Go.
The Garmin Alpha provides a map screen as well and is pre-bundled with the 100K Topo Map Software on the handheld. As mentioned earlier, this is a significant upgrade to the Garmin Astro 320. The software includes maps for all 50 states so you will be able to see every road, creeks, trails, elevation changes and more. The Map Screen clearly shows your position on the Topo Map and the location of your dog. You can also create waypoints and marks on the map which I use to mark the location of my truck prior to starting my hunt. Doesn't take more than one time to get turned around in the woods chasing grouse to appreciate this feature.
Remote Training Capability
I was very skeptical when I heard that Garmin was going to make a Tracking and Training Combination collar. How could you possibly have one transmitter that can do both, and at the same time no less. Well, when you have two leaders in their respective industries putting their minds together, you get a great product! The Garmin Alpha is without a doubt designed for the pointing dog upland hunter. As much as I love the unit and would rather leave my gun in the truck, as a trainer who uses electronic collars 365 days a year, I won't be giving up my Tri-tronics Pro 500 G3 anytime soon. What's that old sayings... "I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands". Well, that's how I feel about the Tri-tronics Pro 500 G3. Ok before you start firing emails off, let me explain.... and remember, I have used every collar on the market over the last 18 years. So while its only one man's opinion, it's bases on a fair amount of experience. So here we go...
What makes the Tri-tronics Pro Series the best training collars on the market HANDS DOWN -- and where does the Garmin Alpha lack in the remote training capability? The Tri-tronics engineers who designed the hand held for the Pro Series Collars got it right! On the top of the unit you have an intensity dial that allows you to select the appropriate stimulation range for your dog. So when you take a dog out of the truck you simply turn the dial to the appropriate stimulation range. Now without ever taking your eye off the dog you can issue a Low, Medium and High correction to the dog. The key point here is that training dogs is all about reading dogs and how they respond to stimulus -- both positive and negative. If I have to take my eye off the dog, even for a fraction of a second, I'm missing valuable information the dog is communicating to me. So collars that are designed where you need to look back at the transmitter to adjust the correction level puts the trainer at major disadvantage and opens the door to miscorrections if the dog changes his behavior while I was trying to adjust the intensity level. With the Tri-tronics Pro Series you can correct the dog at the Lower setting and only move up as needed - based on what you read in the dog. If you ever used a Tri-tronics Pro Series, you will understand the difference it makes in training.
So the good new - the Garmin/Tri-tronics engineers have kept with this idea of being able to program three buttons to act as Low, Medium and High. However, changing the stimulation range is a bit of a chore - you have to move from screen to screen and operation with gloves is a bit cumbersome. It's just not something I would bring to the field each day and run multiple dogs. I like the simplicity of the intensity selection dial and Low, Medium and High buttons. And when you are training a truck full of dogs - simplicity makes all the difference in the world. However, with that being said... as a combination tracking / training collar for upland hunting dog there is nothing better.
Types of Stimulation
The Garmin Alpha 100 provides 18 levels of stimulation with continuous and momentary options, along with a tone option. You can program the handheld buttons on the face of the unit for each of these three functions.
Customizing the Handheld Training Buttons
The Garmin Alpha handheld training buttons are completely customizable, whether you are training one dog or multiple dogs you can customize the buttons as you wish. However, to keep it simple, Garmin ships the unit so you have one dog per screen and each button controls the type of stimulation - Momentary, Continuous and Tone. You can change the level of stimulation based on the dog's individual temperament and the required level of correction. You can even configure each button to control different dogs and create separate screens to give you more options to configure the system.
One of the most significant improvements to the e-collar market is the range built into the Garmin Alpha. The Alpha utilizes the "MURS" radio band for transmission of both the dog location and electronic corrections. That means if you can track your dog, you can correct your dog - up to 9 miles. Keep in mind that is line of sight range, under normal hunting conditions you will see less than that distance. We found that in the northeast kingdom of VT and NH we consistently got 4-5 miles of range. While I am not advocating correcting your dog without being able to see your dog I have found that using the tone only button as a silent recall can be worth its weight in gold under tough windy or long range conditions.