For those that have been around the DCR block long enough, you’ll know that I’m always looking for tracking solutions for my worldly activities. Especially ones that don’t depend on having a mobile phone nearby, and even more so for ones that don’t depend on cellular service at all. I’ve long since played with various satellite trackers, be it on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, or in random spots in Africa or beyond. And about a decade ago I even wrote a review of one of the original Spot Tracker’s. Talk about a blast from the past!
And today’s In-Depth review is exactly in line with all that past goodness. The inReach Mini was just announced today and is one of the smallest satellite trackers out there. The key thing that a satellite tracker has over other trackers is that it doesn’t have any dependency on cellular service. This can function just fine in the middle of the ocean. As long as you can see the sky, it’ll work.
In the case of today’s announcement, the inReach Mini also gains connectivity to the Fenix 5 and Forerunner 935 watches, hopefully paving the way for other devices. While the unit was announced today, I’ve been using it now for a few weeks across two continents.
Before we dive into things though, note that I’ve got a media loaner of the inReach Mini to try out, after which I’ll send it back like normal. And in this case, it’s pretty likely I’ll go out and buy my own. If you found this review useful, feel free to hit up the links at the end of the post to help support the site.
The inReach Mini Review Overview:
Don’t have time to read the full in-depth review? No problem, I’ve got you covered in this bite-sized section. Pros, cons, and everything in between.
The last time I touched on inReach devices was some 17 months ago, with the original inReach unit – Garmin’s first rebranded DeLorme product line. The core appeal to the inReach series is satellite communications. Not just satellite GPS, but full on text messaging via satellites. Thus no dependency on cellular service. If your openwater swim goes horribly wrong and you find yourself 1,000 miles from land, it’ll work just fine.
But the appeal here isn’t misguided openwater swimmers, but rather folks heading well beyond dependable cellular service. Hiking, mountain biking, trail running, etc… The challenge is that for some of those people, the existing inReach devices were bulky and simply cumbersome. The inReach Mini aims to solve that problem. And even more interestingly, it now integrates with some Garmin wearables. So basically you can toss the inReach out of reach (backpack, rear cage on bike, etc…), and then get satellite notifications straight to the wrist.
But for simplicity’s sake in this brief overview section, here’s the core things it’ll do:
– Satellite messaging to friends/family/pizza delivery folks, even if not on service
– Sends GPS track/map of where you’ve been/are every 2 minutes
– Can overlay planned route as well for GPS tracking web link
– Has quick preset messages, as well as longer custom presets
– Can type out long satellite messages (very slowly) just like real text messages
– Has SOS button, which will ultimately result in government rescue services
– Has 50-hour battery life with sending updates via satellite every 10 minutes
– Has 20-day battery life with updates every 30 minutes
– Can be paired to Fenix 5 series and Forerunner 935 watches
– Basic waypoint navigation/saving using compass-style display
– Can use paired phone app (without cellular service) to send complex messages/details
Now the inReach technology actually came from DeLorme, which Garmin acquired a couple of years ago. That got them a few things. Primarily, it got Garmin access to the Iridium satellite network for communications. But it also got Garmin a billing and subscription platform. See, this device does require a subscription. I dive into the details a bit later on in the post, but it can be fairly reasonable, especially if you just use preset messages (and create a crapton of them). The cheapest plan is $12/month, and the most expensive is $100/month.
I’ve put together this overview video showing how it all works out in the real world, while mountain biking in California a few weeks ago. I also dive into the integration with the Garmin watches too.
In using this device the last 2-3 weeks, I’m generally impressed with it – primarily because of size. As I’ve said before, I’ve long tinkered with Spot Satellite devices, which were always far smaller than the Garmin inReach devices until now. But the size of the inReach Mini is great, and for me, the appeal of integration with my watch is even better. Also, unlike the Spot devices, I can type out full blown messages with far more detail. And, one could communicate back and forth with rescuers in real-time.
However, the inReach Mini is twice the price of the Spot device ($349 vs $169), not to mention the battery life is substantially less than Spot’s Gen3 units, which are looking at weeks of battery life depending on the tracking rate you utilize. Also, the Spot unit can be configured with accelerometer based tracking, so basically if you’re moving it updates more frequently and if not moving it saves battery (such as at night while camping). Garmin has something similar, but it uses GPS and the timeout period is significantly longer (4 hours) – thus, it’s not quite as efficient.
Now in the review I dig into some of the more nuanced items of the inReach, and in some way – the ‘biggest’ issue I have with it is just the split between the inReach world and the rest of the Garmin world. Being an acquired company, you can clearly see the split in web and app platforms. If you didn’t have another Garmin device, you’d probably never notice it. But if you come from the Fenix/Forerunner world, you’d notice different aspects like the fact that your ‘Routes’ aren’t kept in the same database/platform behind the scenes (two silos), or that if you load a route on your Fenix, it doesn’t translate into a route on the inReach Mini. You have to duplicate and do that separately. Minor hassles for big trips, but moderate annoyances for day to day training/usage. Again, Garmin’s their own enemy here in having too much stuff.
As you can see, there are definitely pros and cons to both devices. It depends mostly on how ‘interactive’ you want to be with your device. With Spot, its more ‘fire and forget’ (but longer battery life), whereas with Garmin, you’ve effectively got real-time messaging with friends/family/rescuers.
Ultimately though, it’s a super cool little device if you routinely go out of cellular range, or, if you just find that cellular phone based Live Track isn’t normally dependable enough to use day to day. I’d love to see inReach integration become ‘baseline’ across all of Garmin’s mid to high-end fitness/cycling devices, just like you see Varia Vision integration or their cycling lights. Further, with a unit like this, it’s almost perfect to split between friends. Sorta a pooled device that whichever buddy/person is headed out of range can use for the trip/weekend/etc. All of which is easily supported within the platform.
Overall, I’m looking forward to buying one here shortly to keep on hand for when I head into the backcountry, be it skiing or cycling, running or hiking. If nothing else, it’ll make The Girl happy. Happy wife, happy life.
The inReach Mini comes in a small box about the size of a piece of corn broken in half and placed side by side. On the back of it you’ll find stats about the unit, and most notably the coverage area being 100% of the earth.
This 100% tidbit is notable because their primary competitor – Spot – doesn’t actually have full earth coverage. That’s because in Spot’s case they use land-based systems to increase coverage, which doesn’t work well in the oceans, or towards the polar caps. All of which is detailed on Spot’s coverage page. This is part of the reason why inReach has done so well with past (larger) devices.
Inside you’ll find the unit staring up at you, and if you remove it and the remainder of the stuff from the box, this is what you’ve got:
Starting with the accessory bits, this is a small clip that you can screw on, using the hex wrench and screw.
Alternatively, you can do as I’ve done and use the included carabineer and simply attach it to the small bit of rotatable strap on the back.
Meanwhile, the unit is chargeable via Micro-USB cable. Someday we’ll see Garmin adopt USB-C…but today is not that day.
And then finally, we’ve got the unit itself. Here’s a few pics of that, though honestly by the end of this review you’ll have seen it from all the angles:
So with that quick unboxing out of the weight, let’s dig into the specifics of how to use the unit, and what it’s good for…since sitting atop a table inside isn’t really all that exciting.
In many ways the inReach Mini is pretty straightforward, but I found that the more I dug into it, the more layers of the onion peeled back in terms of functionality within it. So, I’m going to start with the basics, and then dive deeper and deeper.
It’s probably logical to start with the buttons. The unit has six of them. On the left side are up and down buttons, and atop the unit is a power button.
On the right side are three more buttons. You’ve got OK and back buttons, followed by the protected SOS button.
The SOS button sits below a hard protective bit of plastic that you have to open up to access the actual SOS button. This ensures that the unit doesn’t trigger a military response after being pressed up against a squished peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Atop the unit is the thick satellite communications antenna that talks with the Iridium satellite network. It’s this dorky looking top that contains the magic to message two-ways without being near cellular service.
On the back of the unit you’ve got the ability to hook in the carabineer clip, or you can attach any number of accessory clips they have for it as well.
Once powered on, the unit will acquire an initial GPS fix, in addition it starts checking in with satellites for the communications side of the house as well. You have to think of these two as fairly independent. We’ll start with the communications side first. When it comes to sending messages outbound, everything falls into one of three and a half categories:
– Presets: There are three of these that can be customized, including precisely who they go to
– Quick Messages: These can also be customized, but aren’t assigned to a given person, you can create endless quick messages
– Free-form messages: Type as you wish, using the unit, your watch, or your phone
– SOS Message: Crap went horribly wrong, use this as a last resort
Looking at the first two categories, these can be customized on the web portal. It’s easiest from a computer, and they are designed to be done ahead of time. On the left side you see my ‘Preset Messages’. These are the three messages I can quickly access from the unit that go to specific people. Many inReach users would have these configured to a larger group of friends, but I lack such a group. Also, companies might link these to numerous people in a company too. You can see I’ve configured it to include a map of my location/track.
Whereas on the right side are ‘Quick Text Messages’, which are more like text templates. You can add more and more of these, and customize them however you want. But they aren’t preset to send to a specific person, rather, you can send them to whomever you want on the fly.
On your device, you’ll see these first two options displayed – ‘Send Preset’ and ‘New Message’. Here’s the preset message menu, first the option to choose it, and then the three options to send:
Remember, with presets, they go to the specific contacts you’ve pre-configured for presets, along with the specific message.
Meanwhile, if you start to go into the larger ‘Messages’ menu, you’ve got a boatload more options. The first thing you’ll do there is decide who to send it to, so you’ll select contacts to send the message to:
This also includes sending to Twitter or Facebook as well, if you’ve configured those:
Contacts can be pre-defined online using the web portal or via the phone. These include an e-mail address, a phone number, and an ‘inReach’ address, in the event they have an inReach device. The inReach addresses are all based on the format of firstname.lastname@example.org. The benefit there is if you had multiple people with inReach devices on a mountain, it makes it a bit cleaner than trying to send to e-mail/phone numbers.
Once you’ve selected the contacts you can then decide to write a fully custom message, or, to select one of your ‘Quick Text’ options. If you select a Quick Text, you’ll see a list of those:
Else, if you want to type out a message, you can do that via the messages UI. You can actually combine the methods too. For example, I can combine a Quick Text message with custom information at the end of it. That’s a good way to perhaps add an ETA or similar extra important information. It also has an auto-complete function, which does help finish words for you.
Obviously, typing out messages one character at a time is painstakingly slow. But that’s kinda the point, it’s not really supposed to be a full on sexting type of situation. It’s supposed to be for more urgent information…like beer selection.
Once you’ve done all this you’ll hit send, and away it goes. The little ‘upwards arrow’ icon below means the message is still sending. When you send/receive messages, it’ll give a little chirping tone upon completion.
In addition to all that, you can use your phone paired up to it, to type out longer messages, which are then still sent via satellite. This is useful if the contents of your message are more complex than you want to type using just the up/down arrows of the inReach Mini. You’re limited to 160 characters per message.
As far as checking in for messages, the unit does so at predefined ten-minute intervals, though you can force a sync anytime, which will also update your mailbox. It’s kinda like going back to AOL when you hit to refresh your mailbox manually to check it faster. The interval time is also customizable, but as you might expect, the more often you update, the less battery life you get. And more importantly, the higher rate option (2-minute intervals) is only available on the most expensive subscription plan. Obviously, if you’re leading expeditions in the mountains of the Himalayas, the extra cost is trivial. But for the weekend hiker in fringe cellular service ear the Appalachian trail, the highest priced plan is a bit much. But more on pricing later.
As an interesting aside here – if someone (perhaps a family member or someone else on the team) has the full admin login for your device, they can actually change the tracking rate on the fly. The next time the device checks in (which at worst would be 20-30 minutes), it’ll update the tracking rates. Obviously this would have a downstream impact on battery life, but certainly there are scenarios this could make sense.
Finally, I didn’t dive into the SOS feature much here – for the very simple reason I didn’t use it. Doing so requires triggering a very real chain of events that ultimately would result in a helicopter coming to get me. I didn’t think they’d be pleased with arriving to me shooting photographs of their arrival for this review.
That said, the way it works is that once you press that SOS button the alert is routed to an inReach command center that’s staffed 24×7. Real-life humans would then actually message you via inReach satellite first, to find out more about the issue. Is it a real problem? An accident by a kid, etc… And if it’s an issue – what type of assistance can they send. As part of that, they’ll also reach out to your defined emergency contacts. These could be family members, or part of a company if you’re using the device in a business capacity. They could also be teams nearby you that may be able to assist. And ultimately, if required they’ll coordinate with governmental agencies in virtually any country to save your bacon. They’ve done this more than 2,000 times according to a post I found from last fall. In talking with Garmin, during peak season on Mt. Everest, they often have more than 500 inReach devices active at a time.
Now here’s the thing: Sure, the SOS feature is without question invaluable if you find yourself in that situation. But I think for everyone else, it’s actually the constant communication and tracking features that are most valuable. The ability to specify the route you should be on, versus the route you’re actually on. Or to have a real-time conversation with friends/family/teams about your current situation. You’re two hours behind schedule…but it’s OK because you just had some mechanical issues. Versus them wondering if something worse happened. To me, that’s the real value here.
Oh, and lastly, there have been reported issues with SOS buttons being accidentally pressed upon previous inReach devices (two generations ago, not the most recent generation), and actually triggering. I’ve largely kept the unit on actually while in my bag, just for the fun of it, and haven’t triggered it accidentally that way. But what if I put all my force on it, and pushed it up against a hard surface and held it for 10 seconds, would it trigger then?
Nope, simply nope. The button cover on the Mini is unbendable, and they’ve appeared to have added a ‘cross-beam’ on the underside of the button as well, my guess is to provide further structural support.
The reasons for not accidentally triggering an accidental SOS event are many. First, embarrassment of it all is less than ideal. Then there would be the wasted resources of emergency folks. But more importantly may be the cost: It can run many thousands of dollars to rescue services if it’s not cancelled in time. Nobody wants that.
Tracks and Maps:
Now that I’ve covered messages, let’s talk maps and tracks. This is where the unit shines, but also where things get a bit confusing if you’re already within the Garmin sphere. First, let’s talk shared maps of where you are currently. When you send a message you get the option to include a map with it. This is largely defined on the preset message page, where you can choose to enable ‘Mapshare’:
When you send that preset message to the preset contacts, they’ll get an e-mail, just like this:
Once they click that link, they’ll get brought to this page here, which shows your current location as well as the tracks. It also has the ability for that person to then send back a message to you, directly from that page. So if your friends/family want to send you a message, they can do that. Just remember to read the ‘Subscription’ part of this review for some caveats on how many custom messages you send.
As part of that, you’d see the tracks for a given trip/route/activity. And as the owner of the devices, you can look these up as well afterwards on the portal. For example, some mountain biking. On the left you can see totals for that activity, as well as the track on the right:
I can also change the map types here too:
But all of that is focused on looking at where I’ve been or where I am. What about where I’m going?
Well, that takes a bit more planning. The first step is creating a pre-planned course or route. You can draw the route on the map, or import a GPX, KML, or KMZ file (variants of GPS file standards). Alternatively, you can import courses from your Garmin Connect stash.
The main reason you’d do this from Garmin Connect is if you had another Garmin devices with routes there. Plus, this is really the easiest way to ensure the route on your watch matches the route on the inReach device. Once these are imported in, they appear within your routes section.
This is then mirrored on the inReach mobile app, called EarthMate. That app acts as a gateway to both the Garmin inReach platform online, as well as your device via Bluetooth Smart. It needn’t be connected to either though. So it can operate without online access (including offline maps), as well as operate without access to your device.
You can even download other map regions for free, quickly and efficiently. Perhaps the remainder of Garmin could steal this capability…cough, Cycling and Outdoor wearables teams.
It’s from the mobile app that you can also send messages. This is handy if you have a phone charged nearby, because you’ll be able to type messages far quicker on your phone than on the inReach or watch devices.
Same goes for sending previous tracks or current tracks to other previously unspecified people. You can basically go totally free-form here, and it’ll use the inReach satellite system. Thus, in effect, you can operate totally without cellular or WiFi service from within the app. Obviously, you can’t access Instagram or Snapchat, but you can at least send plain-text messages and such via e-mail, text, and to other inReach folks.
Finally, it should be noted that the unit can do basic navigation. In this mode you can load up any of the courses that you’ve synced to the device, which you can access via the navigate menu.
From there you’ll be able to follow the track using a combination of a directional arrow and a compass. Obviously, you’re unlikely to use this method for complex routing, but for last resort routing it’ll do the trick.
Oh, and for lack of anywhere else to stick it – the device can receive weather updates for your position. This is pretty similar to what you’d get on a Garmin wearable/cycling device. You do have four options though: Basic, Premium, Marine Basic, Marine Premium. The premium ones cost extra in certain plans, and give you more detailed information.
It’d definitely be handy out in the backcountry/wilderness areas for a week or longer where you wanted to know whether that never-ending rain would…well…end.
Probably of most interest to many readers here is the new integration with Garmin’s Fenix 5 series (5/5S/5X) and Forerunner 935 watches. Those watches were selected primarily because of the outdoor/hiking slant of the Fenix series, and because the FR935 shared the same codebase with it, thus coming along for the ride.
The integration occurs via a widget, but not a Connect IQ one. Instead, it’s built into the firmware of those watches, which means that you’ll have to wait slightly for the firmware to be updated. Given I’ve been using a beta FR935 firmware that contains it, it shouldn’t be terribly long before it’s released.
To get started you’ll simply enable the inReach widget on your watch (again, once the firmware is out).
Then from there you’ll have it pair to the inReach device, which is done via ANT+. This pairing also needs to be enabled on the side of the inReach unit:
And…that’s it, it’s done.
To use it on your watch, you’ll scroll down the left side to the inReach widget. Note that this widget can be accessed both within an activity and outside an activity.
Then from there, you’ve got the watch acting as a mini display for your inReach Mini. You can do almost everything message-wise from the watch. Be it selecting presets to send, or quick text messages, it’s here:
Even the ability to painstakingly type out a message response:
I find it somewhat ironic that they’ve developed a very capable widget for this, but that I can’t do this for regular text messages yet on my watch (or have pre-canned presets like the Apple Watch). Someday…
And lastly, you can trigger an SOS message from the watch too. I could see this being useful in cases where you had an inReach on a backpack or something and during a fall it got separated from you physically, but still within range of ANT+ (which can easily be tens of meters or longer if line of sight). In my case, that bit of the firmware isn’t enabled.
Now, as I argued to Garmin when I visited them a few weeks ago, they’re missing an opportunity by not having this available on their Edge devices, especially the Edge 520/820/1030 – which are key devices that cross-over into the mountain biking realm. The ability to have this information directly on my handlebars would be awesome, and hugely appreciated in quite a bit of mountain biking terrain where cellular service is spotty (including where I was testing this not far from Sea Otter last week).
The next thing I’d like to see Garmin do here is merge the backends of the tracking platforms. Right now Garmin’s ‘Live Track’ service, which is used for just about every fitness/cycling/etc device in the last decade hasn’t been updated since it was first rolled out nearly a decade ago. It doesn’t show your planned route for example, whereas inReach does.
But more so, I want to see these two service mesh together. You should be able to go out for a ride with your Edge 1030 and have it use cellular live tracking when available for near real-time tracking, but then at the same time with a paired inReach Mini it should be able to seamlessly merge the tracking data on the backend web platform. To friends and family watching via web link, they wouldn’t care what the medium was (satellite or cellular), it’d just appear as your current live track, along with the planned route. This reduces the expensive satellite network tracking burden when not needed, while getting more information on the cellular side. inReach messages would then arrive to your Edge device or watch seamlessly, be it from cellular or satellite (again, reducing costly Iridium services).
The benefit for Garmin there is that once they make this totally seamless, the solution pretty much sells itself. To be able to give my wife a single tracking link with my planned ride or Alps hike for the day, and know that it’ll work no matter where I go – is huge. And from my side, to only have to ‘deal’ with a single device (my watch or bike computer), and to treat the inReach just like any other sensor – reduces my complexity later.
For its part, in my discussions with Garmin about this – they get it. They completely agree the use case for getting this in Edge devices is huge, especially in the mountain biking community. And I don’t think they see it as a big barrier either. I’ve gotta believe they’d generate more inReach revenue (devices + subscription fees) than they would Varia heads-up display units. After all, they added that capability to a flotilla of devices.
All inReach devices require a subscription plan – not much different than one you might pay for Apple Music or Spotify (or, just the Spot platform). However, unlike common music subscription services, there’s actually a slew of options available on inReach. They roughly can be divided up into two camps: How much data/tracking you want, and how often you plan to use the device.
If you are one that uses the device every month of the year, then you’ll basically want an annual plan, as it saves cash. Whereas if you hibernate in the winter like Yogi, then you’ll probably be better served by a month to month plan that you can turn on for the warmer months.
I’m gonna paste a copy of the pricing model as of today, but of course, if you visit this review two years from now, double check their page for current pricing. The top line-item is the name of the plan. ‘Freedom plans’ means a 30 day period that you buy as a one-off (for example, June 15th to July 15th 2018 for a trip, but not August or September).
The most notable areas to focus on are:
A) Presets are unlimited (these are the three messages you can customize)
B) Quick Text options though fall under ‘Text Messages’, even if you don’t customize them.
C) Tracking/location message costs
D) The cost, duh.
Now, the biggest difference between the two cheapest plans is that one includes unlimited tracking points, and 40 messages. It’s the first part that’s most notable though, one being 10 cents a message, the other unlimited. Tracking points over just a single day can add up very quickly, if you leave the defaults.
Using the defaults, this works out to 60 cents an hour while tracking, or $14 a day if you left tracking on 24/7 at 10-minute intervals. You can reduce the interval though, which would save you costs. But the message, no pun intended, is clear: Just pay up for the $25/month plan. After all, at that rate, you’ve got unlimited tracking points and 4 times as many messages.
And while you might think you use a ton of messages, if you’re primarily using the device for tracking and SOS, as I have been, then I rarely used custom messages. The three presets are fully inclusive no matter which plan, and if you tweak those just enough you can kinda cover all the basics. Thus I think for the vast majority of people, the ‘Recreation’ plan is probably the way to go. You’d have to go through over 90 messages to cover the cost difference to the next highest tier.
As for the tracking interval of 10 minutes vs 2 minutes, I don’t think that matters much for most scenarios. After all, the main point here isn’t Strava-accurate tracks to compete on segments. Rather, it’s to give someone a location to come and find you. So you needn’t really be up to the second accurate, since more than likely if you got yourself in a pickle, you’ll be in that pickle-spot for 10 minutes anyway.
Just for context, the main competitor – Spot – the tracking costs $12.40/month (annualized) for the base level (which is tracking points at every 5 minutes). You can pay $4 more and get it to every 2.5 minutes (so total $16.40/month). In that case, you don’t get back and forth messaging, but you do of course get SOS services. Obviously, there are the device-specific differences I outlined earlier, the major one being that the inReach Mini has back and forth text messaging while Spot doesn’t, whereas Spot has vastly longer battery life.
Garmin seems to have largely nailed this device from a features and functionality standpoint. It does precisely what it says it does, and does it in a super small form factor that as fairly versatile battery life. The fact that it can go from 50 hours of battery life up to 20 days is astounding, especially for longer range treks that may be moving slower where a 30-minute interval is perfectly functional. And the integration with Garmin’s higher end watches is a pretty natural fit, which works great in allowing you to keep your unit clipped to the back of your backpack.
The downsides here are relatively few, but the main one is cost. At over twice the price of the Spot device, and with more expensive tracking required, it’ll minimize the number of weekend warriors who might pickup the device based on the Garmin watch integration. Had it been priced at $249 or $299, it’d probably do significantly better. I suspect though that Garmin is catering this device towards people dropping thousands (or tens of thousands) on other gear and trip fees, whereby the cost of this is relatively trivial. But ultimately a unit like this is low-volume (today), but I actually don’t think it needs to be. At $249 it could easily be sold in bike shops that are mountain-bike heavy, especially if Garmin were to add Edge computer integration.
Still, for many people the devices features and more importantly – size – will win them over at the current price point. I could see myself picking one up to use in my more remote travels, especially in the 30-minute interval mode and just leaving it on for weeks at a time, allowing friends or family to quickly check in. One more gadget won’t hurt, right?
With that, thanks for reading!
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Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Tracker (North American folks)
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