InReach Mini: It Could’ve Been a Contender

Because many of my motorcycle trips are solo, and take me beyond cell phone coverage (although not off road!), I’ve been interested in satellite-based text messaging devices. As a class, these basically give you the ability to send (and sometimes receive) SMS/text messages by way of orbital satellite networks. Which makes it much harder to go off grid…and more likely that, if you need help off grid, you’ll be able to let someone know.

The Garmin InReach Mini (their latest offering) seemed to be an ideal choice. Small. Can work with your cell phone via Bluetooth, making it easier to compose and read messages (i.e., you’re not limited to a handful of keys and a tiny screen). Uses the Iridium network, which seems to provide the best coverage of the alternative networks (not that I plan on being in Northern Canada anytime soon). And it offers a wide array of monthly service plans — which you have to have for the device to be of any use — that can be put on hiatus during the rainy season when you’re not on the road much anyway.

So I bought one.

And it’s turning out to be a mistake.

First and foremost, the Garmin InReach website (necessary for setting up, configuring and managing the device) is not very well designed. Activation was challenging, made more so by being offered important advisories on how you ought to configure your device…after you’re part way through the activation process. And don’t get me started on how many emails you need to set up an account, add a device and participate in the Garmin community forums (three, in fact; bizarre).

But the really bad problem was that only about 25% of my test messages ever arrived. With no indication that there was any problem sending them (i.e., the Mini reported success, but the message never got where it was going).

After some back and forth with tech support I learned that I happened to be using my new Mini during a period when AT&T was rejecting messages (perhaps as a result of mistakenly classifying them as spam). Go me.

It also turns out that this is not the first time AT&T has suddenly stopped accepting InReach Mini messages. A tech support guy I spoke to says it’s happened more than once in the last six months. But, good news! The problem always goes away after a few days. Only to re-occur, randomly, at some point in the future.

There is a workaround: send email messages rather than text messages. Fortunately, and despite the fact that this is not disclosed anywhere I could find in the Garmin documentation, emails cost the same as text messages. Judging by what they look like on the receiving end, I suspect they are just text messages, embedded into a simple email template.

Unfortunately, for me and almost everyone else I know, email lacks the immediacy of a text message. Text messages pop up on your phone. Emails you have to go read. And immediacy counts…particularly when you’re in a difficult, bad or emergency situation.

Moreover, who’s to say the emails won’t someday be spontaneously rejected? Granted, emails don’t get delivered by way of your cell phone carrier. But since Garmin doesn’t seem to know why the text messages are being rejected, despite repeated occurrences of the problem, I’m a little hesitant to embrace the workaround as solving the problem.

Besides, it really torques me that Garmin didn’t disclose its repeated problems with AT&T, which stretch back for at least 6 months, somewhere in their advertising. I spent a lot of time researching the Mini before buying one, and I never came across any mention of this problem (which is part of the reason for writing this lengthy post). They should’ve done so, if for no other reason than it might put more pressure on AT&T to define what would be required for a permanent fix 1.

So I regret to say that, while it looks good on paper, if you’re on an AT&T cell phone account I’d stay away from the Mini.

In fact, I’d require any purveyor of this technology to confirm they haven’t had problems with particular carriers suddenly and mysteriously not delivering text messages.

  1. So one of the Garmin tech support people I worked with had the temerity to say that the problem isn’t a Garmin problem, it’s an AT&T problem. To which I replied, it is a Garmin problem, because you could’ve disclosed the problems you were having so that people who have AT&T accounts would know of the risk.

    I was amazed at his comeback: anyone who did any research would have found out about the problem, in part because Garmin displays real-time service outage information on its website. All you’d have to do is google it.

    At which point I cut him off, saying I didn’t want to go confrontational with him because he’d, up till then, provided me with some useful, if disappointing, information. Because I did a lot of research before buying the Mini, and I never came across what he claimed was readily available.

    Always blame the customer. In fact, always blame the potential customer. That way you won’t have any pesky customers to deal with. Sheesh.

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