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SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger review

Recently I was sent a “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger” device to write a review about and I was excited about this before it even arrived. If you have never heard of the SPOT, they are cool little gizmos that send a signal to a satellite every ten minutes and let you track where you have been. They are very sturdy and user friendly devices that work all over the planet both on land and sea all while being able to have a “breadcrumb style” mapped history of your adventures. They are also used as a locator if you are out in the middle of nowhere and run into trouble. What’s even cooler is all this is done by a tiny hand held device that is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. Besides those few basic functions, there are some other positive features that the SPOT device has and since the price is relatively inexpensive and it can save your life, purchasing one seems like a “no brainer”.

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger

What is it?

Simply put, a SPOT Tracker is a GPS device that tracks your position as you make your way around planet Earth and as long as you have a clear line of sight to the sky, it knows where you are at all times. Cell phones are great but they don’t work everywhere and this little machine does. You can use this device to send instant email or text messages to a list of pre-determined contacts that tell them you are OK, that you need some kind of help, or that you are in deep trouble and need emergency responders dispatched to your location immediately.
The non-emergency messages can be sent to email addresses or as text messages and with the optional “tracking feature” enabled, the device will continuously report your location (every 10 minutes) to the spot tracker website. You friends and family can (with your permission) go online and see where you are with a link that plots your whereabouts on Google Maps. If you want to let the whole world follow you, that option is available also and you can blog about your adventures to your heart’s content on the manufactures website as well.
In the event you find yourself in a life threatening situation (lost in the mountains, shipwrecked on a far away beach, stranded in the desert, or injured at the bottom of a cliff someplace) all you have to do is press the SOS button and help is on the way. SPOT will acquire your coordinates and send that location along with a distress message to the GEOS International Emergency Response Center every five minutes until canceled or your batteries wear out. Then the Emergency Response Center gets in touch with the appropriate emergency responders based on your GPS location and personal information. This may be the police, highway patrol, the Coast Guard, our country’s embassy or consulate, or other emergency search and rescue teams. Your registered personal contacts are also notified. These GEOS people are not in any way a small and under prepared operation. They are the real deal with an amazing network of resources. They have been doing this for a while and they are very good at what they do.

Left - New smaller SPOT. Right older SPOT unit.

Left - New smaller SPOT. Right older SPOT unit.

Why would you want one?

Besides the peace of mind that I am not entirely alone when I am “off the grid” my favorite part of the SPOT device is the online tracking feature, for a variety of reasons.
Since I work on pit crews for several desert race teams, I can attach my SPOT tracker to the race car, and as long as I am able to get online from my pit via my laptop or smart phone, I can track my racer and know where they are. This enables me to relay that info to my fellow crew members and chasers so they are on their toes when the race vehicle is approaching their pit. In Baja, there is always a deficit of available information. Radio communications can be spotty and inconsistent. Radio equipment failures are common and the necessity of using radio relay stations can be frustrating as well as taking up valuable air time which would be better used for the race operations and rescue efforts. By having my race vehicles equipped with a SPOT device as well as my chase crews, and a working internet connection I can monitor my entire team via a laptop and have near real-time status updates for the entire race. This kind of information is vital to a successful race effort.
Running around on Mexican highways can be downright dangerous and anyone who races Baja will tell you that the roads down there are just as perilous as the race courses. Crazy locals in rusted pick ups, chase vehicles rushing to make it to their broken race car or pit assignments, cows standing in the middle of the road and the fact that in Baja, anything can happen and probably will, are all reasons a SPOT Tracker can be a useful safety device. If I am overdue for where I am supposed to be, a few clicks of the mouse can give my team an idea of where I am. I could be lost or broken down or wrecked somewhere and even if I am unable to hit the SOS button because of an injury, my teammates can still find out my last known location and begin their search for me there. Also, since my Mom says she can barely sleep when I am in Baja because she worries I will be kidnapped by “banditos” or end up “dead in a ditch”, I can just hit the “I’m OK” button which shoots her a text and she will know her favorite son is safe and get some peace of mind so she can rest.
Is it tough?

I gotta say HELL YES!  This little gadget is about the size and weight of a computer mouse and is extremely rugged. The battery cover is tightly held in place by a pair of screws and a strip of rubber goes around the entire edge of the device to protect it from impacts. When I first got mine I tried to use it in my house but my roof prohibited the signal from working. Since my place is surrounded by taller buildings I decided to take it up on the roof with me and then, just because I wanted to be thorough in my review, I dropped it off the roof onto my drive way. With the exception of a small ding in the plastic housing, the SPOT survived. Then I went into the backyard and left it sitting on the second step of my pool for a couple of minutes and the light never stopped blinking. My third and final test was purely by accident. I had my SPOT sitting on my dashboard when I yanked the wheel and whipped a sharp left turn at speed and it slid across the dash and launched itself right out the passenger window skipping across the asphalt for about 30 feet. Besides a few new scratches, the device was still operating perfectly. For the off road market, RAM mounts makes a mounting kit for the unit (I guess I should have looked into these before my accidental durability testing began.) SPOT boasts their product has been vibration rated at “Per SAE J1455″ and since I have no idea what that means, I will give my own rating of “you can drop it off the roof, into a pool, or skip it across a parking lot without worry”. I can’t say it is bullet proof because I never shot it with a gun but you can tell just by holding it in your hand that it is far from fragile and will survive in some seriously rugged conditions.

Left - Older SPOT. Right - New SPOT

Left - Older SPOT. Right - New SPOT

Does it work?

Absolutely! I recently went on a 1700 mile road trip and my SPOT was with me the whole time. Along the way I stopped here and there at places of interest and when I did, I would hit the “I’m OK” button so I could review the data later and write a story about my adventure. I had set my account up to email my Mom and my little brother the “OK” messages and had let them know in advance, what I was up to and that they could be expecting random emails showing my status. About 400 miles into my trip my little bro gave me a call and asked me what these weird emails he was getting were. (I guess he missed the voice mail I left him explaining what I was doing and that he was part of my product testing experiment but his call let me know that the emails were in fact going out, and the SPOT was doing what it was supposed to.) Even though my trip was going to be on highways only, his call gave me a sense of tranquility that if I did end up in some situation I couldn’t get out of by myself, help would only be a push of a button away.
Whats the deal with the SOS feature?

The SOS button is for when things get serious. If you are in a life threatening or other critical situation, all you do is activate the SOS feature by pressing a button and things start happening. Their procedure is to contact the authorities first, then call you at your contact numbers (these are entered when you register the unit and can be easily modified on the SPOT website whenever you want). If nobody answers at your contact numbers, or if nobody can confirm it’s a false alarm, they assume the SOS is legit . They will continue to call your contact numbers to let your people know you had an emergency and to get and give additional information that might help. Before you go on a trip it is important to notify the people who are listed as your contacts the basics of what you are up to. Any information about you your contacts can relay to to the authorities such as the type of vehicle you are in, allergies you may have, if you have a radio to communicate with, etc. are all helpful tools in getting you rescued as fast as possible and without incident.
It is important to know that even if SPOT cannot acquire its location from the GPS network it will still try and send a distress signal, without exact location, to GEOS. Your contacts will still be notified and the situation will be constantly monitored until it is resolved. Because it has a cover over the SOS button, worries that you may accidentally activate an SOS are basically unfounded.

SPOT battery compartment

SPOT battery compartment

What about Battery Life?

The unit comes with three AAA “lithium” Energizer batteries. This is great because you don’t have to use some difficult to find and expensive battery, you can just swing by the local drug store when you need new ones. Also, these little batteries last! If you leave the unit powered up but are NOT transmitting they will last 3 months according to the manufacturer. With a 100% clear view of the sky they will last for 6 days while transmitting in SOS mode, 7 days while in tracking mode, and allow for 700 Check In/OK” messages to be sent. When you only have a 50% clear view of the sky and 50% obstructed view the battery life is cut in half but, that is still plenty of time for rescue to happen. Try leaving your cell phone on while it is searching for a signal for those durations. It won’t last for nearly that long.
How much is it?

The device has an MSRP of $169.99 and I was able to find them for about $150.00 after a few minutes of searching online.
What about the service plan?

In order to activate your SPOT you will need to purchase a basic service plan. The plan costs $99.99 and includes the basic features listed below.
SOS – Notifies the emergency response center of your GPS location.
Help – Ask family and friends for help.
Check-in/OK – Let contacts know where you are and that you are OK.
Custom Message – Send a custom message to family and friends.
Facebook – Share your GPS location and message on Facebook.
Twitter – Share your GPS location and message on Twitter.
Spot Adventures – Share your progress on a Live Map, create adventures and add photos and stories.
SPOT offers additional services as well.
Track Progress $49.99 per year
Track Progress allows friends and family to follow your progress online in real time or to save way-points so you can review your entire route at a later date. SPOT Track Progress automatically sends your GPS location way point to a Google Map every 10 minutes.
GEOS Member Rescue Benefit $12.95 per year
Geos provide the SOS/911 monitoring included in your Basic Service. You can upgrade to the GEOS Member Benefit for reimbursement of up to $100K in Search and Rescue (SAR) expenses – even coordinating a private SAR contractor if needed to get you to safety.
SPOT Assist Satellite GPS Safety Service (cost varies by service provider)
SPOT Assist provides satellite-based notification to third party professional service providers to help ensure your safety on land or water – at the push of a button.
Product Replacement Program $17.95 a year (plus $30.00 deductible)
The SPOT Product Replacement Program offers registered SPOT users the ability to quickly replace your damaged, lost or stolen SPOT device so you keep receiving security and peace-of-mind for both you and your loved ones.
More detailed information about these services can be found on the manufactures website.
So, any Cons to this device?

Nothing is perfect but this device comes close. My only complaint is the fact the signals are one way. I wish there was a way I could have known just by looking at the device that, when I pushed the “OK” button, the message was actually sent. Fortunately there is an indicator light, so I know that my unit did understand my send command and was trying to send my message. Such is the nature of a one way signaling device and with the relatively inexpensive price of the unit, this shortcoming seems to be something I really shouldn’t be complaining about.
In Summary.

I really like this little gadget mostly because it does what it is supposed to. It is a simple device to understand and rather than having a few dozen buttons and a bunch of complex numeric sequences to comprehend, it has been reduced to several simple functions with a minimal amount of buttons. Basically, if you can flush a toilet, you can use a SPOT Tracker. I called the customer service department and pestered them with silly questions about how to do this and that with my SPOT and they were friendly and informative and really took the time to explain each feature I had questions about. The social networking features are really cool also and I plan on using these capabilities quite a bit. Now when I get home from a trip instead of saying I was just “all over the place in Mexico” I can actually show somebody on a map where I went and when. I can highlight areas of interest such as historic landmarks, cool camping spots, awesome scenic views, hidden trail heads and back roads, roadside shacks that sell statues of monkeys riding surfboards and most importantly, the best place to get a fish taco in Baja. Now if my friends want to go and check these places out themselves, all they have to do is note the GPS coordinates and head out on their own adventure.
Besides all the fun the SPOT Tracker lets you have, the best part is the safety that comes along with it. On the off chance your life is in danger because of some mishap that occurs while you are off the beaten path and it is unlikely you will be discovered by someone and get the assistance you need, the SPOT device can serve as a extremely valuable tool in insuring your safety. We live in a crazy world where sometimes things go wrong in the worst ways imaginable. For a few hundred dollars, you can buy the peace of mind that emergency responders are only a button push away, and that seems like a bargain to me.

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