SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger Review

New SPOT Gen 3 (Left) and the SPOT II (Right)

New SPOT Gen 3 (Left) and the SPOT II (Right)

The SPOT Gen 3 is the newest device is the SPOT family of satellite-based personal locator beacons and communication devices designed for outdoor adventurers and represents a significant improvement over the earlier SPOT II in terms of usability and functionality. But the SPOT Gen 3 doesn’t replace the SPOT II, at least not yet, and the company continues to support all of the previous  support plans that it offered for the SPOT II device.

My History Using a SPOT II

I’ve carried a SPOT II Satellite GPS Messenger on every backpacking and day hiking trip I’ve taken since 2010 because it gives my wife peace-of-mind. That’s a small price for the freedom she gives me to trot off and hike so much.

But it’s not ability to call SAR that she like so much. It’s the fact that I can send her a daily OK message via a Satellite when I’m deep in the backcountry and out of cell phone range. She just wants to know that I’m ok and I can understand that.

But the SPOT II has some real usability issues, most notably the buttons which you use to turn it on and off, or use to send OK or Custom Messages. They don’t work over 50% of the time, and you may need to push them a dozen times before they activate. This is very frustrating!

A True Confession

I once got so frustrated with the SPOT II buttons that I stabbed them with a swiss army knife to see if that would work better than pushing them with my fingers. They didn’t, but REI gave me a full refund, anyway, no questions asked. 

Much Better Usability

Rejoice. The usability of the buttons on the new SPOT Gen 3 Satellite GPS messenger is vastly better than the SPOT II. Vastly. But the upgrade from a SPOT II is very expensive, particularly the annual subscription fee and the optional new services that the new device enables.

Spot Gen 3 Buttons Up Close

Spot Gen 3 Buttons Up Close

The new Gen 3 buttons are made out of hard plastic and provide the appropriate tactile feedback that you’d expect from triggering a mechanical device. There’s even a separate on-off switch now.

The new device also provides visual feedback (flashing lights) when it’s turned on and off, when you enable and disable tracking or when you send one of your two pre-canned message. The old SPOT II did this poorly so you never really knew if it was doing what you wanted.

In addition, the SPOT Gen 3 is also waterproof and has a USB port which you can use to add capabilities to it, upgrade the device’s firmware to fix bugs and future proof your investment, and which brings it into the world of “smarter” devices.

Unfortunately SPOT hasn’t upgraded the usability of their FINDMESPOT.com web site which you still need to use to activate service plans, customize your preprogrammed messages, and create shared route pages. That’s still one of the worst web sites I have to deal with, but once you set things up you can avoid returning to it almost indefinitely.

An Introduction to the SPOT

If you’re new to the SPOT and have never seen or heard about it, it’s a very popular, consumer-oriented,  personal locator beacon that operates on a private satellite network called GEOS instead of the public, international one used by other similar devices.

The basic idea is simple – push a button and emergency responders will come to your rescue, even if you don’t have cell phone service, almost anywhere in the world. The benefit of running the SPOT service over a private satellite network instead of a public one, is that you can customize the messages that are sent, including the ability to send non-emergency or tracking messages to friends or family.

Spot Satellite Messager 2 - Sample Ok Message

Spot II Satellite GPS Messager – Sample Ok Message

In order to trigger a message, you press one of the buttons on the front of the SPOT devices, which provide the common set of basic functions:

  • Check-In: Let contacts know where you are (GPS location) and that you’re okay (see above).
  • Custom Message: Let contacts know where you are by sending a second (possibly different) pre-programmed message with your GPS location.
  • Track: Automatically  saves your location data and allow contacts to track your progress using Google maps via a web page.
  • Help/SPOT Assist: Request non-emergency help from friends or family at your GPS location.
  • SOS: In an emergency, send an SOS with your GPS location to GEOS, who will contact the appropriate agency to come and rescue you.

Increased Plan Pricing

Unfortunately, the Spot Gen 3 device and annual service plan costs more than the SPOT II.

Here’s a brief summary of the plans offered and the differences between them.

Spot Gen 3

  • Device cost (one time purchase): $149.95
  • Service Fees:  A $149.99 yearly subscription covers basic service and tracking. Add unlimited tracking at 5,10, 30 or 60 minute intervals for an additional $50 per year, or extreme tracking at 2.5 min. intervals for an additional $150 per year.

Spot II

  • Device cost (one time purchase): $99.95
  • Service Fees:  A $99.99 yearly subscription covers basic service but NOT tracking. Add basic tracking for $49.99 per year. Unlimited and extreme tracking options are not available.

For more information comparing available service plans, see http://www.findmespot.com/en/index.php?cid=103

Unlimited and Enhanced Tracking Services

Besides device usability, the main difference between the SPOT Gen 3 and the SPOT II is motion activated tracking and the ability to limit how often tracking updates are logged, be it on 2.5, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minute intervals. Both of these function preserve battery life, but who really needs them?

Unlimited Tracking with SPOT Gen 3 at 10 Minute Intervals

Unlimited Tracking with SPOT Gen 3 at 10 Minute Intervals

I reckon backcountry skiers, helicopter pilots, adventure athletes and possibly guidebook authors are the people who would most likely benefit from the advanced tracking capabilities. But let’s face it, sending 10 minute location updates is only useful for entertainment, documentation, or body recovery purposes. It serves little purpose from a  backcountry safety or rescue perspective because there’s no such thing as instant rescue assistance in the backcountry – unlike urban EMS.

Note: No one should expect a backcountry rescue to be called in if they’ve stopped moving for 10 minutes unless they specifically send an SOS message.  Even then the rule of thumb is that it takes rescuers 1 hour to reach you for every 1/4 mile you are from a trail head. There is no substitute for self-sufficiency. 

I question whether people really need unlimited or extreme tracking.

Actual Roue with Track Line

Actual Route with Track Line

Improved Battery Life

In addition to the new tracking capabilities, the battery life on the SPOT Gen 3 is over twice that of the SPOT II giving it the ability to transmit over 1,000 check-in or custom messages on a single set of batteries. But the SPOT Gen 3 requires 4 x AAA Lithium or NiMH rechargeable batteries or a 5v USB line connection, while the SPOT II requires 3 x AAA batteries and cannot be powered externally.

Message Reliability

One of the problems with the SPOT II was message reliability, particularly for tracking and check-in messages, where users reported delayed or lost messages which never arrived. It used to happen to me very frequently when the SPOT II first came onto the market, but much less so in recent years, which I think is probably due to improved satellite coverage or network reliability.

Various reasons were given by SPOT for dropped messages including low battery power or that narrow canyons and tree cover blocks satellite message delivery. I was never really satisfied with those explanations because the device always reported successful transmission based on its flashing light feedback.

In you’re in North America or Europe, SPOT claims that there is a “99% or better probability of successfully sending a single message in 20 minutes,” but when you start to pull that statement apart, it’s really not clear what it means or if it means anything except in the most ideal testing scenarios.

While I haven’t had any issues with dropped check-in messages or tracking since I stated testing the SPOT Gen 3, I can’t definitively say that message reliability has improved. That’s why I plan to continue testing this device on backcountry trips for the next few months.

Recommendation

While I am excited to see the new usability improvements in the SPOT Gen 3, it’s disappointing that the company has not provided SPOT II owners with an incentive to upgrade to the better device while grandfathering the same basic service annual subscription fee ($99.99) that they currently pay today.

I think SPOT is making a mistake in not upgrading old customers to the better device at the same old annual subscription rate. I’d jump at the chance, but paying 50% more annually for the same functionality I use today is a non-starter. I can get by with the SPOT II with all its quirks, until I have no choice but to replace it with something better.

Disclaimer: SPOT provided Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) with a loaner SPOT Gen 3 device and a 6 month unlimited tracking plan to test the device and write this review. He has to return it to SPOT after the trial plan expires, but he plans to hold onto it until then for further testing.

The following retailers sell the SPOT Gen 3:

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38 Responses to SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger Review

  1. Tristan October 7, 2013 at 5:02 am #

    Thanks for the review. So if you pay only the $149.99 for basic service and tracking for the Spot 3, what is the time interval that it tracks you at?

    • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 6:45 am #

      10 minutes, which is fine for most human powered activities because its motion activated.

  2. JimM October 7, 2013 at 6:50 am #

    Thanks for the review of the SPOT3. I purchased a SPOT2 at the beginning of August to take on a group kayaking trip to Isle Royale National Park in mid-August. It provided the peace of mind to our families back home and allowed me to track the trip to for a pending trip report. I have to admit that I heavily plagerized Phillip’s email and procedures he outlined in his SPOT2 review.
    I had no complaints whatsoever, it worked flawlessly. I had hoped to buy the SPOT3 but it wasn’t available until after we left. Initially I was dissappointed that I was restricted to 10 minute tracking updates, but after further thought I couldn’t think of a reason to have more frequent updates, even when tracking our trek up to the boat dock in our cars.
    The batteries worked for the entire 7 day trip, I brought spares and never needed them. I would turn the device on in the morning after we got up, send an “OK” message and initiate tracking when we got under way. At the end of the day I would do the exact opposite, after dinner I would send an “OK” message and once the device was done sending the message I turned it off for the night.
    Since we didn’t have a strict itninerary that would require us to give a “delayed” message I reserved the custom message to send my love home to my fiancee. :)
    Overall I’m pleased with the device and can’t justify the expense of the SPOT3, I’m with Phillip in that I will continue to use it until I’m forced to upgrade.

  3. PhilipS October 7, 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Still using my ancient Spot Gen-1 device here. It is working okay, so there’s no need or reason for me to upgrade, particularly not when they continue to increase the price. Then again, if you spend a lot of time in the backcountry, 150$ is an amazingly cost-effective insurance policy.

    • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 9:14 am #

      You can buy a regular PLB like a http://www.rei.com/product/815753/acr-electronics-resqlink-406-gps-personal-locator-beacon that runs on a public SAR network and NOT have to pay an annual service fee. The main difference is that it runs on a public network called COSPAS-SARSAT. It’s just as effective for calling for help but it doesn’t have tracking or email check-ins available

      • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 9:18 am #

        Also – looks like you can add the custom messages to for $60/year. see http://406link.com/plans.aspx

        • Don March 26, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

          I think you have a limited number of total messages because the battery is not user-replaceable.

          • Philip Werner March 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

            The batteries are user replaceable on the SPOT 2 and SPOT 3

            • Don March 26, 2014 at 2:11 pm #

              I was referring to the ACR ResQLink for which the service you mentioned applies.

  4. John October 7, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Thanks for the detailed writeup- I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure out a decent and cost-effective PLB/communicator solution for a solo JMT hike next year, so it’s good to hear your thoughts. I would be very curious to hear your long-term thoughts on the reliability of the messaging with the new unit once you’ve had it for a bit longer.

    • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 10:28 am #

      I had it out again for a long bushwhack yesterday (after I wrote this review) and it worked flawlessly in heavy forest. In fact, I’ve been running it from inside the top pocket of my pack (which I never did before – and which is not recommended) and it’s still hitting the satellite fine. I think they increased the power of the device to 5V up from 1.4v (read this somewhere) and that probably contributes to better reliability…I suspect.

      • Don March 26, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

        No power change just a better antennae and more sensitive GPS receiver. Remember, the unit won’t send a TRACK or CHECKIN message if it can’t get a GPS fix.

  5. korpijaakko October 7, 2013 at 10:27 am #

    Thanks for the review, Philip. Few points:

    I’ve used the original SPOT and the SPOT 2 and havne’t been especially impressed. In my opinion the system itself is limited and most people should take this itno accoutn when thinking of buying or using the system. More of my views in my blog: http://korpijaakko.com/2013/09/06/satellite-communication-spot-2-review-and-warning/

    Also because of different communication networks being used I wouldn’t say that a proper PLB would be “just as effective for calling for help”. It’s a lot better and a lot more reliable and also offers a true global coverage. But SPOT and similar devices are nto PLBs and should not be used as such but just as nice outdoor gimmicks.

    More reliable and cabable option to SPOT are the new messaging devices based on the Iridium network. One of them, the Yellowbrick YB v3, reviewed in my blog: http://korpijaakko.com/2013/09/22/yellowbrick-yb3-review/

    Oh, also the 10min (or more frequent) tracking is quite nice if you wan’t to make maps with Social Hiking. Nice way to make “trip reports”.

    • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Like I said – entertainment.

      • korpijaakko October 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm #

        Excatly. My point was just that all people don’t understand that which can lead to potentially dangerous situations and at least cause unnecessary worry and grief… And that there are also alternatives.

        • Don March 26, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

          SPOT is not a toy and it is a very popular tracking device because it just works. We are fortunate today to have many fine choices ranging from minimalist COSPAS-SARSAT PLBs like ACR’s ResQLink to the relatively new InReach. Responsible solo backcountry travelers have options today, and that is a very good thing. Each product has pro’s and con’s and potential buyers need to evaluate their individual needs.

          I’ve owned and used all 3 generations of SPOT and I really like the improvements to Gen 3. Consider me a happy 6 year SPOT customer who tramps solo all over the Northwest.

          • korpijaakko March 26, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

            Hi Don, and thanks for you comment. I have to disagree with SPOT “just working” as my personal experience differs and in my opinion I have good explanation for the reason behidn this. But as I wrote, it works really well for many people. I’d just like to make people aware and highlight the shortcomings of SPOT. I haven’t tried the 3rd generation SPOT btu would like to if someone offered it for me for test but until then I assume it has the same limitations for now* as it uses the same satellite network.

            * This might change in the future as Globalstar is updating their constellation.

    • Don March 26, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

      Now that people can test the COSPAS-SARSAT PLBs (ACR ResQlink specifically) by sending messages they are discovering all the same transmission limitation known by SPOT users. E.g. can’t get a GPS fix under canopy, can’t transmit from within buildings, your body shadowing the unit can block transmission, etc. Transmission power is misleading as the COSPAS-SARSAT PLB has to hit a satellite 22,000 miles up, whereas SPOT has to hit one at 800 miles. The key is that they both work and they both have the same limitations.

      The only thing superior about COSPAS-SARSAT is the true global coverage. However you can also get global satellite coverage with InReach which uses the Inmarsat satellite system. Of course it costs you much more than SPOT.

      • korpijaakko March 26, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

        The limitations you mention are limitations of the GPS system and apply on all devices using it. The problems I’ve had with SPOT are more likely related to the satellite network SPOT uses so I’d rather use (and recommend for similar use) a devcie that uses other satellite network and that’s one of the advantages of real PLBs. Another advantage (at least for me living in Finland) is that the is a tried and true system for getting the alarm for national authorities. But still, as I wrote, SPOT seems to work just fine for many and has also saved lives. But so have PLBs.

        By the way, InReach uses Iridium network, not Inmarsat.

        • Don March 26, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

          Good catch! Thank you for the correction. Delorme InReach uses the Iridium system as you said.

          Globalstar (SPOT) Satellites have a 52 degree inclination (middle of Canada). Since Finland lies between 60 and 70 degrees, I would not expect SPOT to give optimal performance. IMO, COSPAS-SARSAT PLB or Delorme InReach would be better choices.

          Since I do all of my adventures at about 45 degrees, SPOT gives excellent coverage.

          • korpijaakko March 26, 2014 at 4:22 pm #

            Hi again Don. I do agree with you. And I’d like to add Yellowbrick YB v3 (Iridium) on the list of great devices with global coverage. I’ve been more than happy with it. Thanks also for the info about the Globalstar satellites’ inclinations!

  6. alexmtn October 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm #

    I’m a very satisfied SPOT 2 user. I recently learned from a government friend that because of budget issues, the the monitoring of the standard PLB frequencies is not completely reliable — so while such info is disheartening, it was at the same time ‘heartening’ to know that the privately run, subscription-supported GEOS network for my SPOT is free of at least that concern.

    To the 2 -> 3 upgrade issue, SPOT did offer a grandfathering of sorts: a $50 purchase discount on the 3. Technically, the new monthly pricing is not an increase, but rather a forced bundling of two services that are offered a la carte to SPOT 2 users.

    I hope that as technology advances and as networks continue to become faster and more abundant, prices will drop — such that by the time I’m looking to replace my SPOT 2, there will be an appropriate (and appropriately priced) service option available to me relative to the $99.99 service I’m currently using.

    • Philip Werner October 7, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

      I didn’t get that offer. Did they send you something?

      Regardless – I’d really rather not pay an extra $50 per year for tracking when I absolutely don’t need it.

  7. JJ Mathes October 7, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    Oh law, I’m still using a Gen 1 SPOT, it’s a clunker piece to carry around and slow as molasses in January, but it still works and always has, I used it all of past week on my bike trip. But, I’ve been thinking it may be time to upgrade before 2014 hiking season arrives.

    • Don March 26, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Check for grand opening sales – I got my Gen 3 with a 100% rebate. Gen 1 was a bit of an IQ test ( many people did poorly on it), Gen 2 was a huge improvement, and Gen 3 is pretty easy to use. You’ll be shocked at the size difference. Gen 3 has a much more sensitive GPS receiver so you’ll experience a much improved TRACK message success rate.

  8. blueskyca October 15, 2013 at 12:15 am #

    I SO agree with the lame web site comment. I’m frequently gone more than 2 weeks and coming home to see my older tracks deleted just pisses me off. It would be so easy to add additional functionality to their tracking site. I like the new Spot 3, but can’t agree to higher tracking fees unless they fix their web tool.

  9. Perry November 1, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

    there are a LOT of pilots who use the SPOT, especially since COSPAS/SARSAT no longer monitors 121.5 mHz, which a whole generation of ELT’s transmit on.
    I use a SPOT I, but also am unlikely to upgrade to the 3, just to get more tracking hits per mile. Most aircraft travel in the 100 – 200 mph range, and the 5 or 10 minute interval is not great at narrowing a search area!!!
    they have made the subscription the price of a PLB, so there will be users abandoning this in droves, an opting for other devices. way to go Spot!

  10. Steve Munter November 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

    I agree the findmespot website is lacking, but the https://spotwalla.com/login.php site is great, free and links flawlessly with the SPOT device.

    Regarding the SPOT Gen3 device, has anyone used the motion activated feature yet? Does this mean that you can power the Gen3 unit on and leave it on (even for days on end), then pick it up (i.e. motion detection) and have it spring to life? I’ve used the Gen1 and Gen2 devices for years, and understand the motion activation feature will work as I’ve described.

  11. Art Ebelmesser November 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    I’ve had great luck with my SPOT2 even in the deep canyons and heavy canopy of the Cascades and Oregon Coast Range without a problem. As for the buttons, I hold a button down for a five count and it works every time. Only had one problem with a message drop so I must be lucky. Spot battery life has been good using an average of three days a month and about two weeks at a time during the summer (e.g. about thirty days of battery life with two messages a day but I don’t do tracking). I replace the batteries every Xmas.

    I don’t need the enhanced tracking so I’ll keep mine until I’m forced to upgrade

  12. Tony November 17, 2013 at 3:59 am #

    Thanks Philip for the great and thorough review. I’m a satisfied Spot 2 user and have had it for 3-4 years. The buttons on mine work fine, just need to hold them down for 5 seconds. Motion detection would be nice and the longer batter life of gen3 would be nice. You’re not supposed to but I’ve used rechargeable Eneloop Ni-mh batteries since day 1. The red low battery light comes on quickly but in repeated testing, I can get a safe 60 hours or six 10 hour days of continuous 10 minute tracking out of a charge. Glad to hear Spot 3 is designed to use rechargeable batteries to keep operating costs down. I’m tempted to upgrade to Spot 3 but it’s a want right now, not a need yet.

  13. John (LAG) Lagasse November 18, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Thanks for the review Philip. I’m going to purchase the Gen 3 and probably the advanced tracking as my wife carspots for me at times and this would allow her to determine what time she needed to be at the trailhead to grab the group. I’ve done hikes where I was way under my scheduled time and was lucky to get cell reception to inform her, otherwise we’d be sitting at the trailhead waiting. My main reason though is for emergency response whether my group needs it or I come upon another group in trouble.
    See you on a Mountain!

  14. Philip Werner November 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

    I’m leaning toward buying one of these myself John. The signal strength works really well. They’ve obviously increased the power of the transmitter.

  15. D. J. Blackwood January 5, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    I’ve used an original Spot Gen 1 device since they were first released and never had a problem with it. 10-minute tracking is great if you’re moving fast but tends to be too frequent for slower modes of travel. Plus if you forget to turn it off it continues to send out a track message every 10 minutes until you remember or the batteries give out. (Lithium batteries last almost forever in my experience – at least a season or two until I get too cautious and change them out anyway.) The ability to increase the track interval and motion activated tracking convinced me to upgrade to the Gen 3. (Well that, and a special offer from Spot.) Looking forward to taking advantage of the new capabilities, and really like the new button configuration.

  16. Joey Washburn February 3, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

    I have never used a device like this, so this may be a silly question, but what prevents accidental SOS?

    • Philip Werner February 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

      The SOS button is hidden behind an extra flap so you can’t accidentally activate it.

  17. Barry April 14, 2014 at 10:26 pm #

    How about down under? New Zealand next February? No comments about that corner of the world.

  18. adrian408000 May 11, 2014 at 2:57 am #

    If you are colour blind (up to 8% of males are colour blind to some extent) then you may find those coloured flashing lights (green & red) on the SPOT GEN3 are not very helpful re batteries good or bad, message sent or not , GPS connected or not, etc. Have told SPOT who have forwarded the colour blind issue to their marketing & development team.

  19. Eric June 17, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

    Which device would be recommende to track a person with Dementia? Does the device power down if indoors for a period of time (no satelite signal)?

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