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SPOT X Two-Way Satellite Messenger Review

Spot X two-way satellite messenger review

The SPOT X is a two-way satellite messenger that can send and receive SMS messages and emails with friends and family or search and rescue services anywhere in the world. It is a big step forward from SPOT’s Gen 3 satellite communicator that could only send SOS or pre-defined text messages, but could not have a two-way conversation with recipients to determine if sent messages been received or not. The SPOT X (weight 6.7 oz) also has other functions including tracking, a digital compass, GPS waypoint navigation, and social media sharing of your GPS coordinates on Facebook and Twitter.

SPOT X Two-Way Satellite Messenger

Ease of Use
GPS Tracking
Messaging
Battery Life
Search and Rescue
Navigation Tools
Documentation
Smartphone App
Satellite Network Coverage

Not Ready for Prime Time

The SPOT X is not ready for prime time and I can't recommend this device to anyone. It's difficult to use, it's buggy, unreliable, and not well documented.

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But the SPOT X doesn’t quite cut it in my book because the user interface is hard to use and provides little feedback to let you know if the device is doing what you’ve commanded it to do. With patience, you can get the SPOT X to function close to spec, but the learning curve is steep and there are some major pitfalls along the way.

Let’s take a closer look at this new device and you can decide for yourself if it’s worth buying.

Subscription Plans

The SPOT X requires a subscription plan to use, in addition to the one-time device purchase price.  SPOT X offers two different service subscription options (click for listing). You can choose either a monthly Flex Plan or an Annual contract plan, with multiple service tiers available in each.  The biggest difference between the tiers are the number of ad-hoc messages you can send per month or the frequency in which tracking pings the satellite to record your current location. Flex Plans are best for seasonal use and only require a one-month subscription. Annual plans are perfect for year ’round use by outdoor junkies with an added benefit of monthly payment.

SPOT X Web Portal and Account Settings
SPOT X Web Portal and Account Settings

Web Portal

The SPOT X requires access to a website to activate the device, enter emergency contacts, and specify pre-defined messages so you don’t have to type them every time you send a check-in update. You need to be able to synch this information to your SPOT X using a USB cable connected your computer every time you update this information (along with device software updates), using either a Macintosh or a Windows computer. You can’t use a phone to do it however, since the synchronization application requires a computer to run.

SPOT X User Interface and Keyboard
SPOT X User Interface and Keyboard

User Interface

SPOT chose to develop a new user interface for the X with its own look and feel so they could make a standalone device, without providing users the option to use a simpler, more familiar user interface like a Smartphone connected using Bluetooth. While SPOT does offer an app for download, it can’t be used to control the SPOT X device or interact with it, so it’s pretty worthless.

SPOT Directional Pad
SPOT Directional Pad

The SPOT user interface is raw and inconsistent, which is what you’d expect in a first release on a new device. It’s basically a set of icons that let you navigate up and down through a hierarchical menu system, pointing at different options using a directional pad with a selector button on the middle. However, the navigation mechanism is jerky and often jumps to a different menu item than the one you intended. The most important button on the interface is the “back” button so you can get back to the previous interface item and try again.

When you select a top-level item using the directional pad, you never really know how the SPOT X is going to react. Some commands like the Check-in button  create icons in the top status bar to show you that they’ve been initiated, like a check mark in a waypoint icon, footprints to let you know that tracking has been turned on, or an inbox with a number in it to let you know that new messages have arrived for. But there’s no visual notification or audible beep to tell you that whatever command you’ve triggered has actually completed and the status bar icons are quite difficult to see because they’re so small. Some commands are also mysteriously delayed and undocumented status messages are displayed on the screen instead.

A cryptic undocumented status message
A cryptic undocumented status message

The front of a SPOT X has a full QWERTY keyboard like a blackberry, but the keys are tiny. I have the nimble and thin fingers of a violinist (fiddler, actually) and even I mistype characters because the keys are so small. While the keyboard is smart enough to capitalize letters at the beginning of sentences, there are certain characters, like the “@” that can only be entered into address-specific fields if you enter a special, undocumented mode where the special character keys work. Seriously?

There are two methods to activate an SOS Message
There are two methods to activate an SOS Message

SOS Messages

The SPOT X provides the ability to send SOS message to rescuers in an emergency along with your GPS location. There are two ways to activate an SOS message. The first is a red button, protected against accidental activation, behind a dedicated door on the front of the unit. The second is top-level user interface item at the bottom right of the front screen, which is very easy to select by accident using the jittery user interface. While it requires a second interface selection to activate a rescue, and there’s an adjacent button to cancel it immediately, I can’t fathom why this item isn’t similarly protected behind a physical panel. My advice, be careful to keep this device away from small children who like to press buttons or you’re likely to have a helicopter land at your campsite unexpectedly.

Check-in Messages

Most of the time, you’ll probably send loved ones check-in messages to let them know where you are and that you’re ok. Called predefined messages, you have to define these in the Web Portal and download to your Spot X unit using the SPOT synchronization application and a USB cable.

Here’s an example of a typical check-in message.

Sample Check-in Message
Sample Check-in Message

SMS Messages and Email

You can also send and receive un-canned (not predefined) SMS messages or Email messages via satellite using the SPOT X. When you activate a SPOT X, you also get a dedicated mobile phone number so people can send SMS messages to it from anywhere in the world. This includes phone spam and unwanted messages. The Spot X web portal includes a setting that let you white-list the phone numbers of a small set of people, so you’re not bothered with spam messages using the device.

SMS messages are generally sent promptly from the SPOT X and recipients can respond in turn. Email message delivery is far less predictable and generally much slower, ranging from 16 to 30 minutes for each message that you send. The reason is that the SPOT X sends three copies of your message to their mail server for redundancy to make sure that your message is received by their mail server. Your SPOT X device must remain on while the repeated sends take place. You can check periodically to see whether the messages have been received by the SPOT mail server by looking at icons next to your outbound message list, but you can’t tell whether they’ve been received by their intended recipients.

Email recipients can reply to messages that you have sent, but all email messages have a fixed character limit of 140 characters. People can only respond to your emails. They can’t initiate an email thread because your SPOT X doesn’t have a dedicated email address.

Ad hoc (not pre-defined) email messages are limited to 140 characters. While recipients can respond to email messages, they cannot initiate them since the SPOT X does not have an email address.
Ad hoc (not pre-defined) email messages are limited to 140 characters. While recipients can respond to email messages, they cannot initiate them since the SPOT X does not have an email address.

The SPOT X also does a curious thing if someone sends you a message and you’re offline for more than 72 hours. It deletes the messages, which is a very odd thing to do. Email is supposed to be a “reliable” messaging system that stores messages on a mail server indefinitely, until they’re downloaded by an email reader.

“While SPOT X is powered off or has not communicated with the SPOT Satellite Network, incoming messages will not be delivered to your device. All incoming messages will be queued for up to 72 hours from the time they were sent and will only be delivered if your SPOT X device turns back on within that time period. After 72 hours, if the SPOT X device has not powered on, all queued messages will be deleted permanently and will not be delivered to your SPOT X device.”

This is not email as we know it…it’s SPOTTY email. My recommendation would be to avoid using the ad hoc email functions on the SPOT X and only use its SMS capabilities, because they are far faster and reliable.

The SPOT X lets you share tracking data with friends or family.
The SPOT X lets you share tracking data with friends or family.

Tracking

The SPOT X has a tracking capability that lets you record your current location at set interfaces during a trip. This is handy if people want to check on your progress during a trip or you want to document that you took a certain route. The tracking intervals available are every 2.5, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes and the frequency may depend on the service plan you’ve selected. Frequent tracking uses up your battery more than less frequent tracking, which can be a consideration if you’re trying to preserve power. To share a track with friends and family, you send them a link to a SPOT Share Page (shown above), which gives them a virtual breadcrumb trail of your adventure. My wife really likes this feature…

Navigation

The SPOT X has a rudimentary navigation capability that has a digital compass, lets you record trip statistics, or enter a list of waypoints and navigate to them on as-the-crow-flies bearings. There’s no way to specify these waypoints graphically on the device itself  and you must type in their lat/lons by hand. \ I’d recommend that you keep using whatever Smartphone GPS app or GPS device you’re already using instead of the navigation functionality included in the SPOT X because it is so primitive.

The SPOT X navigation capabilities are inferior to the Gaia GPS navigation app
The SPOT X navigation capabilities are inferior to the Gaia GPS navigation app or any recent Garmin GPS device which includes maps.

Battery Life

Battery life on the SPOT X is directly proportional to how much you use it. If you only turn on the device to send check-in messages once or twice a day, the battery will last for many days. But if you turn up the tracking frequency to every 2.5 minutes, you’ll burn through a battery charge in a day.

Recharging the unit is another issue entirely. In two weeks of near constant use, I was never able to fully recharge the unit from a handheld battery pack using the USB cable, even during all-night-long charging attempts. The only way I could recharge the SPOT X was to plug it into a wall and let it charge overnight. You’ll definitely want to carry a battery if you use the SPOT X on extended trips and if you use the tracking capability.

Assessment

The SPOT X is not ready for prime time and I can’t recommend this device to anyone. It’s difficult to use, it’s buggy, and not well documented. This product would be so much better it was just a streamlined satellite-based two-way SMS (only) messaging device with an SOS capability, pre-defined messages, ad hoc text messaging, and tracking, that didn’t require a computer to activate and use. I think SPOT underestimated how difficult it is to implement a new graphical user interface from scratch on proprietary hardware. They’ve also missed the boat in not integrating the device with Smartphones, which have become the defacto single device that most backcountry users and travelers want to use instead of a proprietary unit.

If you’ve been tempted by the lower price of the SPOT X, I’d encourage you to take a hard look at the Garmin inReach Two-way Mini Satellite Communicator instead. The inReach Mini is much easier to learn and use, fully tested and documented, and sends messages faster and more reliably despite being slightly higher priced. See my recent Garmin InReach Mini Review for more a more detailed analysis of its features.

Afterward

SPOT was understandably concerned about my assessment of their new SPOT X device and asked if I would publish their “rebuttal” of my comments. I still stand 100% behind the opinions expressed above and the technical issues that I encountered when using the device. These were discussed with SPOT customer support which acknowledged the issues and explained how to work around them. 

Here at SPOT, we pride ourselves on building communication devices that are rugged, reliable, and easy to use. We were disappointed to read Philip’s negative experience with the new SPOT X and there are several issues we would like to address.

  • We intentionally designed the SPOT X to work independently of a smartphone. We did not want the SPOT X to depend on a second device or force users to monitor the battery life of two different devices. We certainly realize our QWERTY keyboard is small and takes a while to get used to, but it allows users to type detailed messages to family, friends or rescuers.
  • A dedicated mobile phone number for each device is a function unique to the SPOT X, allowing friends and family to initiate communication with the user.
  • The SPOT X does offer email capability, but it was truly designed for SMS text messaging and we’ve optimized our network to support the SMS platform.
  • In 10 minute tracking mode our batteries have consistently lasted for 10 days in optimal conditions, which includes a clear view of the sky. It is important to note, that sending and fetching messages increases the power output in turn depleting the battery life much quicker.
  • Users can enter the @ sign at any point by clicking the “alt” button on left side of space bar

SPOT fully stands behind our products and continues to help to initiate an average of 2 rescues a day. We have a dedicated customer support team working 7 days a week and all our products are covered by a one year warranty.

SPOT provided the author with a loaner unit for this review. Published 2018.

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15 comments

  1. Phil, I applaud your decision to post SPOT’s feedback on your blog but have to laugh at their lame comeback. SPOT has squandered any good will they ever had with their terrible website and products, so it’s no surprise to me they’ve shipped another buggy and ill-conceived one. SPOT has this mistaken belief that you can ship a “BETA” quality device (and that’s being generous) to customers and fix the firmware with periodic updates. While that makes sense with a web browser, it’s a bad business tactic for a search and rescue device. Your review (thank you for being honest-that’s why I trust your reviews) caught them in the act, so to speak. It will be amusing to read the “impartial” reviews from websites that take SPOT’s advertising revenue (like Backpacker Magazine and Gear Junkie) and see how much they praise it.

  2. When Black Diamond or CAMP ship a carabiner that’s shown to be defective, they issue a recall, and climbers respect them more for it because it demonstrates their committment to their customers. SPOT should recall the SPOT X for the same reason. If they don’t REI should demand that they do.

  3. Philip,
    You are the first person to explain why the Gen2 and Gen3 SPOTs drop so may email-based check-in messages. I was surprised to read that the SPOT X needs to send multiple emails to get one through to its destination. That sounds like a sophmoric computer hack to me and gives me zero faith in their ability to deliver SMS messages reliably. How did you find out about it?

  4. Hi I picked up the Spot X a week ago and I found it intuitive to use – being able to figure most of the major commands out without using the guide. I would say your review is fairly accurate based on what I have used so far. I have not drained the battery, or even activated the compass yet so can’t comment on that. If the keys would have been rounded like the Blackberry they would be easier to depress.

    Speaking for myself, I guess I am old school and still use a Silva compass. I did not expect this to be compatible with my smartphone as the marketing materials were quite clear that it does not do that. I usually don’t use my phone in the back country once out of range and admittedly that could be a generational thing. I also use my Garmin etrex GPS for all mapping and set up my routes on the computer.

    I was a Gen 2 user for over five years and just wanted to add the two way texting ability. This does what I needed it to do – allow 2 way texts home when I am outside cell range and add the SOS component. I did look at the in reach as well – and considered it but gave the spot a try and hopefully that won’t disappoint. It is cheaper than a sat phone.

    Thanks for your review and for being fair enough to post the companies response.

  5. I have the Spot Generation 3 which works fairly well for me. My family likes the tracking feature and the fact that I send check in messages daily. Two way communication would be nice but I am really not inpressed with the battery life in the new spot. My Spot Gen 3 takes litheum batteries that I get a full season out of using 10 minute tracking and then just replace. It would do me no good to have a device I can’t just easily put new batteries in. I carry extra and don’t sweat it.

  6. Philip,
    You are the first person to explain why the Gen2 and Gen3 SPOTs drop so may email-based check-in messages. I was surprised to read that the SPOT X needs to send multiple emails to get one through to its destination. That sounds like a sophmoric computer hack to me and gives me zero faith in their ability to deliver SMS messages reliably. How did you find out about it?

  7. I’ve been a loyal user of SPOT Gen 3 and previous versions of SPOT messengers for over 10 years and have always been satisfied. When I saw the SPOT X in the store I thought this was a great idea and decided to buy it. Since yesterday I’ve been trying to make it consistently and reliability. So far this has been a total disappointment. I can confirm everything you said above is true. Furthermore, now I can’t even turn the darn thing on unless it is plugged in the charger. The updater for sync’ing it is buggy and intermittent. Yesterday I called customer service only to be told the technicians over work on bankers hours. Though luck. After wasting my time for two days, this SPOT will go right back in the box and returned to the store for my money back. Now I will consider the Garmin Inreach. I was reluctant to buy it in the first because of having to rely on a smart phone but I’m going to go with the lesser of two evil. Thanks again for your technical review. I guess I should have known better and read it before buying the SPOT X. I just confirmed what I think.

  8. I’ve been the Spot X since it was released and had some concerns but they were promptly addressed with firmware updates. For those of use who lived in the world prior to smartphones, or even consumer cell phones, it’s interface is quite adequate for the task at hand; think DOS.

    Reading the manual and researching duplex and non-duplex satellite communication is a requirement. It is a piece of gear aimed at the kind of people who understand preparedness and are willing to put in the time that it takes for each facet of wilderness travel. The Spot X is very much like venturing into the wilderness; one must fully understand the environment one will be traveling in, the terrain, the weather, where to find water, caloric requirements, gear requirements, and how to be self sufficient for extended periods of isolated travel.

    The Spot X isn’t a piece of “consumer electronics”. It’s a piece of equipment.

    • Sorry, I don’t buy this. The spot x is a dumbed down text and email messenger for consumers. They even make it easy to post your location to Twitter!

      If you want an emergency preparedness device buy a PLB. The SPot X isn’t one. It’s also a piece of crap.

      The one way Spot Gen 3 was tolerable but for fast and reliable interactive messaging get a Garmin InReach. Most messages are delivered in a minute or less and you get an audible confirmation beep that confirms they’ve been sent. You don’t get either of those with a Spot X.

    • I don’t buy your comments either. The Spot X was released too soon, and the customer service staff and information available were not adequate. My Spot X (I have owned
      other Spot devices over the years without problems!) was a disaster out of the box. I have performed a “hard reset” recently and hopefully it will work now…time will tell. It DID NOT WORK on a recent 10 day back country trip in the Sierras. Fortunately, No one in my party needed it to perform. The battery does not hold a charge well, the USB cover is defective, and the customer service was HORRIBLE until this week when one great staff member over there actually followed up and did what she said she was going to do. Her name is Brittany by the way. I am critical because this is such an important part of my and anyone else’s gear package. It can literally mean the difference between life and death: IT NEEDS TO BE 100%.

  9. Hi Phil
    A great read and loads of info on the Spot X,I have had the Gen 2 and 3 For me it has work out great I have it on top of my Backpack in Aqua Pac Bag to get a good lock. I have been send feedback to spot many about the web page and getting UTM on which I use a lot with maps. I got a phone call from them last week they wish to give me a free Upgrade due to my feedback and post on F/B, So this week I should be getting the Spot-x in the mail so I turn to your page to get the review and any information that I need to learn about the Spot X. Shock to say the least but for me a great help I do not have a smart phone and sending message all the time not for me e-mails forget it so after all that the spot x will work for me and when I get to camp I will send few message out plus the pre-ok ones to save I am safe and that is it.
    But the battery will have to set tracking at 10mins can you recommend the best Handheld Battery pack for it I have known idea want would charge that battier do I have to find out the kind inside so I can get one that will charge it?lol

    Well finger cross the Spot X works for me just looking for a waterproof bag for it

    Thanks again great work all these years

    Dave

  10. Having just use the gen3 for a rescue I see a big value in 2 way com. Spot is on the right path with the X and I think it will be the best choice if it is refined. I don’t under stand why you would need email capabilities on a rescue device that’s almost like sending a letter a asking for help. As for the cell phone being dependent on another device, another battery to keep charged, another cable seems crazy to me. Along the battery line one thing I like about the spot gen3 is the ability to use something other than the rechargeable battery. Charging can be a real PIA at times.
    Looks like I will have to wait awhile before I let go of my gen3.

    “We intentionally designed the SPOT X to work independently of a smartphone. We did not want the SPOT X to depend on a second device or force users to monitor the battery life of two different devices.”

  11. I went to REI in Boulder, non of their staff has worked with the SpotX. Their tech guy said he asked for a device to work with and was refused.
    I spent more than an hour with the help center trying how to send a detailed message to a search and rescue team.
    It was very frustrating. My attempt was a test. I can’t imagine trying to do it with an injured person at my feet.
    I am a trip leader for The Colorado Mountain Club. I take my responsibility very seriously.
    I plan to return the item for a refund.

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