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Satellite GPS Messenger Test: SPOT Gen3

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It’s the end of 2013, and cell phones are so ubiquitous that you sometimes forget there are still a lot of wild places where a phone won’t work. That’s when satellites come into play, and namely this month for me it meant communication via a SPOT device deep in the mountains and woods.

GearJunkie staff and athletes have used SPOT satellite trackers for years. Our test this winter and fall were of the brand’s new version, the SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger.

Like its predecessors, the Gen3 has features to allow for simple communication and emergency response from a device that is the size of a hockey puck. (We previewed the Gen3 device in a post last summer and outlined its upgrades and unique features.)

One major difference between the Gen3 and other SPOT devices is that in its tracking mode the device does not send pings to satellites when you are not moving. This is thanks to an onboard motion sensor, and the result is the unit saves on battery (the company claims twice the battery life of the previous generation) and also doesn’t repeatedly auto-place a waypoint if you stop for an hour at lunch.

Once in this “suspended” mode, tracking will automatically resume after the vibration sensor detects the unit has begun moving again.

I put the Gen3 through some paces on several uses over the past couple months, including in the mountains of Colorado as well as during a trip to British Columbia. In all places — whether in cell range or off-grid — the device worked perfectly as advertised for me. Here’s a further breakdown below. —Sean McCoy

The Gear: SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger

Price: $169.95 msrp; $149 per-year service subscription

Available: Now

Where To Test It: Anywhere satellite signals reach the Earth and you need to share your location, check in with friends, or contact emergency first responders.

Who’s It For: Mountaineers, pilots, hikers, hunters, backcountry skiers, trail runners, or anyone else who wants a GPS tracker with options for simple messaging to friends and family.

Boring But Important: SPOT satellite coverage works around the world, including Canada and the continental United States, Mexico, Europe, Australia, Northern and Central Africa, as well as hundreds of thousands of square miles of the ocean. It does not work in southern Africa, the polar regions, or the tip of South America. (See the full global coverage map here.)

Important Specs: The device weighs 4 ounces with batteries. It’s about 1 inch thick and 3.4 inches tall. The unit operates on 4 AAA Energizer Ultimate Lithium 8x Batteries (L92) or 4 AAA Energizer NiMH reusable batteries (NH12). In average use, the device will not require a battery change for weeks or even months of use.

For a test we tracked SPOT waypoints in Colorado during a day of skiing (above). More common SPOT tracks (below) appear as linear routes

New Tracking Feature: Users can pre-set SPOT Gen3 to plot waypoints every 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes. A new feature called Extreme Tracking gives the ability to vary the track rate down to every 2 ½ minutes. (There is an added subscription fee for the Extreme Tracking.)

Staying In Contact: You can preset the device to send a custom message or an “I’m OK” type message to selected friends and family. It can be delivered via email, text message, or social media. People can also follow your progress in the wilderness via real-time location tracking on Google Maps.

Emergency Use: Like all SPOT devices, the emergency beacon feature is one of the biggest selling points on the device. In a worst case the SPOT will transmit an SOS message with your exact GPS location to the GEOS Emergency Response Coordination Center. The company cites thousands of rescues have been performed since the device launched a few years ago.

Made In: China

Killer! The SPOT Gen3 is intuitive and easy to use (like past models) and its new features (motion sensing and Extreme Tracking) are worth the upgrade for serious SPOT users.

Flaw: There is no way to change pre-set messages in the wilds without internet access and a computer. It’s a one-way device (you cannot receive a message, only send).

First Impressions: This tiny device will make it easy to stay in touch (just enough) while in the wilds. Tracking is easy and accurate.

Who Should Buy It: Those who need to touch base when far off the grid and want an emergency line to the outside world.

Contact Brand/More Beta: Spot Gen3

—Sean McCoy is managing editor. Our “First Look” column highlights new gear arrivals at GearJunkie.com. Photos © Monopoint Media LLC.

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