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Reviews > Communication Gear > SPOT Satellite Messenger > Test Report by Stephanie Martin
Test Report: SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker
INITIAL REPORT November 23, 2007
Joyous day, it's here! The SPOT has arrived!
Words on the Web
The SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker is about the size of a PDA, though is considerably thicker - about twice as thick as my rather outmoded PDA. It appears to be made from a rather durable hard plastic and features a black rubberized grip along its sides. The unit only has 4 buttons along with 4 associated LEDs. It also has a hard plastic clip that can be rotated out of the way of the battery compartment (or removed completely) by using a small screw. The battery compartment is accessed via the back of the unit via a pair of screws. The manufacturer specifies the use of a pair of AA lithium batteries - and reminders are posted no fewer than three times on the unit itself. The reflective sticker on the battery cover details instructions on how to send and/or cancel a 911 or help message. The unit requires the purchase of satellite service (currently $99.99/yr) to function, and additional optional services can be purchased including the ability to send "track" messages ($49.99/yr) as well as an additional GEOS Search and Rescue (SAR) benefit that covers up to US$100,000 annually ($50,000 per incident) to fund SAR efforts in the event of an emergency (terms and conditions, of course, apply - read up on the manufacturer's site for specifics).
The SPOT's operating specifications reflect its design for use around the world in varying outdoor conditions. According to the Users Guide, the unit floats, is waterproof to a depth of 1 meter (3.3 feet) for up to 30 minutes, has an operating temperature range of -40 to 185 F (-40 to 85 C), an operating altitude range of -300 to 21,300 feet (-91 to 6492 meters) and is both humidity and salt fog rated.
The SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker makes use of several systems to send its messages. First, it utilizes GPS satellites to identify the user's coordinates. Once the user's location is determined, the unit triggers a message to a network of SPOT commercial satellites. Depending on the function that is being triggered, the SPOT system sends a brief text or email message to a predetermined list of contacts - or in the case of an emergency, it sends a message to the GEOS International 911 Emergency Response Center. Each of the messages includes your coordinates and a URL to view the location the message was sent from using Google Maps.
The unit itself is designed to complete 4 main functions:
Track Progress (requires optional service): This feature is used to transmit the user's location to their SPOT account every 10 minutes. This can be used to allow other individuals to view the user's progress real time. This feature automatically turns off after 24 hours and has to be re-activated if further tracking is wanted.
Ask For Help: This feature is for use in non-life-threatening events to notify the user's designated message recipients that they need assistance via a pre-programmed customized distress message. This feature can be activated at the same time as the 911 feature to notify both the Emergency Response Center in addition to designated recipients of the emergency. If for some reason, the unit cannot obtain a GPS signal, it will still attempt to send a distress message without providing coordinates. The unit sends help messages every 5 minutes, allowing the user to keep moving if needed.
Alert 911: When caught in an emergency situation, this function can be activated and will result in a message being sent to the GEOS Emergency Response Center (ERC). The ERC will then contact the appropriate emergency responders in the user's area in addition to the user's designated emergency contacts regarding the receipt of a distress signal. As with the Ask For Help function, if the unit cannot obtain a GPS signal, it will attempt to send a message without coordinates provided. 911 messages are also sent every 5 minutes, allowing the user to keep moving while providing up to date location information (if available) to the ERC.
Coverage for the SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker is illustrated by SPOT Inc. by an indication of the probability of successfully sending a message within a 20 minute timeframe. Like other GPS technology, SPOT requires a clear view of the sky to function properly and its performance can be hindered by tree cover, mountainsides or hills and buildings.
The User Guide provides the following battery life estimates for
the device under normal usage on a full battery charge:
The SPOT is a device that, if functional, I think I will be happy to have discovered. I play and adventure in locations where cell service simply does not exist - and often times, there are few individuals in my party, and we are miles and miles from civilization. While I do my best in the planning process of providing adequate information regarding my trip itinerary, often times my instructions are not as specific as they could be - typically because I have plans to be investigating hikes in a region, and plans sometimes change during the course of the excursion due to things such as unexpected weather or conditions of the originally planned route. The SPOT seems to be a great tool for being able to check in with my friends and family while I'm out and about to keep them better apprised of my location.
The device itself is quite a bit bulkier than I anticipated - though it is not so large as to not fit easily on myself or my pack. Setting up the device was simple and straightforward. After logging into my account, I was able to customize my brief (115 character limit) check in and ask for help messages while also adding the email and cell phone addresses of friends and family who I wanted to receive check in and help messages when I used the device. A couple test fires indicated that the device was up and running properly.
I'm looking forward to getting this device out for use in the
field, and time will tell whether it becomes a regular piece of my adventure
During the test period, I have carried the SPOT on a multi day backpacking trip through Paria Canyon, along with several dayhikes and off-trail adventures in various locations in both Arizona and Utah. During the course of my testing, I only tested the "Check In" and "Track" functions of the device - I will not be testing the 911 function unless I find myself in need of rescue.
General operation of the SPOT has been simple and straight forward.
Pressing the On/Off button activates the device, and the LED above the On/Off
button begins blinking green, indicating that the unit is on. The Okay
button is used to both send a "check in" email/text message (activated by
pressing the button once) - or, if subscribed to the SPOTcasting/tracking
service, when held down for 5 seconds, this button activates the device's track
feature. When a check in message is sent, the subject line may be a bit
cryptic for the recipients - as it states "OK Unit Number NNNNN" where NNNNN is
the serial number of the device - I had to give heads up notices to those
individuals on my distribution lists so that the messages wouldn't be discounted
as SPAM. The contents of the message include my preset customized message from my
user profile, in addition to the following:
Viewing the tracks from SPOTcasting requires that any potential viewers have the user's login information. After logging into the user's account, the interested party would check the message history for the device. After selecting the appropriate "track" messages in the message history, the points can be displayed on a map (powered by Google). While the map is nice, I am uncomfortable providing login access to my user account to others because this also allows them to view and/or edit settings in the account - including the customized messages, the message distribution lists, the emergency contact information, any additional information that is designated to be provided to 911 services in addition to other account settings including my customer, credit card, login and billing information. Just call me paranoid, but there is no reason to allow that kind of access to anyone.
The 911 and Help commands are activated in a similar fashion as the Okay function - by pressing the button for a few seconds until the green LED above the button starts blinking. While general use is simple enough, the interface leaves some things to be desired. I sometimes wasn't certain if I had set the unit to track or if it was simply activated to send a check-in message, and there was no way to know if the unit was successful in either acquiring GPS signals or transmitting my message(s).
As indicated in my Initial Report, initial setup on the SPOT website is relatively straight forward. Since the beginning of the test series, SPOT has made some improvements to the site, including the ability to customize the emergency contact information for any device. This ability to customize or change the emergency contact info for each device is handy if multiple devices are registered and billed under a single account, as may be the case for some organizations. In addition, SPOT has made it possible to select and download datapoints to either a CSV, GPX or KML file. While I find the Google maps nice, especially the satellite views, they do not necessarily provide the type of information that would be useful to my emergency contacts in case I require help or rescue. I find the ability to download datapoints for importing into topographic mapping software much more useful than the maps that SPOT/Google provide because I can get a better idea of location and potential access issues by looking at a topo map. The ability to download the data also allows me to keep track of previous messages sent, as the SPOT site only keeps a searchable record of the previous 30 days.
As far as durability goes, the SPOT seems to be holding up well, and still looks brand new. During the course of testing, I've carried it in my hand, worn it on my hip belt and sternum strap, stuffed it in a side pocket and also tried carrying it in the lid of my pack. While the device seems rugged enough, I've mixed reviews on the actual performance of the product. When it comes down to it, I need this device to capture my location and successfully send messages. I've found that even in the relatively wide open desert, this can be hit or miss. I've had messages successfully sent while on the move in relatively deep, somewhat narrow canyons, while other messages failed completely - though I wasn't aware of the failure until I returned home to check the message history - with the device sitting completely stationary for twenty minutes with a clear view of the sky in a relatively shallow drainage. I seemed to have the most luck when I wore the device so that the SPOT logo was facing out and unobscured by any fabric or straps on the side of my pack. When worn on my hip belt or sternum strap, reception was diminished - perhaps because I hike slightly canted forward when I have a full pack on. Reception was at its worst when the device was facing the sky, but inside the very top of my pack lid, which is a real shame, because that position ensured that the antenna remained facing skyward, while ensuring that the device was secure and unlikely to get lost.
While my initial testing has shown mixed results, I'm hoping that further
time in the field will let me figure out ways to make the device work more
reliably for me.
During the Long Term test period, I continued to carry the SPOT on various trips - most of which were dayhikes or overnights from a base camp. (Total of approximately 5 days, with time on trail each day approximately 8 to 12 hours.)Much of the hiking terrain had clear unobstructed views of the sky and was not in locations that I would expect to encounter difficulties in obtaining GPS signals. As with the previous testing period, I only used the "Check In" and "Track" functions of the device. In many cases I wore the spot on my pack's sternum strap because there weren't any better options for securely mounting the device on the pack anywhere else. After the 4 months of testing, the SPOT shows hardly any wear, and appears nearly as good as new.
While I like the concept and idea behind the SPOT, I have to admit to being disappointed in its performance. Even though I hiked in many places where I expected to have no difficulty in sending messages or getting a reliable track, I did note that I still had a fair amount of lost data points - this was especially evident in Track mode, when the device is supposed to send a message to my account every 10 minutes. Upon checking my account after of one particularly long day exploring wide drainages near the Grand Canyon, I realized only a third of the expected track points actually hit my the account. Interestingly enough, the Spot seemed to do much better when sending Track messages while I was driving around on freeways.
For me, due to the product limitations and the inability to determine whether
a message was successfully sent or not, the SPOT will likely not become a part
of my standard equipment that I carry on all adventures. I do, however,
appreciate the ability to check in with friends/family back home - especially if
my hike runs a little longer than anticipated. In these cases, I found
keeping the SPOT in the car to check in at the beginning and/or end of a hike
Summary: Woo Hoos and Boo Hoos
- Woo Hoo: Rugged and durable
My thanks to BackpackGearTest.org and SPOT Inc. for the opportunity to participate in this test.
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