Back when old man winter was first starting to bear down here in the States for the 2010 - 2011 Winter Season, we dropped by to check out a few toasty newcomers from the folks at Columbia. Pleased as we were after trying a few things out at the demo booth, we reckoned the outfit's line of Omni-Heat electric gear would be best evaluated in the wild. You know -- places like Whitefish, Montana and the northern interior of Alaska, all during the winter.
We were fortunate enough to snag one of Columbia's Omni-Heat Circuit Breaker Softshell electric / heated ski jackets prior to departing for our bone-chilling escapades, and after a couple of months of use, we're happy to report that this thing really is all it's cracked up to be. Those situated in places like Yellowknife and International Falls have been dreaming of a non-bulky, quasi-stylish heated coat for years now, and those dreams may very well be converted into reality when this particular one starts shipping this fall. Read on to see if an outdoors outfitter really nailed the technological integration, and how your life in the winter months may be forever changed because of it.
It's not often that a clothing company does something that we here at Engadget would care about. But toss the word "electric" beside "jacket," and you've managed to catch the attention of our cold, cold hearts NYC-based bodies. Fact is, heated clothing has been around in some form or fashion before, but the real question with this particular garment was simple: have we finally found something that's stylish, sleek and comfortable to wear? In a word, yes.
The Omni-Heat Softshell doesn't look or feel dramatically different than the company's line of non-heated Omni-Heat jackets, with one notable exception. There's no question that you'll be dealing with added heft, as Columbia has made room for a small "brain" module, a wiring interface and two rechargeable battery packs. Those packs reside on each inner side of the chest, and are secured in a clear, Velcro-equipped pouch. It's possible for the coat to warm your tired, cold soul with just a single battery pack installed, but if you're planning to use it for any longer than a few hours, you'd be silly to roll solo.
What's most impressive about the design is just how transparent the heating element is. We frankly expected gobs of stiff cabling to be strewn throughout the sleeves and back, but in fact, there's nary a hint of that. Columbia's relying on some wire-free black magic to transmit heat, which enables the coat itself to retain the same flexibility as a non-heated coat. Outside of the added weight -- which honestly isn't that bad once you're suited up and braving the storm outside -- there's really little to differentiate this from a traditional jacket, design wise. Just a word about sizing -- we'd recommend buying a size that's not so form fitting; otherwise, the dual battery packs will be quite noticeable along your midsection.
While we're on the topic of design, we should point out that activating the heating elements -- which warm one's whole body, from your chest to your back to your elbows -- requires a simple press of the chest-mounted button shown above. One press puts the coat on low output, another cranks it to medium, and a third puts it on full blast; each mode has its own corresponding color, too. For those who'd rather roll in stealth mode, holding it down for ten seconds turns the light off altogether, but good luck remembering which setting you left it on.
So, if you've made it this far, you're probably wondering if the whole "heating" part actually works. There's just no other way to say it: it works incredibly well. After extended stays in Montana, Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska, we're still trying to wrap our noodle around how exactly this jacket works perfectly as advertised with essentially no downside on the comfort and wearability fronts. The low setting is perfect for hanging at an outdoor sporting event with temperatures in the 40s, while the medium will keep your entire upper body comfortable down into the 20s.
We set out on a snowmobile excursion in northern Montana, where temperatures were dipping as low as 15 and wind gusts were making it feel even lower. We placed the coat on its highest setting and never looked back, and compared to a similar trip the year before (without a heated coat, obviously), the difference was staggering. We also stood outside in -16 degree temperatures while shooting the Northern Lights in Fox, AK, and while our chest still got cold, it was nothing compared to standing there with the heating elements switched off.
Long exposure shot of the Northern Lights in Fox, AK; red Omni-Heat status LED playing tricks in the light
In most cases, the coat managed to keep our core suitably warm even in bitterly cold conditions, and for 5.5 solid hours to boot. When dipping into -10 and below, even the coat couldn't keep us totally free from shivers, but it certainly helped out. Columbia has claimed that the coat should keep you warm for six hours with both packs fully charged, and we were duly impressed with our 5.5 hour runtime -- remember, that's with the coat on full blast the entire time. With about 20 minutes left in our snowmobile session, the batteries finally keeled over, and it was downright shocking how quickly our bodies noticed. That, friends, is a sign of something working extraordinarily well.
For all it does right, there are a few nitpicks that we felt obligated to point out. For one, the chest-mounted activation switch isn't exactly placed in an ideal spot. Once you wrap a scarf around your neck and throw a helmet over your face at the ski lift, it's essentially impossible to bend your neck in a way where you can actually see where the button is, and more important, what heat level it's on. We had to continually ask a ski partner what setting our jacket was on. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but we conveyed to Columbia that a sleeve-mounted button may make more sense in a second iteration.
Furthermore, there aren't any zipper pulls on the sleeve pocket nor the waist-level front pockets. We would've loved to have seen a big, easy-to-grip pull on those just like there is on the primary chest zipper. It's kind of curious why these were left off, but at least you can grab some rope / tape / whatever and create pulls of your own if you too see it as an issue. Finally, the clear internal pouches (where the batteries go) need to be a hair larger -- squeezing the packs in really takes some effort.
While we're on the topic of batteries, they both can be rejuvenated via microUSB. Thoughtfully, Columbia includes a single wall adapter with two USB ports, as well as two USB charging plugs. That means that a single wall socket can charge both packs up, and yeah, it'll charge your Nexus One and Garmin PND if you ask it to. Another killer addition is the inclusion of worldwide power sockets; if you're the type who jets off to Switzerland or France to catch some fresh powder, your charger will come prepared. A nice touch, indeed. Furthermore, one of the internal batteries has a USB port that can be used to charge any USB-enabled smartphone or PMP so long as you supply the cable, which is certainly helpful for those on the slopes with a dying iPod touch.
In speaking with the company, we've learned that it expects to start shipping an entire range of these heated Omni-Heat jackets this fall, with prices ranging from $750 to $1,200. The Circuit Breaker Softshell tested here will retail at around $850, making it one of the pricier winter jackets imaginable. But look, Columbia has managed to produce a coat that'll heat your entire upper body in sub-20 degree temperatures for nearly six solid hours, and considering that some of the fancier (though non-heated) Spyder ski coats can hit $600 or more, the price premium honestly feels justified.
It's just as comfortable as a traditional coat, and it'll keep those who live in frigid towns (or just love to adventure in places with 12 feet of snow) from being utterly miserable. Whether or not it's "worth it" is obviously a call you'll have to make, but if you're already dreading next year's wind chill, we'd say you'd be smart to start pinching pennies right about now. Fall's just about the bend, you know.