When we previously tested Beartooth, the off-grid, smartphone connected communications devices, we found the range to be pretty poor. Beartooth reached out to us and told us that they believed our results to be atypical of what their own testing and other customers have reported. Ellie ( marketing ) offered a new pair of Beartooth Devices for a retest and I accepted. Prior to sending the devices, we had a nice video chat and I got to learn a few more things about the company and their product.
- They’re small – just four people, they contract out for the hardware manufacturing and app development.
- There’s a firmware update planned that will modify the pattern of lights that show the status of the device to more clearly indicate it’s state. No release date was mentioned.
- They seem genuinely interested in customer service – Ellie said that customers that have issues can email firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll try to respond quickly.
- Beartooth devices use LoRa ( Long Range radio ) modulation for all transmissions.
- They have a new app in development they’re hoping to release in mid-late Nov. 2017.
- They hope to release the Mesh and Encryption features by the end of 2017.
- Mesh networking is promised to forward messages while a Beartooth is “headless”, that is, without a phone paired to it. As of now, Beartooth does not work at all without a paired phone and an active app.
Beartooth replaced the original units that we tested and sent me two more for testing. So, between Taylor ( the owner of the original Beartooth units I tested ) and myself, we now have four Beartooth units. When mesh networking is released, we’ll be testing that as well.
Since we last tested the Beartooth, there have been no updates to the smartphone apps, so the appearance and functionality of the apps have not changed. Consequently, we won’t be rehashing the app details since all of that is still valid from our original review. I will be updating this review with the release of a new app, but until that happens, this is the app anyone who purchases Beartooth devices will be using.
Our test site was along I70, north of Moab, UT. One of our testing team sat at a rest stop along I70 atop a roughly 100′ hill with a clear view of the road for a little over 6 miles, while the other drove along I70. The driver would stop every mile or so and pull off where it was safe to test how the Beartooth worked. We kept in touch with Motorola GMRS radios both to stay in communcations and to compare range. We also took the opportunity to test our Gotenna Mesh units at the same time. That Gotenna Mesh review will be available shortly.
Our stationary Bearooth was out in the open, the one on the vehicle was in a mesh pocket on the spare tire on the back of the car with a clear, line of sight view of the other device.
1 mile: Beartooth worked well, voice, text and location. This was already an improvement over our previous results.
2 miles: Voice was scratchy,but understandable. Location and text worked fine. One failure to send.
3 miles: Voice was better than at mile 2, we have no idea why. Location and text worked. We had a few failures to send.
4 miles: Voice would get through, though it was mostly unintelligible. Location and text worked, but again, a few failures that required a resend.
5 miles: Voice still sort of working, but the recipient was totally unable to understand what was said. Location and text still working, but fails to send about 50% of the time.
6.3 miles ( end of test, out of distance ): Location and text were still working, but only one way, from the raised, stationary location to the vehicle. Messages going the other way, from the vehicle to the stationary Beartooth would not send, despite multiple attempts.
On the return trip, with the Beartooth device on the back of the car and the metal of the car between it and the other Beartooth, we regained our ability to send text messages at a little over three miles.
Throughout the test, the GMRS walkie talkie communications went through clearly. While Beartooth seemed at the limit of its range in our testing at 6.3 miles, the $70 walkie talkies worked fine and voices were still quite clear.
These results only speak to how the Beartooth performed on open ground with good line of sight. Use in urban or forested areas will result in far shorter range ( possibly less than a single mile ), but this would affect any similar form of radio communications, not just Beartooth. For example, in our previous testing using the same GMRS radios in a canyon, we got just 2 miles or so of range, compared to the 6+ we got here.
I also headed into the town of Moab, UT for some testing in a city environment. Moab is a town of about 5,000 and is a very popular destination for off-road enthusiasts and mountain bikers. Surrounded by beauty, it’s just a few minutes from Arches and Canyonlands national parks, so it’s major tourist destination. The downtown is mostly one and two story businesses along Main st. that turns mostly to residential areas just a block off the main drag.
I parked a little over a block off Main St. and put one Beartooth in a phone holder on the windshield, paired to a tablet I left in the car. I put the other Beartooth in a mesh pocket in the back of my backpack and walked off, testing the link between the devices about every tenth of a mile.
I was testing solo, so I did not compare to GMRS walkie talkies in this test, though I did test Gotenna Mesh at the same time and will be giving those results in another article.
Note: since Beartooth doesn’t let you send a message if it’s unable to reach the recipient, giving an “Unable to reach _______” error, so if a message sends, it’s almost a certainty it was received, allowing someone to test these solo. For voice messages, I listened to the recordings when I returned to the car.
Voice messages were unintelligible at .3 miles. Text messages worked reliably up to about .7 miles, where I had several messages fail to get through, even after retrying them three times. I had one more go through at .8 miles, but that was the furthest I could successfully get a message through.
Returning to the car ( with the Beartooth now behind me and my body between it and the other Beartooth ) I got a text message through at .75 miles. On the way back, I ducked into several stores to try to send messages from inside a building. I was unable to send at .5 miles, but was able to get a message through at .4 and closer from indoors.
In this sort of small town environment ( no large buildings, a fair amount of open space ) it seems that range is roughly less than a mile. With one or more of the Beartooth devices inside a building, a range of less than a half a mile is likely.
Other notes and issues
We had an example of how the environment in which you use a radio device can positively affect the range. In some preliminary testing, we got text and location messages through at a distance of 7.5 miles, with no line of sight and some small hills in between the two units. There was a 1000′ or so cliff behind one of the units which I believe heavily influenced this successful test by reflecting the radio signals, since driving up the road a mile closer to the receiving Beartooth but away from the cliff rendered the two devices unable to communicate again. Other devices on hand experienced the same range abnormalities.
Several times in our testing and use of Beartooth, one of the devices would become unresponsive. The light would be on as if it were connected to the smartphone and app, but any attempt to use it to scan for other devices or send messages would result in a “Device Not Responding” message at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes a device reboot would fix this for a short time, but after one or two messages it would reoccur. We experienced this on two different Android smartphones with two different Beartooth devices.
Several other times we struggled to get a Beartooth device to see another Beartooth when scanning for contacts, despite the other device being on, paired, working, etc. We had to abort one short test session because we nothing we did could make the devices see each other. Later, they found each other just fine. We have no explanation, but it’s happened to us multiple times and when we tried to enter a contact manually we were successful, so the devices were working, just not for scanning.
Another odd contact quirk – If you have a contact in your Beartooth app, but that person doesn’t have you in their Beartooth contact list, you can send them a text message and it look like it goes through, but never shows up on the recipients’ app. Voice messages go through as well, coming out of the phone speaker when received, but again not showing up in the app, just an unknown voice coming out of the phone. We found no way to discover who was messaging you, view the text or replay the voice message, so it was impossible to easily add them to your contact list if their Beartooth didn’t show up in your scan. There was also no way to prevent it other than turning off the Beartooth, the app or muting the phone. So if they keep talking to you, the voice keeps coming out of your phone, which is kinda creepy.
Battery life seemed about like it was in our previous testing, which was less than advertised. Despite a claimed 4 day battery life, we saw a 30% loss in just 6 hours in one test session. Testing until they ran out of power resulted just under two days of use, despite almost no messages being sent or received.
From what we can tell, before Beartooth will attempt to send a 1:1 message of any type, it has to get an acknowledgement from the receiving Beartooth to confirm that it’s within range. If it’s not within range, it won’t even try to send the message. Group messages are different, they appear to send without any confirmation.
Beartooth was right, we appear to have had at least one bad unit in our previous testing. Because of the need for the Beartooth to receive an acknowledgement from a receiving Beartooth on a 1:1 message, a lack of range or transmission power on one unit would, by our thinking, reduce the range that both of them can send. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that this was our issue with our previous tests.
In these new tests, the range of the Beartooth far exceeded our previous results. These results border on Beartooth’s advertised ranges and could certainly be useful, though in post-testing discussion, both of us who used all the devices felt that we would still choose GMRS over Beartooth for several reasons.
Mostly, we struggled with a balky, poorly designed app and devices that only seemed to work some of the time. Because the app and the device are so closely linked, it’s hard sometimes to tell which is failing, the app or the device, though from an end-user perspective, it hardly matters. Also, at anything over about half of their potential range in any given tested situation ( we used them on the trail a few times ) messages frequently didn’t go through on the first try, though they often did on a second, third or fourth try, which is frustrating. Other times the app would disconnect from the device, or the device would become unresponsive, though it looked like it was fine until a user tried to send a message.
Inaccurate and incomplete pre-sales information
We’re also disappointed that the Beartooth web site doesn’t make it very clear to customers that the mesh and encryption features aren’t yet functional prior to purchase. While Beartooth started on Kickstarter and for crowd-funded projects missing features are common, Beartooth is now just a regular manufacturer selling a product that doesn’t work as advertised. I went through as much of the website as I could find at beartooth.com, including going through the purchase process up to the point where I would confirm the purchase and I saw no information that would inform a customer of the missing features. To the contrary, as of the original date of this post ( 10/20/17 ) both of the missing features are listed in the tech specs with no disclaimer ( image below ) that they’re non-functional. Also, on a separate support/FAQ page Beartooth claims that their devices will mesh, and that data is encrypted, which is not true.
The only place I have so far found any information on the missing features that’s available to folks prior to purchase is on page 5 of the downloadable .PDF quick start guide. A card telling you to visit the guide is included in the Beartooth box and the link is also at the bottom of the Beartooth web page, but if you don’t go looking for it and download it, you’re not going to see it.
Beartooth could be handling their iOS issues better as well. The iOS ( iPhone, iPad ) apps for Beartooth do not work with iOS 11, which has been available to developers for testing since June 5, 2017 and was released to the public Sept. 24, 2017. The issue is, according to Beartooth, something with how iOS 11 handles Bluetooth and they’re waiting for Apple to resolve it. Until then, the only solution is to stay on iOS 10.3.3 or earlier. I could be wrong about this ( I get conflicting answers when I search ) , but I think if you’re already on the latest version of iOS 11 you can’t go back. Their current Facebook advertising Beartooth has emailed current customers about this issue.
Like the inactive features of Beartooth, there’s no notice of this that I can find when you go to purchase Beartooth devices. So if you’re on iOS 11 ( over 50% of iPhone users as of 10/20/17 and that number will grow) and you order Beartooth devices, you won’t know you can’t use them until you visit the quick start download page, and then it’s too late. You’ve got unusable devices until they issue an update with a resolution. Since iPhone users make up a little over 40% of the smartphone market, this is a pretty big percentage of the potential customers. Since you need two smartphones to use two Beartooth devices, in any use situation it’s a pretty solid chance that someone has a phone OS that’s incompatible with Beartooth, at least for now.
Beartooth should be doing a better job of informing their potential customers of both the inactive features and iOS 11 incompatibility prior to selling their devices. The features have been inactive since Beartooth started shipping devices a few months ago and the IOS issue has existed with a release version of iOS for nearly a month. That’s plenty of time to update a web site.
The Bottom Line
Beartooth is a neat concept, but in our opinion, poorly executed. While the range was much better than our earlier experience, it was still less in our testing than GMRS radios that cost a quarter as much and the whole system just didn’t seem to work very well. Yes, a new app may resolve some of these issues, possibly many of them, since the app and the device are so closely linked. Yet that asks you to spend more than the cost of competing devices on a product that doesn’t work very well and is missing critical promised features, with the hope that the company can make it all work, possibly months from when you’ve received and started using it.
In our minds, this is a first generation or “Alpha” product with a mature product price. There is a new app coming, Beartooth will likely sort out the iOS issues and get their missing features activated at some point in the future. When that happens these might be a good option. For now, unless everyone who will be using Beartooth is an Android user and walkie talkies won’t work for you for some reason, I still recommend against buying Beartooth.