Review: SPOT Satellite Messenger

By STEPHEN REGENOLD

“There is life after cell phone signals die.” That’s the tagline SPOT Inc. of Milpitas, Calif., has put on its namesake GPS device, a handheld locator beacon introduced to the outdoors industry last fall.

As the company describes it, the device offers “a vital line of communication, independent of cellular coverage, with emergency services, friends and family.” Indeed, this is a “satellite messenger,” not a personal locater beacon.

You can use it in emergency situations and in non-emergencies, with one of its functions simply sending an “I’m OK” message to the email accounts and cell phones of friends or family members.

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SPOT (www.findmespot.com) runs via the private Globalstar satellite system, a network of roving low-orbit relay crafts that blip data for satellite-phone communication and commercial purposes like the tracking of shipping containers. It works in places that cell phones will not, though there are geographic limitations, which I’ll highlight below.

The device has just four buttons and sends three types of messages. The “OK” signal, as mentioned, sends a custom message to friends and family, pinging off satellites and making its way onto the Internet and pre-assigned email inboxes or to a cell phone with text-messaging capability.

The HELP mode sends an “I-need-assistance” message to the same group of family and friends via email or cell phone text. This is for non-emergency situations. Say you break a ski 15 miles into the mountains and want to alert your buddy to snowmobile in as you limp home.

To send in the troops, the device’s 911 button transmits a distress signal to a private control center in Houston, which then alerts local search-and-rescue, the Coast Guard, or other organizations as need be.

In all modes, SPOT sends message data plus GPS coordinates. This lets you use the device as an ad hoc tracker to record waypoints. At home, your GPS data — and the pinpoint locations from which you transmitted a signal — are viewable on a computer screen via the Google Maps program, which SPOT integrates with its easy-to-use web site.

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The unit, which costs around $150 plus a $100 annual service fee, worked great in my tests. It locked on with satellites in the city and far deep in the woods. The four buttons and blinking LEDs comprise an interface that’s easy to operate and hard to screw up.

At home, after a log-in at www.findmespot.com, I could click to pull up a list of messages sent. Another two clicks and Google Maps displayed the spot where my signal was transmitted. In my email inbox — plus in my wife’s account, which I’d added previously — awaited a message the likes of: “SPOT Check OK, Stephen Regenold; Unit Number: 0-7348960; Latitude: 44.934; Longitude: -93.3111.”

SPOT runs on 2 AA lithium batteries, which will last for up to one year with light use, according to the company. It measures 4 × 2.5 × 1.5 inches and weighs 7 ounces. The device floats and is waterproof. You can drop it onto rocks from head height and it will not break.

One caveat: Because of its satellite system, the unit has geographic limitations and is not usable worldwide like some PLB units. It will not work for much of Africa. It will not work in Hawaii or far northwest Alaska. North America, Australia, and Europe and 100 percent covered. Asia is half and half. If you plan to travel far afield, check with the company for a full disclosure of satellite and signal coverage.

(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)

Posted by Susanita - 03/27/2008 11:35 AM

I recently bought the SPOT and used it on a 9 day unguided kayak/camping trip in the Exumas Islands, Bahamas. It worked great. I had the messages sent to a separate email address that I set up specifically for SPOT. Then I gave the login and password to people back home so they could monitor our progress. We also gave the information to the kayak outfitter so they would know where we were throughout the trip. From what I can tell all my OK messages got sent. We didn’t have any need to send a 911 signal. But since the OK messages all went through I assume the 911 would have gone through as well. Throughout the trip I kept the SPOT attached to my front deck. It’s definitely waterproof. Great little device.

Posted by Sam Salwei - 03/27/2008 03:39 PM

We used the Spot tracking feature on our last expedition. It was a big hit for our web followers. Spot makes it very easy to download the raw info to your own maping program allowing us to embed a Google map on our site and update it so the world could see our progress without logging in to the spot website. We used the device with the tracking feature turned on for 12-15 hrs a day for 20 days in temperatures ranging from -40 to 50+ and the batteries are still going. Overall we were greatly impressed by the user friendly features, durability and peace of mind the Spot provided. Great Device,

Team YogaSlackers
Posted by Adam Bolonsky - 03/31/2008 09:31 AM

As a sea kayaker, one issue I’ve found with the unit is that if you’re offshore by more than just a few miles, you’re off the grid of Google Maps coverage.

Friends and family thus need to be savvy enough to know how to translate lat/long coordinates to a nautical chart to find your location. Other than that I think the unit’s pretty terrrific: durable, waterproof, reliable, easy to use.

I think the unit could be improved, at least for boaters and kayakers who go offshore, if its database included NOAA charts or if SPOT parsed its coordinates through DestinShark.

Adam at Sea Kayaking Dot Net/paddlingtravelers.blogspot.com

Posted by Dzrtgrls - 04/07/2008 10:18 PM

We have been looking for a cheaper and lighter alternative to a satellite phone for some time now. We often do trips in the Mojave desert many miles from pavement and park our truck to hike into the backcountry. We always cross our fingers and hope that our truck doesn’t get vandalized or stolen while we are away, leaving us stranded with no cell reception. We purchased a SPOT from REI a couple weeks ago and have tested it at home and in the desert during a backpacking trip. Both tests worked great and the GPS coordinates were spot on. This little gadget could turn out to be priceless in a life threatening situation. Niki – www.dzrtgrls.com

Posted by Woody - 04/10/2008 12:26 PM

I just received a Spot as a gift. I like the new feature so you can make multiple profiles (eg one profile has help messages going to my girlfriend (for when I am on my bicycle close to home), but another profile has help going to my parents for when I am abroad).. Size is a bit big, but ok. My biggest issue is how long it takes to send an ok message. Last night I sat it outside on a picnic table for 5 minutes sending an OK message, and it still didn’t go through. This long time has been typical of the past few tests I’ve done close to home. This is with a clear view of the sky, and after confirming other successful tests in the same general area.

Posted by Mike Peterson - 07/01/2008 07:42 PM

I bike and ride motorcycles often. This has been a great addition just in case something goes wrong. Originally I bought it for personal safety, but it has also provided an unintended benefit for family and friends who can track my progress.

I ordered one from http://www.MyLiveTracks.com/ – got a prompt response to my inquiries, a 50% off coupon for the tracking service. The price of $135 included shipping as well. Highly recommend the unit as well as the vendor!

Posted by Alan - 12/14/2008 09:29 PM

I just bought a SPOT and found, like many other reviewers on other sites, that the unit has spotty performance. Many tracking messages are missing despite sitting at the same location with the unit facing the open skies.

Posted by lonn - 02/22/2009 05:21 PM

Like some others have noted, the SPOT can indeed be spotty on coverage. I brought a SPOT on a 9-day attempt to do the JMT and it only worked once out of eight tries in the Sierra. I think it’s a bit scary if you rely on it for emergencies. BTW, it worked flawlessly in the SF Bay Area for a handful of tests. I won’t bring it on my next longer trip.

Posted by Derek - 09/02/2009 05:36 PM

Hi from SPOT. Sorry for my delayed post to your comments. I would like to offer a few important tips to SPOT owners;

1. Read the user manual and if you have questions, try our new FAQ section at www.findmespot.com. Great info here.

2. The first time using SPOT let it acquire a GPS fix. Register the unit. Turn it On. Press the OK button (a quick press) and leave the unit outside with a view of the sky for 20 minutes. Your account will receive an OK message. The next time you send a Check-Ok message it should transmit very fast. Do this every two weeks of not using the device, if you travel more than 500 miles or replace the batteries.

2. The patch antenna is directly under the SPOT logo. Horizontal positioning with the logo facing the sky is best for optimal performance, especially in tracking.

3. To engage Tracking properly, turn the unit on, wait two seconds, then press and HOLD the OK button UNTIL the green LED light goes OUT and starts to blink. Approx. 6-7 seconds. If you take your finger off too soon, it will only send a single OK message.

4. SPOT is water-tight as long as you fasten down the back with a coin or screw driver. It floats too!

Hope this is helpful!

Posted by Doug Powell - 06/12/2010 12:09 AM

The SPOT GPS function stopped working on my first trip. Spotwarrant has not returned my emails, even after following up with phone calls to the company. I do not recommend this product!!!!!

Posted by mike - 06/16/2010 08:49 AM

Awkward to use. I wouldn’t buy again nor would I recommend. A great idea but very poorly executed……

Posted by Tim A - 11/12/2010 11:41 PM

I have a hard time understanding spending thousands of dollars for equipment and or transportation and not to spend a few dollars for some sort of protection or communication device. Even in the best situations, emergencies occur.

Posted by Adrian - 08/10/2011 09:36 AM

I’ve been using the SPOT for about 8 months and have put about 100,000 miles on it in my airplane. I like everything about it and it has done everything promised. BUT, I’m on my third unit already! My first worked for 7 months and the replacement didn’t even get through a set of batteries (about 4 days). The customer support was great and replacement units were mailed immediately after I made a warranty claim. The SPOT works great for me, when it works, and after checking the reviews I think my situation may be unique. Either way it’s not a replacement for a real PLB and telling someone where your recreating. I wouldn’t trust my life with it but my wife sure likes knowing if I’ll be home for dinner.

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