Hands-on review of the new Beartooth smartphone radios – Updated and Compared to GMRS walkie-talkies 10   Recently updated !


In our travels we’ve been to many places where our cellphones don’t work. We’ve been to several national parks ( Yosemite is the most recent )  and events ( Overland Expo West ) where Jeanette and I found our cellphones next to useless much of the time. We fell back on small FRS radios, but in both locations we were not the only people using those bands and while we could filter out most of the other radio traffic, some still got through, which was annoying. We wished for something better that could send location data as well.

For about a year and a half I’d been aware of the Kickstarter for a device called “Beartooth”, which promised off-network connectivity of a sort to people who spend time in places without cellular network connections.

Beartooth is a small device ( about the size of a deck of playing cards, maybe just a little lighter ) that connects to a smartphone via bluetooth ( both Android and IOS ) to allow you to use your phone to connect with other Beartooth users to share location, short voice messages or text style messages over an advertised range of up to 10 miles ( 5 for voice ).  The Beartooth “network” is local and not connected to the Internet or any cell towers, so you can’t message outside of your nearby friends that have Beartooth devices active, but the concept is still an attractive one.

Pricing for Beartooth is $249/pair ( pre-order pricing ) for now, but once all backordered units are shipped, the pricing will go up to its normal level of $498/pair.

I didn’t participate in the Kickstarter ( I’ve been burned by Kickstarer projects before ) but my friend Taylor Banks ( http://thelearningbanks.com/ ) had enough faith to plunk down his hard-earned money and was kind enough to provide me with his two newly arrived Beartooth units for testing. If those features are critical to you, wait to purchase.

Here’s the specs from the Beartooth website:


A few notes about the specs: As of yet, Encryption and Mesh Networking are not functional features of the Beartooth units, so if those are critical to your application, I’d wait to buy. They will come with an update to the smartphone application and not to a firmware update to the Beartooth device itself, if I’m understanding correctly.

 

Unboxing

The Beartooth devices come nicely packed with Micro USB charging cables and a pair of short Micro USB to USB-A female cords to allow you to plug in a normal USB charging cable and top off the batteries in your phone.


The quick start guide is just a link to the Beartooth site to view a video or download a .pdf. That’s nice for Beartooth because they can easily update the guide as new features or software comes out, but I’d like to see a bit more general guidance included in the package.

The beartooth device itself is small and light, with a single amber status LED and two buttons on the top with the USB charge port, which is used to charge the Beartooth device itself and with an adapter, to charge your cellphone if needed.


In this photo, the power button is on the right, the bluetooth pairing button is on the left. The unlit amber status light is over the micro USB socket.  I found the buttons to be a little frustrating because when you press them it’s not immediately apparent anything is happening and the status light is confusing. Long presses are apparently needed to turn the device on and off and the status light flashes when the unit is starting up, when bluetooth is attempting to pair and when it’s paired but waiting for the application to connect, but it’s not obvious which flash is which.

A separate light for bluetooth status would be nice, as would more colors for the status light. Red for unconnected, green for all connected, something like that. There are modes where the Beartooth device is still on, but the status light is not on at all, leading a user to think the device is off. More about this below in the battery life part of the review below.
The buttons are recessed to prevent accidental application, which is nice.

The case is all black plastic and flexes a little, feeling just a bit cheap at their $250/pair introductory price and more so when the price goes up to $500/pair. It’s small and light enough that you won’t know it’s in a backpack, but it would take up a fair amount of pants pocket space. It is not ruggedized in any way, though it’s light enough that a drop onto dirt from a moderate height ( 4′?) is unlikely to damage it. Hard surface drops may damage it.

Charging time is advertised as 4 hours and I found the devices to meet this claim when I charged them before I first used them.

The Smartphone App

To use a Beartooth device ( you need at least two of them, since they don’t talk to anything else other than another Beartooth) the device must be paired with a smartphone and the Beartooth app loaded on the phone. We paired them variously with an iPhone, a Motorola G4 Plus and later with a Samsung Galaxy Tab S tablet for testing. Most of the time the Bluetooth was stable, but the G4 lost the connection once and needed to be re-paired, or it might not have because the status light is so useless so i couldn’t tell. My experience with bluetooth in general is varied at best, so this might not have been a Beartooth issue.

The Beartooth application provides your phone with the tools to manage settings on the Beartooth, manage your Beartooth contacts and send/receive messages. I found the app to be buggy ( I’ll be pointing out the bugs later in this article ) and kind of clunky but stable.

Once you’ve connected the app with the Beartooth, you set the name that others will see when they scan for nearby Beartooth units and scan for others.

Here’s the main menu for the app on Android, showing the app connected to the Beartooth device, but unable to read the battery level. It was rare for it to successfully read the battery level on both Android devices I tested, which hampered my ability to test battery life.
People takes you to your contact list.
Groups lets you combine people into groups to message multiple people at once. I only had two devices, so I never used this feature.
Talk shows you open conversations with people or groups.
Maps shows shared locations and where you are.
Settings allows you to change a few things about the Beartooth unit.

The first thing to do is add other people.

You hit the “+” button to scan and save nearby Beartooth units ( identified by the name set by the user of that Beartooth and the serial number  ) as “People”. Once you’ve got people in the list, you can message them or add them to a group for group messages. When searching for other Beartooth units, they must be on and have a phone paired to them with the app running. If there is no smartphone working with a Beartooth, it will not show up in the scan, even if it’s been paired with a phone and is powered up. If you know the serial number of another Beartooth, you can add it manually as well.

This shows two “conversations” listed. If you click on one of them, you can see the actual conversation and chat with that person.

The Maps screen allows you to see where you are, shows location points shared by other Beartooth contacts in chats with you and allows you to download the maps for offline viewing. It’s critical to do the map download of the area where you’ll be using your Beartooth BEFORE you get out of range of an Internet connection. There are several map types, including road maps, topographic maps and a satellite image view.

Location points can be clicked on to give you a few more details, the most important one is lat/long, though the locations have been redacted in this image.

 

Here’s the settings screen. You can change the name your Beartooth appears as to other devices, reduce the output power to save battery life or check for firmware updates.

Chat conversations look like this. In the image below, I’ve sent a message “This is a test” to the tablet.
The tablet user replied, then sent a location link and a 3 second voice message. Voice messages come out of the speaker of the receiving smartphone almost in real time. At the bottom of the window are the blank spot to type text for a new message, as well as “buttons” to send location and voice messages.

One of the software bugs is illustrated here. The dimmed out location button on the right is, according to the quick start manual, what you tap to send your location. On both the G4 and the Tablet I tested, this button has always been dimmed out and non-functional. Rather, it’s the button to it’s left that sends a location message to other devices.

I have no idea what that button might actually do.

Battery Performance

Charging happened pretty quickly, both tested units charged in under the 4 hours suggested in the quick start guide. I test charged the G4 Plus from one of the Beartooth units, it charged fairly fast, but its phone battery is nearly as large as the Beartooth battery, so you’re not going to want to do much phone boosting if you’re planning on using the Beartooth for its original purpose, since a full phone charge would leave the Beartooth battery drained.

The status light is another issue. Several times in the testing of these units they’ve been put away with the status light dark, but apparently still on, only to be pulled out a few days later with flat batteries. This appears to happen when the Beartooth phone app is off, or disconnected for some reason, but the bluetooth on the phone is still on. This leaves the Beartooth on and connected to the phone, but not the app and the status light out. The unit appears off, but is not.

The status light patterns aren’t different enough to fully indicate what’s going on, they might be on, or off, or if flashing, either searching for a bluetooth connection or waiting for the Beartooth app to connect. It’s all very puzzling to everyone here who’s tried them and we’re not new to portable tech.

Battery life is advertised as 4 days ( @ 5/5/90, which is 5% of the time transmitting, 5% of the time receiving and 90% of the time on standby, which is pretty normal for rating battery life on radio gear, I believe ). Our testing probably had them standing by >99% of the time, but I found battery life to be less than two days, based on 55% battery life remaining after less than a single day of use.

Worse, it was rare that the battery life was readable at all. Nearly every time I went to check the battery life, the battery display on the Android app just said “reading” and would not show a charge percentage.

Real World Performance

The Beartooth website says this about the distance you should be able to transmit:

In the Tech Specifications, it says:

  • LOS ( Line of Sight ) Range: 5 Miles for Voice, 10 Miles for Text
  • NLOS ( Near Line of Sight ) Range: 2 Miles for Voice, 4 Miles for Text

Our testing found real world performance of the Beartooth to fall far, far short of this and to have significant limitations beyond just a limited range.

First, the good things we found.

-Because there’s seems to be a digital handshake between the sending and receiving units, you know that your message has gone through. If a transmitting Beartooth is unable to contact the receiving Beartooth, you get a “Couldn’t reach ________” message. It’s a PITA to not have your message go through, but at least you KNOW it didn’t go and can try again. Sort of ( see below ).

-Text messages and location messages have a much longer range than voice, perhaps 3x as far.

-Voice messages come out of the receiving smartphone with only a second or so of delay, so if you’re prepared for it ( phone already in hand ) you can use these somewhat like a walkie talkie.

-Sending one’s location worked well and the mapping portion of the application worked well for me. I liked the different various maps.

The bad things we found:
-Voice messages fail as you press the button to record if the recipient can’t be reached, to resend just try again. Text messages let you type a message and then fail when you press the “send” button, however, if your message didn’t go through, the Beartooth app will not automatically retry to send your message.  Worse, you will lose your typed message if you don’t manually resend successfully immediately. If you close the window, put your phone to sleep, or do anything that takes you away from the message screen, the app will delete the text and you’ll have to retype it to resend it.

-On at least two occasions, messages that were listed as successfully sent by the transmitting Beartooth did not appear on the recipient app, they just vanished into the ether.

-On at least two occasions, the text that came out the other end had gibberish characters added to it ( see below, those should be just numbers ).

-The range was abysmal.

We tested in three scenarios.

First: Close together ( <100′ ), with each Beartooth in an RV. We did this right after setting up and pairing the Beartooth units for the first time.  We were able to send text messages reliably, but twice in just a dozen or so various test messages we had voice messages fail to go through.

Keep in mind, the two RV’s were this close together – we could have opened windows and yelled back and forth:

The second scenario we tested was to leave one of the Beartooth units next to an open window in my RV facing the trail and to take the other one ( in a mesh pocket in the exterior of my backpack ) and walk up the road, texting regularly to see how far away I could get before messages failed to go through. I got .14 mile of almost flat terrain with just a few skinny pine trees between me and the RV before that happened. Here’s an aerial view, with the measuring tool on Google Earth. The RV was at the bottom end of the yellow line and I walked as far as the top end of the yellow line before being unable to send messages, even if I held the Beartooth over my head.

Here’s the view from the road, looking back at the RVs, which are circled in red and visible through gaps in the trees. This is not a heavily forested area.

Let’s call this “Near Line of sight”. The manual calls for a range of up to 2 miles for voice, 4 miles for text. I was able to achieve a few hundred feet for voice, about .15 mile for text if I held the Beartooth over my head. Beyond that, no connections were possible.

There was one more pretty major complication. If I turned around to face the RV with the Beartooth still in my exterior mesh backpack pocket, the Beartooth lost the ability to even text from here.  Essentially, to achieve even this limited range, the Beartooth had to be exposed and on the same side of me where its partner was.

My third test scenario was full line of sight. I drove out to a nearby flat gravel road and parked my car with my tablet inside connected to a Beartooth device placed above the dashboard on my phone holder. My Jeep does not have a heated windshield or a tint. Then I walked up the road with the other Beartooth in the exterior mesh pocket of my backpack again.

I first tried voice messages, but those began to fail almost immediately at about .1 miles from the car. At .2 miles I got my first failure of a text message, though a resend worked and I didn’t get another failure for about another .3 miles. Text messages failed occasionally after that ( .5 miles), but a resend would usually get them through until about .55 miles down the dirt road from the car. At that point, it was about a 50/50 chance that a message would get through, even with a resend. I continued on just beyond .6 miles, where the odds of a message getting through decreased even lower and then I gave up and turned around. I couldn’t imagine using these if the chances of getting a message through is less than half, particularly since if the Beartooth app window closes, you have to retype the message.

Once I turned around and headed back to the car, the Beartooth was behind me in the backpack, so my body was between it and it’s partner. Again, it totally lost the ability to communicate for most of the return trip. I continued to walk closer to the car and found that it wasn’t until I was at about .2 miles from the car that I got my first text through and it wasn’t until about .15 miles from the car that messages began to go through reliably.

Performance Conclusions

While Beartooth claims 2-4 miles for voice communications and up to 10 miles for text/location messages, I found the range to be far less than their claims. In NLOS conditions, .15 miles for a text message seemed to be the limit, with as little as a few hundred feet being the limit for voice messages.  In more open LOS conditions, .1 miles for voice and .6 miles for text were the limits I found. Keep in mind that simply turning and putting your body in between the devices severely limited even these short ranges, often by >50%. I imagine that two users with Beartooth devices in their backpacks who inadvertently face each other will be unable to communicate using them until nearly the point that they can just yell back and forth.

Overall Conclusions

I really wanted to like these, since they’d fill a niche in our communications arsenal that our two way radios don’t quite solve. I found the glitchy software to be a manageable issue, one I’m assuming will be fixed with updates. Some garbling of the typed texts isn’t a huge deal in my opinion, either, though the dropped messages is a larger one. I’d hate send someone a message for help, only to find it didn’t actually get through. I suppose if something is important enough, you need to get an acknowledgement from whoever you’re talking to, rather than taking the device at face value that it went through.

The range issue, however, is a deal breaker, and I don’t see that being resolved simply with firmware or software updates.  Yes, I know that nearly every two way radio manufacturer lists ranges for their radios that are almost equally fanciful ( GMRS radio makers routinely claim 30+ mile ranges ) but we use radios like those and their range typically fills our need, even if it’s not as great as promised. The range that I’ve seen from the Beartooth devices I tested seem barely useful. If I can walk out of range in less than 5 minutes, it’s not a great hiking tool for keeping in touch with my companions.

My recommendation is to pass on Beartooth, pending resolutions of the range issue, if it’s fixable. Particularly at the full price of  $498/pair.

If you need off-grid communications, my suggestion is some moderately priced UHF two way radios, like these Midland GMRS radios. http://amzn.to/2w0YZxq  $65 for a pair with rechargeable batteries, headsets, chargers, plus they have weather radio capabilities. There is no text or location communications, but LOTS of folks have these and they’re simple to use.

Another company called Gotenna has a product similar to the Beartooth ( no voice capability ) that I have not tested, but their latest model ( Gotenna Mesh ) is somewhat cheaper ( $179/pair ) than the pre-order price of Beartooth and both mesh networking and encryption are functional features. I’m hoping to get a pair of these to test soon.

Update

We’ve had some feedback from folks and a few emailed questions comparing these to FRS/GMRS UHF consumer grade hand held two way radios. We were also so surprised at how poorly the Beartooth units worked in my tests and wanted to retest and confirm or refute my range findings.

So we grabbed a pair of $70 Motorola MT350R   radios and found a good spot to test – We were camped along Lake Creek rd., just north of Ketchum, ID and had a clear 1.2 mile unobstructed view in a valley, plus another half mile of near line of sight ( edge of a hill in the way ) and then another half mile beyond that with two hill edges between our chosen points. Unlike my last test, the area wasn’t simply flat and open, it had hills along each side to try to keep some of the signal in the valley, so we were hoping for better
results.

These are the radios we used. They claim a maximum range of 35 miles in a mountain valley, 6 miles on water and 2 miles in an urban environment. All of those are optimistic in my estimation, but we’ll be testing them along with the Beartooth to see which has the best range, is the most practical and reliable  for both regular and emergency use. After testing, we’ll decide which we’d recommend for folks to keep in touch outdoors.

Taylor ( my friend with the Beartooth units ) paired his iPhone with one Beartooth and took a GMRS radio. I took the other radio and paired my Android phone with the other Beartooth. I’m not an IOS user, so Taylor pointed out an odd software bug on the IOS version of the iPhone Beartooth software. When you click on the text line to write a text message, the line scrolls up off the screen so you can’t see what you’re typing. We caught this on video, also capturing one of the text message failures while both Beartooth units were in the same room, literally right next to each other.

Before we did the testing, I fully charged the Beartooth units. After pairing, we had some difficulty successfully scanning for the other beartooth unit, despite being in the same room. Rebooting the Beartooth devices fixed that, but it was annoying.

Unlike my last testing, my phone seemed to have a moderately difficult time staying connected to the beartooth. Several times over subsequent several hours I found that the Beartooth app showed that it had been disconnected from the unit, despite both BT being enabled on the phone, the Beartooth being on and everything in the same room. I brought the charged unit to Taylor ( about 100 feet away in their RV – photo below ) and he had several failed text messages before walking to the back of his RV and successfully sending a voice message.

Testing

Taylor stood on this little hill in a valley ( here viewed from 1.1 miles away, measured by GPS and verified by Google Earth ) with the Beartooth  on his head, which made it as reasonably high as he could get it and seemed to produce the best range.  After dropping him off, I drove away, stopping every tenth of a mile to try to send a text and voice message via Beartooth, then confirming the reception via the GMRS radios. My car is a diesel, so there’s no electrical ignition noise to interfere with the radios.  On the outbound run I would hold the beartooth at arm’s length out the window so the metal of the car would not be affecting range. We’d go as far as each communications method would reach, recording our impressions.

On the return trip we’d shift the Beartooth units into our pockets ( front first, then rear )  to see how much of a range reduction  effect the different stuff surrounding the Beartooth would have.  Then we’d meet to discuss our impressions and decide which system, Beartooth or GMRS, we’d each choose for our own mobile off-grid communications needs.

Range Results

Our Beartooth range results were somewhat better than last time. I chalk that up to the valley being quite narrow and Taylor being on top of a short hill. Our first dropped text was at just .2 miles, when Taylor set his Beartooth down on a large rock next to him momentarily, obscuring its view of it’s partner with long grass and sage. Lifting it back up above the grass let us continue, but demonstrated that it didn’t take much of an obstruction to restrict the Beartooth’s range.

Voice range was significantly better than before, with regular reception out to .8 miles and one voice message getting through from the 1 mile point, though it was unintelligible. There were regular failures from the .3 mile test all the rest of the way out, and a few of our .1 mile stops were unable to get any voice messages to go through, or would result in a voice message that looked like it had gone out, but had not been received. Some would arrive without content.

Text messages were more reliable, generally, but again, beyond the .3 mile point we would have regular failures. Occasionally, we’d be unable to send any messages with Beartooth, but then I’d drive another .1 mile and find that on my next test, 50% or more might get through.

Location messages seemed somewhat more reliable than voice, somewhat less reliable than text.

Still, it was pretty frustrating to have to try that many times to get a message through, only to find that it wasn’t actually received. On my end, I would often see the Beartooth app on my phone go dark at the bottom and show the word “Receiving”, only to not receive any sort of message.  The maximum range we got from any Beartooth message was 1.1 miles, at which point we stopped getting any more messages of any type through. This was still line-of-sight: I could easily make out the road on the hill Taylor was standing on, though I could not see Taylor without binoculars.

Throughout this testing, the GMRS radios worked flawlessly, despite the fact that I used my radio from inside my car while I put the Beartooth out the window.

At the end of Beartooth range, I kept driving, going over one small hill, and then around two more far enough that I could no longer see Taylor’s hill. Static on the GMRS radios began about 1.5 miles distant ( no longer direct line-of-sight ) and it was bad enough by 1.7 miles that I needed to get out of the car to talk. Still, we got a solid 2 miles out of the GMRS radios before it became impossible to make out what the other person was saying.

On my return trip, I placed the Beartooth in my front pocket of my pants, Taylor did the same. This put it under the dashboard of the car to some extent, out of sight of Taylor’s Beartooth, but not by much. On the return trip, I started trying to text at 1.1 miles, but was unable to get a message through until I was just .3 miles away. For a comparison, I put the GMRS radio in the center console at the same point and was able to hear Taylor clearly for the entire 1.1 mile test.

At .2 miles from Taylor, I moved the Beartooth to my back pocket ( where it would be most convenient to carry it without a pack ) and was unable to get a message through. I even tried getting out of the car, but apparently my body was too much of an obstruction for the Beartooth to transmit through.

This image is at .2 miles away. Taylor can’t really be seen, but he’s at the top of the little hill where the road goes. I was standing out in the open with the Beartooth in my back pocket ( as was he ) and it was unable to reach Taylor’s Beartooth at the red arrow.

With my body between the Beartooth and my phone as well, I began to have difficulty getting my phone to talk to the Beartooth as well, something I had not experienced with the Beartooth in a pack on my back. Taylor and I were again unable to get messages through at the .1 mile mark and even experienced failures as he stood next to the car at the end of the test. I don’t attribute this to the Beartooth not having the 6 feet of range between us, I attribute it to the Beartooth being unable to talk to my phone over bluetooth.

Interrupting the line of sight appeared to have a very large effect on the range and effectiveness of the Beartooth devices. Having your body, a car, a hill, trees or even tall grass between the transmitting and receiving Beartooth can cut your range severely or prevent any messages at all from getting through, even at very short range.

Unlike the Gotenna and Gotenna Mesh, the Beartooth design does not include a loop or other method of easily attaching it to the outside of a pack or strap. It doesn’t even have a small lanyard loop or anything on the exterior to hook or loop through. Instead, it’s design would seem to encourage a user to place it in a pocket and thus restrict it’s already limited range. So if you’re using these, try to do what you can to place them on the exterior of your garments or pack, and if possible, on the side of your body facing any other Beartooth devices. So exterior pockets only, near the surface. Maybe a small cloth bag and a carabiner to clip to your backpack shoulder strap?

GMRS could have some of the same obstruction issues, but the 460 Mhz bands where GMRS is are less directional and affected by objects in the line of sight than the 900 Mhz bands that Beartooth use. Also, since you have to hear a GMRS radio and hold it to respond, it’s far more likely to be out in the open than Beartooth, which is used from your phone, remotely. When I carry a GMRS radio in the field it’s clipped to the top of my backpack strap, with the antenna over my shoulder.

There’s at least one other complication with the Beartooth units. They appear to be just radio receivers that connect to a phone via Bluetooth audio. They don’t appear to have much smarts of their own and it seems that the phone is the device doing the listening to the radio signal and converting it into a text, location or recording the voice message.

What does this mean? Well, if you’re phone loses the connection to the Beartooth, your message isn’t waiting for you when you reconnect.  If the Bluetooth connection between your phone is iffy, your messages won’t always get through, since your phone has to be connected and listening when the message is sent. This is in contrast with the advertised capabilities of the Gotenna ( both the 1st generation and the new mesh version ) which claim to have enough flash memory to hold several hundred messages, which would be stored and delivered when you reconnected to the device, if I’m understanding their advertising. ( Note: We have not yet tested Gotenna )

This also means that the Beartooth is essentially useless without a phone paired and actively assisting it. Even when mesh networking comes to the Beartooth app, without major changes to the Beartooth hardware, it’s not going to work without a phone managing it. So, unlike the advertised capabilities of the Gotenna Mesh and others, which can use one of their devices as a standalone mesh node, you can’t just place a beartooth somewhere by itself and have it relay messages, unless you leave a phone with it as well.

Several times during the testing my phone disconnected from the Beartooth. Without the phone connection, no messages get received ( the sender gets a message that the message didn’t go through ) and when you reconnect, none are waiting.

I’ve seen several people on the Beartooth facebook page say they’re eager to get a pair for communications in the woods, and for emergencies, in case something happens while they’re out in the boonies. I see a few issues with this. First off, if you are injured, you’re likely to be laying down and this will severely limit the range of a Beartooth device, which isn’t great to begin with. The other big issue is that whoever is looking for you needs to have one and your Beartooth’s unique ID number entered.
You can’t just “call” everyone in range, you need to have that person’s Beartooth in your contact list FIRST. So, anyone looking for you will need to have a Beartooth radio, have your ID in their contact list, and be within your Beartooth’s limited range.

Summary

In our testing, under ideal line-of-sight conditions, we were able to get two Beartooth units to reach slightly over 1 mile, frequently much less than that. Even at short range, the reliability of our messages was not good for a variety of reasons, including objects obscuring line-of-sight, bluetooth failures, and just unexplained flakiness of the whole system. We had dozens of failed texts, voice and location messages, some of which appeared to go through from the transmitting end, but were not received.

Beartooth’s app is really buggy and missing important features. From being unable to see the text you’re typing the the IOS version, to being nearly unable to read the battery state in Android and IOS, it’s not ready for prime time. The missing features ( mesh networking and encryption ) are big gaps as well, since both of those were major promised features and mesh networking could help to somewhat alleviate the poor range. Based on my understanding of how Beartooth seems to work, I’m not expecting mesh networking any time soon without big changes to the internal design.

Comparison to the GMRS radios

While the Beartooth was difficult to use and had range and reliability issues, the GMRS radios worked pretty well. No, they didn’t produce their claimed 35 mile range, but they worked at twice the effective distance as the Beartooth and far better in near line-of-sight conditions. I suspect if we had a longer flat spot to test in we’d have found even greater range.  Whereas we were barely able to eke out a mile with the Beartooth, we hit nearly twice that with the GMRS radios and that included some hills between the transmitting and receiving radios. To get a mile out of the Beartooth, I had to hold it with my fingertips out the car window, while the GMRS radio worked well at the same distances inside the car.

Also, unlike the Beartooth units, as the GMRS radios get farther away you being to get some static in the reception. This tells you you’re nearing the edge of your range and you need to either raise the radio or head back towards the transmitter to get better reception. If you can’t understand what’s said over the GMRS radio you can ask someone to repeat.  The Beartooth reception either works or it doesn’t, you get no feedback, so if you missed something, you don’t know.

We struggled a lot with Beartooth when testing. One or the other of us would transmit and the other person would get nothing. 10 seconds later, we’d try again and it would work. This would have been maddening if we’d have been using them for regular communications, rather than just range testing. At the same time, we actually used the GMRS radios to coordinate our testing. The GMRS radios just worked. We were able to hear and understand at all Beartooth ranges and beyond. We had to make almost no requests for a repeat message, and then only at the very edge of range.

For emergency use, GMRS wins again. Longer range, compatibility with HAM radios and the ability to buy them nearly everywhere means that if you leave a note on your car windshield ( or with a friend/family ) telling the GMRS channel or UHF frequency, rescuers could easily get a compatible radio ( or might already be carrying one ) and can broadcast to all receivers in the area, not just ones they know about.

No, cheap GMRS radios don’t transmit location, but if you’ve got a smart phone and a GMRS radio connection, you can always tell someone your lat/long and they can put it into map software. It’s another step, but since GMRS works at least twice the range of Beartooth, I’d say it’s a better option for most folks. Besides, GPS coordinates aren’t always accurate or helpful, particularly in large crowds and urban environments. I was recently trying to find my wife in a crowd of people at an outdoor music event, and while GPS got me within 300 feet or so of her, I needed her to describe where she was to actually connect.

After a discussion, both Taylor and I were in agreement – GMRS won handily over Beartooth and they’re our clear choice for backwoods, off-grid communications.  They’re cheaper, have greater range, are easier to operate and call. GMRS is not as private as Beartooth, but that privacy is a disadvantage if you’re calling for rescue or listening for rescuers. The lack of location sharing with GMRS has workarounds.

Beartooth has a poor quality app, hasn’t delivered on several important features and has poor range at best, sometimes shockingly poor. Message reliability is poor as well, even when connected and close, particularly since you don’t know if you miss a message and they’re not stored in the Beartooth.

My recommendation is to avoid Beartooth, at least until they deliver on their promised features and get their range and message reliability fixed. I suppose it’s possible that we had faulty units in some way, we’re reaching out to Beartooth to see if they’d like to ship us different ones for testing, but even with better range, it’s not going to fix the app and feature issues.

 


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10 thoughts on “Hands-on review of the new Beartooth smartphone radios – Updated and Compared to GMRS walkie-talkies

  • Ron 04

    GMRS or MURS on VHF would be a far better choice.

    I’ve been arguing with this company since they first announced – telling them they were full of S%^T.

    Apparently I was right.

  • Bruce M Lewis

    Ordered mine in March 2017 and still have not received them. Have contacted law enforcement. Will investigate possible fraud or ponzi scheme.
    They current advertise August 2017 orders to be delivered Sept 2017. Do where is my order?

    • Eric Post author

      I can tell you that the friend who I borrowed the Beartooth radios from for testing has had them for over a month prior to my playing with them.
      You should have gotten yours, I don’t know what to tell you. With any luck, they’ll get better over time and when you eventually get yours, I hope they work better.

  • Taylor Banks

    Really bummed by the performance of these. 🙁 I was hopeful that our second test would provide some new hope, but I’m not terribly optimistic. Even if these devices got 300% better, they’d still be far short of my expectations (and *needs* for an “emergency off-grid communications device”, which is how these devices are being marketed.”

    At this point, I’m thinking Beartooth might ought to consider pivoting and turning these into… restaurant “table ready” buzzers? Dunno. Just thinking out loud, here. Also, they might not be able to communicate all the way across a busy restaurant if there are actual *people* inside, so maybe that’s not such a good idea? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  • Jeremy

    Another Beartooth backer here. Thank you for your review. I’ve been waiting to see how these would perform in the real world and it looks like they won’t work for what I need. Perhaps they will update the devices and get better range but this is quite disappointing. For the other backer who bought in March, I bought in February and their most recent email claims:

    If you ordered between September 2016 and October 2016 your units are in the warehouse and should ship imminently.

    If you ordered between November 2016 and early March 2017 your units are in transit to the warehouse and will ship in a few weeks.

    If you ordered between March 2017 and today your units are being made and will ship in late September, plus a buffer of a few weeks.

    So it looks like we may see ours by the end of this month or at least the end of October. And hopefully we will experience better results.

    • Eric Post author

      Thanks for the comments, hope yours arrive soon. Please check back in and let us know what you think! We really wanted these to work well, we’re disappointed they did not. It would be better for everyone else if we got faulty units, but I’m having my doubts about their execution compared to some of the other systems out there. Look for a Gotenna Mesh test soon.

      • Eric Post author

        I did a solid review, you just commented on it.
        I’ve read the longrangehunting review, and my impression is that his results line up pretty well with mine in terms of range. From the longrangehunting review:

        During testing, if a general line of sight was maintained between the transmitters, they would work great up to about a half mile away. As we put more distance between us, crossed over a ridge line or were in the deep bends of the trail, connection between transmitters became more difficult.

        Later, in a valley, the reviewer gets better results ( as we did ), but a half mile range with Line of Sight? That’s nothing like what’s promised by Beartooth and 900 Mhz has issues with near LOS and non LOS conditions.
        I see nothing in his review about the issues with the app, the dropped messages, non-functional features, or the fact that as you reach the end of range you get no warning ( as conventional radios do with static ), you just get no messages. The last issue is one that we might not have realized, except we also stayed in touch with GMRS and knew when Beartooth failed.
        The reviewer also contends that Beartooth would be a great resource for Emergency communications when out in the woods, and I still think there are major issues with that. Yeah, if you stay in range of your friends, they could be OK, but I’d rather depend on GMRS and a GPS for that.

        In the end, I can tell you this – when in the woods, we found that Beartooth failed to send messages a very significant portion of the time, and began to completely fail at distances not much more than a few tenths of a mile. Their performance was poor enough that we are not using them for offline communications, we’re using our GMRS radios. I could not recommend the Beartooth devices.