Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Below you can read part of our on-going evaluation of UClear Helmet comms, or you can go straight to the UClear website by clicking on the UClear logo on the left.
An evaluation after two years of use, an extract from our post 'All our gear after two years on the road'. 
The first report on UClear can be found here and our second report can be found here.

When we started looking for helmet comms, all we were after was something that we could use in an emergency. Warn each-other about a dangerously overtaking car for instance. Or simply mentioning you're running low on fuel. What we hadn't expected is a system whereby we can actually communicate crystal clear. As you can read in our previous report, the UClear HBC200s had worked very well through Mexico and Central America and we had no issues to report at all.
That changed when we went into Europe, where our helmet comms have had a hard life. One of the units stopped working altogether and was super fast replaced with a new one under warranty. Ever since that first unit was replaced we've had screeching issues though, but assumed the cause was the new unit being on a different firmware version as we never had any screeching issues before. However, when the Apple updater was released; which took our firmware to 2.19, the screeching was still there! We contacted UClear, who suspected a problem in the units and asked us to send them to the European headquarter for testing, to find out what was going on.

It didn't take them long to find the culprit: one of the microphones was playing up and created a loop through all 3 units which resulted in randomly screeching. With the benefit of hindsight, the unit we returned probably wasn't faulty at all but also caused by the microphone.

What didn't help were the conditions we've had in northern Norway, were we had so much rain that in the end the microphones and speakers became saturated. Not so much because of water entering the system while riding, as the Uclears can handle that, but the soaking wet conditions we were camping in. When you have days and days of rain and have to pitch and pack up your tent when it's still wet, you will get moisture everywhere and in the end the tent floor is just soaking wet... with our helmets on them! It manifested itself by squeaking, randomly changing volumes and a whole host of other funny things. A reset of the system and a load of toilet paper stuffed in our helmets overnight to soak up the moisture helped but quite likely the damage had been done. Tip: when camping place your helmet on top of your Wolfman bag! Now the microphone has been sorted we're looking forward to communication as it had always been.

We quite like the Uclear multi-hop technology, which means each helmet comm also functions as a relay station. This makes the range pretty impressive. Syncing is easy and we can all talk simultaneously. The only downside of UClear's multihop is that it works like a chain. If one of the helmet comms goes out of range, the chain gets broken and the units either side of that helmet comm stop communicating as well. It's a minor inconvenience and we soon got used to pressing the sync button for two seconds after having been out of range.

The Bluetooth link to an iPod or smart-phone works good. The music is clear, even with custom moulded earplugs I'm wearing. The buttons on the UClear control not only the volume of the iPod but can also pause a song or skip forward or reverse. The unit can only do one thing at a time though. So while listening to music, there is no communication with other headsets at the same time. To contact someone who has his/her music player on means a manual re-sync, which involves nothing more than holding the answer button for 2 seconds. This will pause the music on all unit and open up communication. Not a big deal. However, it means the safety part of having helmet comms: being able to warn each other for emerging danger, doesn't work anymore. It practice this means we won't listen to music unless we are riding alone. In theory we could also pair a Bluetooth capable mobile phone to it, we've tried it and it works but we have no desire to make phone calls while riding.

One thing to remember when going away for a long time is that you can't swap batteries as they are soldered in. Soldering them in means no possibility for moisture gaining access to the unit and no iffy battery contacts either. I actually prefer this over replaceable batteries in this case. There is no means to charge the units while using them at the same time, so we charge them overnight via the supplied USB cables to the laptop (which we can charge while riding). You can also charge them through a mobile phone charger or a battery pack connected via the same USB cable. Charging after a full day takes less than an hour and takes little current, I can easily charge all 3 through one USB port while writing my diary.

Comparing the UClear HBC200 to its competitors isn't easy. I've heard of people that prefer others, but also heard the other way round. We have noticed that the position of the speaker/microphones is critical and it pays to spend some time there to get the best out of the helmet comm. What makes the Uclear a hands-down winner for us is the unique boom-less speaker microphone combination which means no boom mounted microphone in front of my face! No spit covered microphone covers and crystal clear communication. The boom-less system also makes Uclear easy to mount in virtually any helmet. Uclear communicates with other systems too, is better priced than most and comes with regular updates for both Mac and Windows.

Useful links:
The first report on UClear can be found here and our second report can be found here.