Reviewing the Cox Orb

Game. Changer.

That’s the best way I can describe the Cox Orb. It’s one thing to “ooh” and “ahh” over it on Instagram or at the regatta booths but I’m telling you guys, if/when your team is in need of new cox boxes I really hope you alert your coaches to the existence of the Cox Orbs because they are a much more worthwhile investment than NK’s original model. Don’t get me wrong either, I love NK’s cox box – I’ve been using them for 14 years now with minimal issues – but I can’t deny that a competitor in the cox box market as well as an update to what’s currently available is long overdue.

Don't even act like you're surprised that we've got this much #tech in the boat. (Not pictured: my GoPro.) 💁😁 #MITMensRowing

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In today’s post I’m going to briefly talk about my experience with the Cox Orb so far and highlight some pros and cons that I and the MIT coxswains have come across as we’ve used it throughout the last several months. To start though I wanna point out the different models that are available, as well as do a price comparison between each one and the standard NK model.

Below is a Google Sheet that includes the price of each model (the price links to that model’s page on the Active Tools website) as well as the key features of each one (in separate tabs at the bottom). To view the full spreadsheet in a separate tab, click here.

Some notes:

High school clubs/teams don’t need the fancy features that come with the Platinum. Although the GPS would be great to have, the Steel, Cobalt, or Tungsten will accomplish everything you need at this stage in the game.

College programs should consider the Tungsten or Platinum simply because the data you can collect will go farther here than it would at the high school level (and if you coach/cox a bunch of data driven nerds like I do, they’ll appreciate having something else to look at other than whatever data you collect from the ergs).

The full package is, in my opinion, a better deal than just getting the unit, mic, and charger because the full package comes with the carrying case (which is $40 on its own). I’m obsessed with this case because it’s small, lightweight, and has a shoulder strap so I definitely recommend using it over NK’s cases (which should fit these cox boxes, although I haven’t tried to see if it does yet – I’ll update you on that in a later post).

I’ve had the Platinum model since September and I love it. I raced with it at Head of the Charles and used it regularly throughout the fall while I was coxing. Here’s my pro/con list thus far.

PRO The microphone is loads better than NK’s in nearly every capacity. The sound comes across clearer and even on a low setting it’s still pretty loud. The head strap gets a huge thumbs up from me because, as someone who hates wearing the mic, NK’s drives me crazy. Even their new head straps seem flimsy at best and I always felt like no matter how tight I made it, it never stayed in place, even with a hat on. The Orb’s strap is wider, thicker (I think … or at very least, more durable), and just more comfortable in general so once it’s on I don’t have to think about it again until I take it off.

CON My only con with the microphone is that it doesn’t seem to fare well in strong winds. For as good as the sound is, it seemed to get easily drowned out when the wind was hitting the mic, despite my attempts to shield it with my hand, turn my head a little, etc.

PRO Real time splits and check factor. Speed coaches are great but it’s just one more thing to have to remember and carry whereas with the Orb, the splits are already built in. I never tried it with the impeller but when I compared the splits I had with my Speedcoach they were very similar. Not quite exact but the margin of difference between the splits was consistent and never more than 1-2 splits total. I didn’t play with the check factor very much (this was mainly due to the level of boat I was coxing, I don’t think the data would have been that useful for us) but the fact that it exists is a huge plus (and again would definitely be data that college coaches would appreciate having).

CON There’s kind of a steep learning curve that comes with the more advanced models. The Steel and Cobalt are very similar to NK’s (they’re basically idiot proof) but the added features on the Tungsten and Platinum (particularly the Platinum) mean that you’ve gotta spend quite a bit of time reading through the instruction manual and playing with it before taking it on the water if you want to actually be able to use them to their fullest capacity. It took me a few practices before I felt comfortable just using the basic features and remembering which buttons did what. I didn’t expect to “get it” right away but I also didn’t anticipate how much time I’d need to spend familiarizing myself with it before I practiced with it. I guess this isn’t so much a “con” as it is a friendly warning that this isn’t a piece of tech that you’re gonna want to figure out how to use as you’re trying to use it during practice … speaking from experience, you’ll just frustrate and distract yourself if you try to do that.

PRO In the Tungsten and Platinum, the need for an external voice recorder is eliminated because the Orb automatically starts recording your voice as soon as you press “start” to do a piece. To get it off the unit (along with all the other data) all you’ve gotta do is plug it into your laptop via the included USB connector.

CON This may be a user-error issue but I had some trouble with the Orb staying in the holder while I was racing with it during HOCR, as well as when it was cold out. I noticed that the colder it was the less likely it was to stay in place, I assume because the plastic on the holder was less malleable than it is when it’s warm. When I was practicing this wasn’t that big of a deal but it did distract me while I was racing at HOCR. I didn’t have issues with this when we were in Florida though (where it was substantially warmer) so I’m attributing it to either me just not using enough muscle to get it into the holder properly or, like I said, the cold affecting the malleability of the plastic.

(Keep in mind that the Orbs don’t fit perfectly into the standard holders, which is by design. The rounded bottom (hence, “orb“) lets you position it however you want, that way you don’t have to lean forward or adjust your body in any way in order to clearly see the screen.)

PRO You can program workouts which means, for example, you don’t have to remember each individual chunk of time for your interval workouts because you can just program them straight into the cox box. I used this a couple times when I coxed the guys in Florida over winter break and it was a life saver. When you’re on a busy waterway with giant channel markers scattered all over the place (that you need to pay extra attention to since one of the coxswains already hit one, broke an oar, and ejected the bow seat…) all the while actually trying to cox a piece, the last thing you want to be doing is distracting yourself by trying to remember how much time is left in this interval. Programming it and letting the cox box do the work is a god send.

PRO The customer service is A+. I’ve had minimal dealings with NK’s customer service myself but we’ve all heard the stories so … yea. The guys at Active Tools are awesome and I strongly encourage you to talk with them if you come across one of their booths. They are fully committed to creating a product that fits our needs and is something we’ll want to use, not just something we have to use.

PRO My favorite feature – GPS! Unfortunately it’s only available on the Platinum but this alone makes that model worth getting, at least in my opinion. I used it a lot in the fall to track my HOCR course (although I failed at recording it during the actual race so that was a bust) and I used it in the spring to judge/observe the courses our coxswains took during some of our races. Once you connect the Orb to your computer all you’ve gotta do is open the associated GPS data in Google Earth and you’ll be able to zoom in and see every touch of the rudder along your course. In the case of our coxswains it was a huge reality check because looking at it zoomed out you’ll think “that looks like a pretty straight course, yay, go me!” and then you’ll zoom in and be like “… oh”. It’s a great tool to have though and kinda the only one out there that actually holds you accountable for your steering by actually putting in front of your face the exact course that you steered.

Below are some screenshots of the course our varsity eight coxswain steered during practice on a day when we were doing 4x2ks. The blue line is the course he took and the red line is the ruler feature on Google Earth that I used to compare how straight his course actually was. Given that this was a fairly windy practice day, overall I’d say this isn’t too bad. You can see though that it really captures every single time you hit the rudder so there’s no escaping the accountability here.

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Throughout winter training in Florida and the spring season I lent the Orb to a couple of the coxswains in the boathouse to get their thoughts on it. For the most part we all had similar pros/cons but below are some that one of our lightweight coxswains shared after using it for a few weeks.

PRO Being able to track the course is huge. If I remember correctly, the GPS it captures has an error margin of +/- 2-3 meters, which, when zooming in on Google Earth lets you see which coxswain had the straightest/most correct course.

CON There is a lot of information of the screen, which is good, but sometimes distracting (and a little bit too informative, if that’s possible).

PRO The ability to position the box is super nice and it won’t move around no matter how soaked it is – see “adventure row”, hahaha. (For context, when we’re in Florida the lightweights do a marathon row around the island we row off of and this year the wind and chop was pretty epic so it was basically like sailing the high seas for them. Below is a screenshot of the course they took this year.)

CON There’s a very harsh/difficult learning curve. A lot of the features are super useful if you know how to use them (i.e. timing pieces). My main issue was not knowing how to set up pieces – if you don’t know how to do this fast (or can’t remember how to do it) you’ll never want to do it while you’re on the water and then you lose the functionality of being able to match up and break down data according to which piece the boat was doing.

PRO It’s loud and can handle being loud. Like, significantly better than the NK boxes can, which was huge for us because my bow pair were having problems hearing me with the cox box. The Orb had no issues at all. At one point, they actually asked me to turn it down (haha).

(Biggest) CON When you turn it on, theres a good chunk of time where you can’t see the time. This is huge if you need to restart the box in the middle of practice for some reason (basically turn on and off because you’re stuck on a screen because you don’t know how to use it, which happened to me, or to test connections because a speaker isn’t working) and need to be able to see the time immediately after.

PRO The battery life is incredible. I didn’t charge this nearly as often as I should have and I never had any issues.

All in all, it’s definitely a well-liked tool in our boathouse. We’ve also affectionately nicknamed it “the Borb” because its faster and more fun to say than “Cox Orb”. The other heavyweight coaches dig it too and have already given me some ideas for how to better integrate it into our practices next year so we can better use the data it’s collecting (for the coxswains specifically, we’re gonna abuse the hell out of the GPS feature … fair warning guys!).

Looking back, I can recall specific conversations I’ve had in the past with my dad (5+ years ago when I was in college) where we talked about what should be included in a cox box, what would make them more effective tools, etc., so to now actually see and have a tangible piece of equipment that embodies everything you could possibly need … like I said, it’s a game changer.

I’d love to hear any questions you have so leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll do a follow-up post sometime in the next couple of weeks. I’ll also be bringing it with me to the camps I’ll be coaching at this summer so if you’ll be at either of the Sparks Middletown camps or at Northeast Rowing Center you’ll get a chance to try it out firsthand and see how it works.

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4 thoughts on “Reviewing the Cox Orb

  1. sanderroosendaal says:

    I am setting up a site rowsandall.com for post-workout analysis for rowers. Perhaps we could do some useful data plots for coxes as well! Does the Cox Orb enable file export of the workout?
    The site is still in beta so please excuse any glitches. The good thing is that it is in rapid development and I can add any features you might find useful.

    • beantownkmd says:

      I’m not sure I understand what you mean. You can export everything but all of the data would be specific to each crew so I don’t think other coxswains would get anything out of it.

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