The first Garmin Alpha 200i I received, and about which I wrote my initial review, was defective: the compass would not calibrate properly and the pointer sometimes literally spun in circles on the screen when I tried to find my pointing dog. Worse than useless. I spent hours testing and recalibrating the compass on that unit, calling Garmin’s tech support (typically worthless), and finally reached out to Gun Dog Supply for help. GDS is awesome and their staff know way more about Garmin dog products than Garmin does, which is why I buy all our dog stuff from them. They suggested some things to try that Garmin didn’t, and when I got back to them that their suggestions didn’t work and that I thought the unit was defective, they sent me a replacement immediately.
I’m happy to report that the replacement Alpha 200i works as it should (I’ve now used it on three chukar hunts in extreme terrain and the compass works as well or better than my trusty old Alpha 100). So, phew, this thing does work for locating my dog, which has allowed me to look at the other things that might make it worth upgrading from the Alpha 100 (or Astro):
- Bigger, brighter screen: so far no trouble reading it in any kind of light
- inReach: a great safety tool, and better than SPOT or other PLBs in the same price point. When hunting alone outside of cell service, I can send texts home that include a link to my location on a map (Leslie appreciates this, especially when I’m done hunting and send her my preset “I’m heading home” message, which takes just a few seconds)
- I can track Leslie’s Alpha 100 on my compass screen, so it’s easy to see where she is when we lose sight of one another, which happens a lot in chukar country
Things that I’m not convinced are better, which Garmin marketed as big improvements over the Alpha 100 are:
- Physical buttons: the Alpha 200i has three physical buttons on the upper right of the unit, which can be used to toggle between functions and dogs. I don’t like them because I accidentally hit them all the time. It’s possible I could get used to them, but I never had any trouble with the touch-screen control on the Alpha 100, even with gloves (and — unlike the 200i — the Alpha 100 does not require “tech finger” gloves to work the touch screen; my solution for the 200i was to get a pair of tech finger gloves, which I love and which cost very little, actually)
- The three “training buttons” on the upper face of the unit don’t have the same quality feedback as the buttons on the Alpha 100: when I hit the tone button to recall Peat, I’m never sure it actually registers because it’s flush-mounted to the face as opposed to the raised, rounded rubber buttons on the Alpha 100. If I’m looking at the screen when I push the button, I can see it change color, verifying I’ve sent the tone, but I don’t want to have to look at the screen to see if the button worked. This lack of tactile feedback is even more pronounced if you’re wearing gloves
- It seems that those three training buttons also must pertain to the same dog; when we had two dogs I’d have one button programmed to send a tone to Peat, another to send a momentary or continuous shock to Peat, and another to stimulate Angus. You can still change the level of stimulation on those buttons, but all three apparently have to be programmed for the same dog. This makes it really annoying to try to switch dogs quickly and requires looking at the screen to see if you’re buzzing the dog you want. I’ve looked for “solutions” to this in the (typically weak Garmin) manual and on their “support” site, but haven’t found anything about how to program this feature differently; if anyone out there has this unit and has figured out how to put more than one dog on those three buttons, I’d appreciate knowing
- The size and weight of the new 200i are basically the same as the Alpha 100; you’d think it would be possible to put it in a significantly smaller package (look at external hard drive size vs. capacity over time, for example…)
- Usability in the field: both the Alpha 100 and Alpha 200i come with belt clip swivels, which attach to someplace on most bird vests. There are a few “aftermarket” “solutions” for mounting these handhelds in various ways, but — despite looking fairly deep — I haven’t found a great way to mount and use these awesome devices on my vest. Everyone uses different vests and has different hunting styles, so access to the handheld screen differs greatly among the users of these things. It’s sort of surprising, though, that Garmin or another company hasn’t developed a slick, adaptable case or something to make it easier to use in the field. The best I’ve seen, but haven’t tried, is the “Hands Free Case” from Okie Dog Supply, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t get in the way of mounting the gun in a rush…
All of these are picayune gripes, first-world problems, gratuitous bitches and moans, etcetera etcetera etcetera. But you know me. Overall, now that I received a unit that appears to work as it should, I’m happy with it. If you do decide to fork over the clams to upgrade, and you have trouble getting the compass to work correctly, definitely contact Garmin and then ask for a replacement unit from whomever you purchased it.