ACR Aqualink View & 406Link, hand's on
The first time was the best. I was tootling down the Bay in May when I tested the ACR AquaLink View PLB. I'd already appreciated its high build quality, and how neatly instructions about how to activate its two self test modes and primary distress function are explained right on the casing. Then when I pressed the GPS Test button for five seconds, it was very nice to have the small LCD screen show the procedure step-by-step and advise me to give the antennas a good sky view. And it was impressive that the GPS -- perhaps never used before, or at most tested in Florida -- got (and displayed) a position in well less than a minute. (In fact, the whole test procedure is so quick that I've had a hard getting a good photo with the scrolling screen in action.) But the kicker was how my cell phone buzzed a moment later with a text message confirmation that the beacon's test signal had made it through the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite system, along with a link to its accurately mapped position...Because I'm also testing the Pro version of ACR's 406Link service, the same "All's well" short message and location link could have been emailed and/or texted to four other recipients. Frankly, though, I consider that Spot-like messaging feature quite secondary to the reassurance felt when you can test a critical safety device like this PLB all the way through the system (short of the rescue center). I also like how the 406Link user site keeps track of beacon tests, battery life, etc., as shown in part below. Note that the service is available to some degree for many brands and models of PLBs and EPIRBs, depending on their test capabilities...and the offer of one free test is still in effect.
But note also that I've tested the Aqualink View ten times, not eight as recorded at 406Link. Twice early this summer I ran tests while standing on Gizmo's extended top with what seemed like a good sky view though she was tied up at her Camden float. I didn't think that was huge deal, because the weakness of through-satellite PLB/EPIRB testing is that only a single 406mHz data burst is sent, but perhaps the difficulty of explaining that is why I went on to other testing for many weeks (so many gizmos, so little time). At any rate, I did six tests yesterday -- three with GPS, and three without, including one of each from my float -- and they all went through fine. I also spoke with ACR this morning, and it is possible that my failed tests happened when their relatively new 406Link ground station was off line. Most 406Link support calls they're taking end up being caused because the user tried the test indoors or didn't put in the right cell service for texting, etc. But they also said that during real distress activations, when a PLB/EPIRB sends that 406mHz burst every 50 seconds for hour after hour, the records often indicate that a few bursts got lost in that 44,000 thousand mile plus trip from beacon to geosyncronous satellite to earth. In other words, a failed through-satellite test doesn't mean your PLB or EPIRB has failed. Try again!
Understanding the slight uncertainty of the test burst makes the little screen on the AquaLink View (and its iPro EPIRB sibling) even more valuable, I think. Given that plus the built-in flotation, extra transmit power, extended battery life, and much more, I most definitely stand by the idea, expressed when the product was introduced, that this is "the most sophisticated and best performing PLB ever designed." But it is not the smallest or least expensive PLB ever designed...
FastFind 210 PLB would cast a much smaller shadow than the AquaLink, and the Spot2 is a much better messaging and tracking device (though I'm finding it to be a bit of a battery hog). I plan to keep testing the AquaLink, particularly in harsh weather, and will report in comments here. But I'm not going to fret much if it misses a through-satellite burst or two; as far as I'm concerned the extra size and cost are well worth it.