Korpijaakko

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Yellowbrick YB3 review

This is a review of (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market: Yellowbrick YB v3.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in tent in Reisadalen valley.

Yellowbrick YB v3 and Samsung Galaxy Xcover in a tent in Reisadalen valley.

I’ve written about satellite communication devices earlier covering a bit of tech, the basic options and some messaging devices and later about more messaging devices. And not long ago I shared my experience and a word of warning regarding the SPOT devices. In the review I promised also to tell more about the YB v3. So here we go!

Yellowbrick YB v3

This review is based on my experience with the Yellowbrick Traking’s YB v3 that is the predecessor of the now available updated YB v3 Mk II. The technology and functionality of the devices are basically the same so the remarks here apply also to the YB v3 Mk II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II.

The latest model: YB v3 MK II. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

Systems

The YB v3 is a two-way communication and tracking device based on satellite technology. The unit uses GPS satellites to locate itself (just like the SPOT) and Iridium Communications satellite network to send and receive data (unlike the SPOT). The latter is a big thing!

Iridium is the only satellite communication company providing true global coverage from Pole to Pole and even under dense vegetation. The Iridium satellite constellation consists of 66 satellites on low Earth orbits covering the whole globe. In addition to communicating with ground stations the satellites can also communicate with each other improving the system even more. This means a device based on the Iridium system (like the Yellowbrick) should work reliably anywhere on the globe (unlike the SPOT).

The system aka how YB v3 works.

The system. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

Device

The YB v3 is not especially small gadget but still fits in a large pocket and gives a good grip. The new YB v3 MkII measures 144 x 76 x 36mm and weights 305 grams. It’s bigger than SPOT devices but the size means proper big buttons and an OLED screen!

The 26 x 35 mm screen fits four lines of text and enables easy use. You can see the state of the device, browse the menu, send messages, read messages and even write them with a virtual keyboard and the 4-way keys. In addition to the screen there is an indicator light showing green or red light to mark certain things, for example blinking green light means that the device is sending a message.

On the original YB v3 I was testing there were five buttons: 4-way arrow buttons and the Alert button covered with a flap. The updated model has gained a dedicated OK/enter button which is a great improvement. The buttons are big and chunky and easy to use even with gloves (the thumb of mittens works as well) and feel very robust.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The YB v3 on top of my pulka in the Sarek National Park in March 2012.

The name Yellowbrick is actually very fitting: it feels solid and very rugged. Just like a brick. It is tested to meet IP67 (total protection from dust and submersion down to 1m for 30min) and MIL-STD-810G for vibration, shock and shock. The operating temperature is said to be from -30C to +60C (storage -40C to +85C) but I know it has been used in colder temps without any problems.

Inside the device there is Bluetooth, a high quality GPS chip set, Iridium antenna, 9602 Iridium modem and other stuff to keep the device connected. And even a built-in accelerometer! A built-in 5300 mAh LiPo battery keeps the device up and running. A single charge lasts about 2500 transmission meaning that in real life you can get about three weeks of tracking with 15 minutes interval with just one charge. If you use the YB v3 as a standalone device the battery lasts really long. The use of Bluetooth drains the battery faster. And the battery is conveniently charged with standard mini USB (cable provided). The USB port is covered with a sealed screw-on cap.

Functions and features

The YB v3 offers a lot of functions and the final bundle varies depending on which of the four service levels you buy (apparently the device itself is the same for each but the software varies). For typical personal (or small expedition) outdoor’s use I’d recommend the standard version which has the following functions:

Tracking: The device will send you position information automatically at set intervals and the information will be visible online at YBlog (or on Social Hiking). The Tracking is set from the unit so you can start and stop tracking or even change the interval on the go.

Send basic messages:  You can send preset messages (max 250 characters) from the device to preset recipient’s mobile phone and/or e-mail. You can have hundreds of preset messages but you need a computer to change the messages and an internet access to change the recipients. In addition you can use a virtual keyboard to write free text (again max 250 characters) on the device and send it as a basic message if you are lacking a suitable preset message.

Receive basic messages: You can receive messages up to 250 characters to the device. These messages can be sent either from Yellowbrick’s web service or via e-mail (the device has its own e-mail address).

Advanced messaging: Advanced messaging enables connecting the YB v3 to an Android or iOS device over Bluetooth to send and receive messages up to 1000 characters. You can also then choose the recipient’s e-mail address freely. The advanced messaging also includes social media integration making updates over Twitter, Facebook and the like easy.

Alert: While other functions are used thru the menu of the device the Alert is simply launched with a single dedicated button. There is a red button with a protective cover and once you press the button the device will send an Alert message with your location to preset recipients (mobile phone and/or e-mail). The recipients can be different from the ones for the basic messages. By definition the distress message is not transmitted to any authorities.

Features included in each contract level.

Features included in each contract level. Picture from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd.

The cheapest “Basic” options is missing the Advanced messaging and Bluetooth connectivity so you can save £50 if you don’t need that function. The more advanced “Professional” and “Corporate” options have things like “Advanced Alerting“, encryption, support for multiple units for single account and multi-language support. Features which are not necessary for typical outdoors use. But they are available for little extra if you want to have them.

Interfaces and options

As mentioned above the YB v3 works as a standalone device able to track, send and receive messages. In addition there is an option to connect the YB v3 to a mobile phone or tablet over Bluetooth. This makes reading and especially writing longer messages more enjoyable. The “Yellowbrick Messenger App” is available for both Android and iOS devices. I found the app a little clumsy to use but it does what it needs to do. The app also enables choosing who to send the messages and sending messages directly to linked social medias of choise.

I’ve paired my device with a rugged Samsung Galaxy Xcover phone to tweet and to receive and send longer messages. This has worked fine.

The Yellowbrick is compatible with the still awesome Social Hiking providing a great option for the Yblog service the Yellowbrick offers. The Yblog is an all-in-one service and thus feels little limited compared to the Social Hiking but works as well. And the Yblog is also more than a map and blog as it’s also the online interface for administrating your device(s), contacts, account(s) and messages. It’s not especially sleek but simple and easy to use and gets the things done.

Cost

The price of the units is shown above but a word about the running costs here.

The plan is flexible and you basically pay only for use. For each month you use the device you pay a £8 flat fee per month to keep the device active and in addition sending and receiving messages costs credits. One tracking beacon and each 50 characters of send or received text costs 1 credit. You can buy credits in bundles and they don’t expire. The pricing in September 2013 was the following:

Bundle per Credit Bundle Price
50 Credits £ 0.12 £ 6.00
100 Credits £ 0.11 £ 11.00
200 Credits £ 0.10 £ 20.00
500 Credits £ 0.09 £ 45.00
1000 Credits £ 0.08 £ 80.00
2000 Credits £ 0.07 £ 150.00
5000 Credits £ 0.06 £ 300.00

It is definitely not the cheapest option around but you really get bang for the buck. For example for me paying the considerably cheaper price for a SPOT device doesn’t really make any sense as I can’t trust the thing. It would be simply money wasted so I’m quite happy to pay the higher price for a device that works reliably.

The Use

I’ve used the YB for over 40 full days in the outdoors. Use has been on Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland, in Southern Finland and in the Northern parts of Finland, Sweden and Norway. The device has been used in the cold and in the wet, it has taken some hits and it’s share of exposure to the elements. I’ve used all other functions except the advanced alerting functions which I don’t find useful for normal outdoors use. (Except maybe the “Dead man’s switch” type alert with a timer counting down to an automatic alert if not stopped but needing that on an adventure is quite a grim idea, isn’t it?) I’ve even tested the Alert button as it doesn’t alert authorities but you chosen contact(s) instead. And yes, also the Alert worked just fine.

The YB v3 in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

The YB v3 in the Sarek National Park in September 2012.

Successes

Yellowbrick’s marketing line for the YB v3 is “Robust, Reliable, and Well Designed” and it seems to be very accurate. It can take a lot of abuse. Temps around -30C, freezing super-cooled rain (that sucks!), sleet, torrential rain… no problem.

The durability is a premiss for the greatest success of the device: It just works! I’ve had the device fail sending a message only one single time and this happened indoors in a hut next to some big hills. And the great thing is that the YB v3 can tell me this: there was a GPS fix but the message didn’t go through and so I was able to open the door, place the device outside and get my message sent. Outdoors the device has been able to transmit every single tracking beacon and message successfully.

To get an idea of the capability of the device compare the Social Hiking maps from two similar packrafting tours to Reisadalen in Northern Norway. The Reisadalen is a deep, steep walled canyon well beyond the Arctic Circle meaning it’s quite challenging environment for getting messages through. On the first map you can see beacons sent with YB v3. These are unfortunately with long interval so they are not very frequent but every single one sent has made it through (as have the tweets send from the app).

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. Sparse beacons but all made it through.

Yellowbrick track from a tour in August 2012. I used long interval but all beacons made it through.

On the second map there are beacons sent with SPOT 2. Or there should be. There should be plenty of beacons as they are sent with 10 minutes interval but there are only few random ones in the whole Reisadalen section. In addition the map is missing all the beacons from a 6,6km day-trip to Imofossen in the Reisadalen. Not a single beacon from the day trip.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

SPOT 2 track from a tour in September 2013. Notice the missing beacons.

So, the Yellowbrick just bloody works!

And as a two-way communication device you can also use the Yellowbrick to receive messages (say weather forecast for the summit-bid day) and get to know if your messages and tracking has worked successfully. Both very useful features. You can also see the coordinates from the latest tracking beacon or message sent. This way the device also doubles as a sort of a back-up GPS device.

I was also very pleased with the support from the Yellowbrick team: quick and helpful responses to any situation and also great patience as returning the test device and writing this review took a lot more time than anticipated. Nice guys.

Improvements?

Not much to say here really.

The original YB v3 had couple of points to improve: A dedicated OK button would’ve made the use a lot easier (especially typing “free text” with the device only) and the free text written with the device was limited to a single line of text and exceeding the limit caused it to crash requiring simple rebooting. Both of these issues have been addressed in the now available YB v3 Mk II: There’s a separate OK button and you can write messages long enough that you’ll get frustrated doing so before you run out of characters. In addition the design of the YB V3 Mk II looks little more sleek and the see-through cover on the Alert-button is also a nice touch.

I also encountered some problems with long (over 250 characters) messages send over the Bluetooth connection and had to send them in 250 character sections but also this is fixed with the new device.

So, the YB v3 MkII seems like quite a perfect device. To have something to whine about, it would be nice to have an option to use AA lithium batteries instead of the built-in battery. I’d still like to have option of using the built-in battery instead as it performs very well but sometimes extra AA batteries would be easier to take along than an USB-compatible power source. I’m not sure if it would be possible to do but still something worth keeping in mind.

What other say

There aren’t many reviews of the YB v3 online. There’s for example this one of a pre-production YB v3 Mk I used on Southern Patagonian Icecap and  this one of the latest YB v 3 Mk II used on a last degree ski expedition to the North Pole. In addition many hardcore expeditions and adventures are using Yellowbrick, for example the Coldest Journey and The Dark Ice Project. So even though the reviews are scarce the track record seems good.

Summary

The YB v3 is not especially small or especially cheap but it is robust as a brick and has about all the functions you’d need in recreational outdoor sports or on a more demanding expedition. It’s easy to use and the battery life is good. The pricing is flexible and you basically pay only for what you need and use. In my opinion the YB v3 is (arguably) the best two-way satellite messaging and tracking device on the market.

And in case I forgot to mention: It just works!

Again in Sarek National Park in September 2012.

N checking messages at the Sarek National Park in September 2012.

Availability

The YB v3 is available directly from Yellowbrick Tracking Ltd. You can order it easily from their website. Prices start from £399 (around 470 EUR or 615 USD). Depending on your needs, I’d advice getting the “Standard” model for general outdoors use. I think that the Bluetooth is worth the extra £50.

For those living down-under the Yellowbrick (and some interesting Rock7 products) are available from G-layer.

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Disclaimer: Yellowbrick Tracking offered me a free unit with free use as a sponsorship arrangement for the Vatnajökull 2012 expedition. After the expedition I continued testing the unit on different trips before returning it back to Yellowbrick Tracking and reviewed it here because I genuinely think it’s a great product.

Satellite communiation: Follow-up 1

Not so long ago I wrote a post about different satellite communication devices available for outdoors use. And as many of the devices were brand new for the market there wasn’t too much user experiences available by the time. This is a follow-up and addition to the original post introducing some new satellite communication tools and listing few links to first-hand experience posts of some devices. As the short-burst-data technology (Iridium 9602 SBD satellite modem) behind these devices is quite new, there is a lot of things happening and devices coming up. I’ll keep following the market and post follow-ups when interesting things emerge. For the basic background information, please check the original post.

More satellite messaging & tracking devices

BriarTek Cerberlink

Picture stolen from the Cerberus website.

Essentially Cerberus Cerberlink is a satellite messaging device very similar to Delorme InReach and Yellowbrick YB3 devices:

– Cerberlink uses Iridium network.
– It has a GPS positioning system enabling tracking.
– It works as a two-way communication device, as a standalone unit sending pre-programmed messages or paired with a smart phone it can send 160 character messages and receive messages up to 1600 characters.
– And of course it can be used to send a distress message.

Another interesting thing is that in addition to being Android compatible (via Bluetooth as the other devices) the Cerberlink is also iPhone compatible (unlike the Delorme InReach) and Blackberry compatible (unlike Inreach or Yellowbrick YB3). The Cerbertouch app is also available as a standalone app working on the phone GPS and using GSM network. And there is also an open API for all you nerds out there to make it better.

The device is on the same line with the Delorme InReach: It weights 186  grams and fulfills the IP67 standards (i.e. is shock and waterproof). The recommended operation temperature is from -20C up to +55C. The device has a build-in 2000 mAh Li-Po battery that gives 60 days of standby time and 5-6 days of on-time. This is probably enough for most users and there are some smart battery saving functions. And, of course, it can be recharged on the field.

The messages are transmitted trough Cerbercenter webservice and it also supports social media connection. The Cerbercenter can also send user alert messages about bad weather or geopolitical conflicts on the area. Also distress messages are transmitted to chosen emergency contacts via Cerbercenter that can provide concierge service but they also clearly and honestly state that “we are not a Rescue Coordination Center (RCC)” and “The Cerberus system is not designed to take the place of a PLB or EPIRB..

The Cerberlink is not especially cheap with one-year plan costing 499 USD (383 EUR) for the device and additional 32,95 USD (23,30 EUR) every month. This includes 60 messages per month and unlimited tracking. The rental plans are quite competitive costing 64,95 USD (50 EUR) for two weeks (20 messages) or 89,95 USD (69,10 EUR) for four weeks (40 messages). The Cerberlink seems to be only available online through the company itself.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, works as stand-alone or with smart phone (Android, Blackberry and iPhone),  rugged enough, global coverage, the smart phone app also available as stand alone

E-Track Epsilon

Picture stolen from the E-Track website.

The E-Track Epsilon is more targeted for the company and government segments like the Solara in the original post. The features interesting for an outdoor enthusiast would be the already familiar:

– Global coverage of Iridium network
– GPS positioning and tracking
– Two-way communication with predefined or free messages
– Distress message

The E-Track is a stand-alone unit only, so no need or possibility to use a smart phone with it. Though I think that writing a long free message with a virtual keyboard operating with four arrow keys does suck… Luckily you can save 10 predefined messages in addition to 20 outgoing and 20 incoming messages. The tracking function can send the position of the device with intervals reaching from every second to every 18,2 hours (yes, very interesting interval) and it can start automatically when the device is moved. The Epsilon can also send messages with preprogrammed times and dates which might be useful for some.

The E-Track Epsilon is quite heavy weighting 310 grams. It meets the IP67 standards and can operate in temperatures ranging from -40C to +85C which is very good temperature range. The Epsilon uses three AA batteries (anything from Lithium and Alkalines to rechargeables). Nice thing is that is had an embedded battery charger so you don’t need an additional charger for the batteries on longer trips. E-Track offers a Cartoweb software for managing Epsilon devices and for example it enables remote controlling of the units which probably isn’t much use for an outdoor recreationalist.

I didn’t find any prices for the device or plans but I guess it is expensive being targeted for the company and government users.

See also the incredibly small 60 gram E-Track Sigma. If all you need is satellite tracking and a way to shout “Help!” this might be your choise, at least if you like cracking grams. 😉

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, global coverage, some smart autonomous functions, probably expensive, not for regular outdoor recreationalist

Geopro SHOUT Nano

Picture stolen from the Geopro website.

Geopro’s SHOUT Nano is another satellite messaging device targeted to the company and government segments and thus not that much in the interests of an outdoor people. It has the typical features:

– Iridium network
– GPS positioning and tracking
– Two-way communication with predefined or free messages
– Emergency message

Just like the E-Track the SHOUT Nano is a stand-alone unit only. It has a dedicated covered Emergency button and the emergency use in general seems to be well thought. The other features are quite typical and seem to be designed towards business and government use. The device weights 185 grams including a built-in field rechargeable 1920 mAh Li-ion battery. The temperature range is from -40C to +85C but the device is not IP67 certified or similarly rugged.

The traffic from Shout Nano is transmitted via  Geopro’s own network (advertised to be very secure and very reliable) and the business oriented user interface and management tool is Geopro’s own web application with a monthly fee of 17.50 USD (13 EUR).

The Geopro SHOUT Nano costs around 850 USD (650 EUR) so it’s not cheap. There is a heavier IP66 certified device Geopro Messenger available for 700 USD (535 EUR). The Geopro devices are available from few retailers. There is a 50 USD (38 EUR) software license and the monthly fee for each device is 17.50 USD (13 EUR). In addition the messages (outgoing and incoming) cost from 0,20 to 0,06 USD (0,15-0,05 EUR) depending on the bundle. Not that cheap.

Summary: GPS positioning, tracking, 2-way messaging, stand-alone unit, global coverage, expensive, not for regular outdoor recreationalist

User experience

Satellite messaging devices have many applications and naturally first user experiences usually come from the user groups that have the money for new toys… In this case it seems to be the boating and yachting segment. Thanks to the rich people with their big boats, there are some good reviews and first looks about some of the devices I’ve covered in this or in the original post:

Panbo The Marine Electronics blog has a nice two part review of the Delorme InReach. There are also some related comments with testing and some spotted problems (mainly with receiving messages). But there is also information that Delorme is actively working on the software and constantly making it better. Here is the first part of the review about the device itself and here is the second part about the web interface.

Now there are also some real user experiences about Yellowbrick YB3 from a Patagonia icecap expedition. This is very much worth reading. But it’s also worth taking into account that the review is (apparently) of a pre-production model as most of the suggested “future enhancements” are now available as standard features.

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In addition to these reviews and user experience reports there might be more already and certainly there will be more. And probably there will be even more similar devices available in future. So if you’re interested in one or the other of these devices, stay alert and see how they work in real life. And I wouldn’t mind you posting links or your own experiences about satellite communication devices!