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Garmin Alpha Review: Still the top dog?

A review of the Garmin Alpha 100 dog tracker

Water?  No problem.

The underdogs and I like to go places.  Remote places...places no man has gone before.  At least no man not wearing blaze orange.  This means being prepared for the unknown.  The unexpected.  The lost.  This means gps tracking.

The Garmin Alpha is the Thundarr Barbarian of the dog tracking world.  Rugged, a little rough around the edges but the technology it wields may just bring peace in a post apocalyptic world.  This thing opens doors just not possible prior to owning it , and does so while sweating testosterone.  Yeah, I like it just fine.

As a reminder, my reviews are not technical specs or full of scientific testing.  My reviews are about how any given product may fit into or enhance the life of a mid-life fool like me.  There may be a few like-minded souls out there.  The wise ones, I call them.  Those who know to really disconnect, you need* technology.   Those of us battling mortality can often take solace in the distraction of our toys.  Sometimes those toys are also so beneficial you can't imagine how you survived without them.  The Alpha 100 is one of those things.

I know what you are thinking because I know all things and that of course includes what you are thinking.  You are thinking why is this anonymous old dude trying to tell me an 800 dollar collar is some sort of device I need in my life?  A little rope, maybe a 99 cent whistle...you don't need anything else.  You are the pack leader.  You don't need any fancy GPS collar on your dog.

Your right Brawny Paper Towel man, you probably don't.

But I do.  

Let me spell out what this technological marvel is, what it isn't, and how it really adds to flexibility and peace of mind.  If there are two things that I really need, it is flexibility and peace of mind.

So the Alpha 100 is really two distinct devices.  Let's start with the actual GPS device first and cover the collar later.  The unit isn't much different than any other handheld you may have seen.  In fact in some ways it is quite a bit worse.  Let's note one area for improvement right off the bat...that screen is dark and low resolution.  Hey Garmin, middle-aged outdoorsman here...have some sympathy!  The average age of hunters is rising and they are clearly the target audience, though it isn't why I own it.  Give us a crisp, high resolution screen!  This thing looks like it is from 20 years ago even with the cheater glasses on!  Yeah, I really hate the screen.  Can't remember if I mentioned that.  

Everything else about it is darn near perfect.  It feels indestructible.  It has all of the functionality I would want.  It would take an hour to outline all of the features but here are some highlights:

  • Waterproof to IPX7 standards.  This is huge.  We are old.  We are in the mud.  We drop things.
  • Collar beacon lights.  Honestly one of my favorite features.  Led lights on the front of the collar can blink or light constantly.  I hike at dusk more than any other time of the day.  I love this feature to see them at a distance without even pulling out the handheld.
  • Maps.  As I mentioned it acts similar to any other handheld GPS and could certainly be used without the dogs.  I downloaded the Garmin version of Birdseye map overlays (think Google earth).  If you are younger than forty, knock yourself out.  If you are older than forty, which lets be honest you shouldn't be on this blog if you aren't...just skip it.  I can't make out anything.  Again, the display...just...no.  It is perfectly sunlight readable with the default lot lines and they are quite useful but the screen just can't handle earth images and old eyes.  I have ordered the ON-X chip for it.  I am a HUGE fan of ON-X and may do a future review on the phone version.  It is amazing for showing private property lines.  My lifestyle isn't really conducive to pulling out my phone so looking forward to the Garmin chip.  It doesn't bother with the earth images and just uses high contrast lines so should pair well and with topography give me the info I need.
  • Geofence and radius alerts.  This is so great.  I often turn on the unit and just head out with the pups.  I can set it to any alert radius and it will buzz me and let me know if they exit it.  Obi ranges 100-200 yards...he buzzes me like a drug dealer in Miami Vice.  Niko stays within 50 yards...doesn't even need it.  The bottom line is the peace of mind.  I can enjoy the outdoors, shoot photos, do my thing...I will know if they stray too far.
  • Tracking.  Obviously the point of the whole system.  It gives you far too much information to cover here.  You will get the total distance traveled, average speed, current direction, distance from you...just assume its all there.  If you need more you need to remember why you are out there in the first place.  These are advanced metrics.  It will even tell you where your truck is and that is pretty nice for a guy like me that lives to get lost.  I can't imagine this thing won't live up to its stated ability to track up to 5 miles.  My dogs don't get that far from me so I can't verify...really not comfortable with them being a mile from me.  Your mileage may vary.  My package came free with a vehicle antenna that extends that range.  Want it?  I won't ever need it.
  • Remote training.  Ok, cue the controversy.  It is perfectly functional as a remote trainer.  I am in no way against remote correction.  I have used this on myself and in the hands of a common sense individual it can be a great feature and training aid.  I just honestly don't need it.  I trained them to tone so I just hit the beep and they run back to me from deep in the woods.  I leave the prongs on for a worst case scenario.  I haven't figured out what that scenario would look like but they sure don't mind the prongs.  I could always just unscrew them.  There is an Astro version that omits them altogether.  I am the type that wants every tool available, whether I use it or not.  You just never know.  18 levels of stimulation.  Like I said, it is a fully functioning remote training collar with more customization than I can even begin to describe.  
  • The ability to pair with Garmin watches.  Oh my.  I love technology.  I can throw the handheld in the pocket and just glance at my Garmin Instinct and know exactly where the pups are.  Keep in mind this is purely a "read-only" arrangement so if you want to do any remote training or signal the collars you need the handheld.  I primarily use these for peace of mind so a glance at the watch is so convenient.  Most trips out I don't even pull the handheld out after turning it on.
The collars themselves come in a regular size and mini.  Mini is still huge.  My French Brits run 30-40 pounds and I use the mini for both.  It would fit any size dog and I honestly can't imagine why anyone would choose the regular.  The stats show longer battery life and increased range.  I haven't found either of those factors to be in any way limiting.  May as well roll with a lighter collar...they are still pretty massive.  The dogs simply can't wait to put them on when I pull them out and the antenna really seems to stay nicely in place.  Trust me, they spend half their time wrestling through the fields and the collars just always stay in place.  They seem insanely robust...seem completely water proof and trust me I would know.  I can't keep them out of water.  You can pair as many collars as you would ever need to the single handheld.  

Honestly I don't know how to prevent myself from rambling forever.  The system has it all.  Competitors have similar options but none have the track record of the Garmin.  There is an interesting and economical option from Dogtra, called the Pathfinder.  I have no experience with it but it is a similar collar arrangement that runs entirely through a phone app.  While interesting in practice and reviews are favorable, I simply don't like using my phone for these types of things.  I always have gloves on, stomping through mud, toss in subzero temps...factor in some nearsightedness.  My phone does enough but there are limits for a guys like me.  Guys who spend most of their time in the woods with their bear, Ben.

I just love the thing.  I dabble in hunting, more for working the dogs than any real attempt to nab a pheasant.  If I was hardcore this would only be more valuable as it shows if a dog in on point.  I don't really need any of that...but still I need this.  There are few things in life more therapeutic to me than being in nature with the brits free to fly.  It is so graceful, so majestic.  They literally float.  Letting them do their thing with complete confidence as I know exactly where they are.  I don't need cell service.  I don't need my phone.  I know exactly where they are and a quick beep and they will be back in seconds.  It has been so game-changing as compared to retrieving them every single time they are out of sight.

Free to be...with no stress on me.

I realize it is an investment.  So were my dogs.  There have been a few times I have gone out without the Alpha and it isn't even fun.  I am either calling them back every five minutes or having a heart attack because I can't find them.   One time, and you would have wished for turning back time and having this with you.  There are plenty of stories of hunters who lost their beloved pets to unforeseen accidents.  I like improving my odds to avoid such things.

Who am I kidding.  I like gadgets.  I could be dropped at Bass Pro and you could pick me up the next day.  The more technology you can add to my "disconnecting", the happier I am.  Trust me, the irony in that is not lost on me.  I can only throw myself at the mercy of the court jesters and point out I like to disconnect from civilization, not technology.  Technology can be a gateway just as easily as it is a ball and chain.  It is all in how you use it.

The Garmin Alpha gets a 4 out of 5 eggs.  Improve that screen resolution and offer phone integration for reporting metrics and/or as a backup for the handheld and it would be absolutely perfect.

One final note that I must add.  I have owned many, many Garmin devices.  To put it bluntly, their customer service has set new standards for awful.  Half of the devices I own had issues or just died.  It should give pause but I have had my alpha system for years and it has been perfect.  I am choosing to believe in the product over the company in this situation.

*Need is defined as something so pathetically expensive but due to the bells and whistles it will be presented to the wife as something we cannot live without.


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