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.
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 the 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.
The new Gen 3 buttons are made 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 started 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.
I am excited to see the new usability improvements in the SPOT Gen 3. The device is much more idiot-proof and message reliability has improved noticeably. While I question the utility of the enhanced tracking capabilities available in this new version of the product, I’m a dedicated user of the OK check-in messages that you can send using the Spot Gen 3. I rely on this device to let my wife know that I’m ok in the backcountry and will continue to use it in the future.
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.
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