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Review: SPOT Satellite Messenger

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“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.

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.

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.)

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