I'll just chime in to say that I have a Spot 2 messenger, and I'm very pleased with it. I have used it for two years now, and have never not had it send a message... not that it has needed to, as I've never had to deploy it in a life-or-death situation. Given the state of the market right now as of July 2013, I would probably buy exactly the same unit again, though, I'd give serious thought to the Delorme InReach SE.
Some background: I'm no professional reviewer, but I have used both Iridium and Globalstar sat phones for work at remote camps, and at work we have both spot messengers, sat phones, and delorme inReach (the clunky version that pairs only with the Delorme EarthMate GPS... we don't like it).
I think that there is a lot of negative feedback about the spot messenger, some of it warranted, some of it not. The major problems with the spot messenger, as I see them, in order of importance, are:
1.) Unrealistic user expectations. If you read forums and trip reports where people had to use spot, you will find that usually the device and system operated just fine. Help arrived within a few hours and no one died. The user would describe a stressful period where they didn't know if help was coming or not. Well, of course not! You have a one-way communications device. In particular I'm thinking of a recent discussion on BPL concerning the avriders.com motorcycling forum thread that came off really negative of spot, but really, the device worked fine, help arrived. Someone had to endure a broken leg for a few hours.
People think that they hit this little SOS button and a team of navy seals and a fleet of chinooks is going to fly in within seconds. This is not the case. Spot is very clear that they are only going to contact the local SAR authorities and leave it up to them. Spot and globalstar have absolutely nothing with putting boots on the ground and getting actual help to you. They sit in an office with a phone and make a few calls, first of which, will be to your emergency contact numbers. AFAIK (and welcome feedback on this), chances are in most instances, the same group that would be contacted by your PRB would be contacted by Spot/GEOS rescue.
When I use my SPOT on serious trips I have made sure that my two primary safety contacts know of my plans, which SAR/agencies/people to call, and try to give some information to my safety contacts of SAR resources available (which really is only a quick google search away).
2.) Difficult web based user interface. Now, I'm going to step out on a limb, and say that I think that many of the forum/web/blogger reports of Spot not working are due entirely to user error when entering the contact information on the spot website. I'm sure I'll take some flack for suggesting this, but my experience using their website over the past few years suggests that many of the reports I read on the web about spot not working are due entirely to web interface. There are a few big problems with the web interface:
- you need to click a separate "save" button, which is often located below your visible screen, when adding/editing a new number in order for it to actually be saved. I think people are used to the iphone/ipad/web 2.0 world where you type things in and it just works, but the spot website is definitely clunky. Many times I have entered 10 email addresses to have them lost because I didn't click this save button, well outside of my currently visible screen.
- difficult to change profile. This happened to me just two days ago. You'd think that after using Spot for 2 years regularly that I'd be an old hat, but I created a new profile with contacts for a packraft trip, added all the necessary contacts, but somehow, the profile never got activated.
- in short, it is extremely easy to enter information to the spot website, but to have it get lost, not saved, or not active.
I seriously think that Spot should spend the money to have a good modern web programmer have a go at their interface, and I'm sure it would save them a lot of bad press that people are attributing to the messenger/gps/satellite constellation itself not working.
3.) Not allowing GPS information to download and obtain a fix. If you have moved location more than more than ~100km, or you change your devices battery, or you have gone a few weeks without using your Spot, it's going to take a long time to get a GPS position. This is just a fact of using GPS.
I've been on web forums where people think a GPS cycling computer is defective because it can't sit in the basement for a few months and then instantly obtain position and velocity after being turned on while moving.
When I get to a new location for a trip, I let the Spot download information for 20-30 minutes, and send a test message to make sure that both the spot is working, and that my contact list is on the website is working correctly. Then when I send check in/ok messages, I try to do it in situations such as eating lunch, and I let it sit there and transmit for as long as I am sitting there eating/snaking/setting up camp.
My belief is that in many instances where spot is claimed to not work, it is being turned on for only a few minutes to send a message, while having not been turned on in weeks, or with new batteries.
Those are the big 3 observations I have about user reports of spot messengers not working on the web. Now, I am sure that many of these instances are of the spot device actually not working, which is alarming, which brings up another point:
The spot is the iphone of satellite messenger devices, there are more of them out there than any other device, so, they send a lot more messages, and a lot more cases of it being used. If your only perception of an iphone was a google search for "iphone doesn't work", or by reading http://discussions.apple.com, you'll find millions of hits and stories that the iphone doesn't work, and be forced to conclude that the iphone is an inferior product that simply doesn't work. In truth, it works fine 99.99% of the time.
Continuing on, I think that there are some serious limitations to the SPOT messenger.
4.) Globalstar satellite constellations. I know that satellites can go out of orbit, so when I send check in/ok messages, I leave it on for as long as possible.
5.) Not actually a SAR organization. GEOS SAR coordination is probably only an unpaid intern with the yellow pages and a rolodex of other SAR organizations. If your local sherrifs office isn't to be trusted to launch a SAR this is not Spots/GEOS fault.
6.) High latitude environments. This is a known limitation of the Globalstar constellation, and an important limitation to keep in mind. I've had spot work fine at a lattitude of 55degrees North (which is not very far north), and had it work fine deep in a valley. If I were going to northern Alaska would I trust a spot? Probably not, it not working in northern Alaska wouldn't stop me from recommending it to a user in lower latitudes. I think that many knowledgable web/bloggers/forum users from Alaska and the north dissuade others from using the Spot simply because it might not work in that particular geographic locale.
What I like about the SPOT:
I like the size, weight, and battery life. The Spot 2 is tiny, and it lasts a long time on a set of 2 AAA batteries. I know people will complain that it doesn't last to the end of the universe, or that it doesn't use CR2032, or use AA, or D cells, or have a usb charger, whatever, for me, the spots battery life is excellent.
I like that there is no smart phone, GPS device, pairing, or other issues. It is a standalone, one-way, easy to use communications device.
I like the tracking feature. I leave it on, and try to make an effort to have it facing "skywards" in my pack or packraft. Sure, track messages might get lost, but if I do go missing, narrowing the field down from a few hundred square kilometers, to a few square kilometers is going to save a tremendous amount of SAR time, even if it is to only find my bloated corpse.
I like that it is only one way communication. I know that in an actual emergency situation that being able to communicate would be a big help... describing the nature of the emergency, the location, all the details, could save a life. However, I don't think that what I do is particularly dangerous. If I did consider it particularly dangerous or exposed, I would buy or rent a different communication device.
I feel that the spot is a comforting piece-of-mind for those at home, and a possibly life saving piece of communications equipment, but it also leaves me at arms length. I'm not reachable, and I can't sit in my tent and SMS friends about the hockey score. I know the purists will say, "Well, just don't use your sat messenger to text". Well sure, I won't (or i'll try). But, I don't think that many will heed that advice. I actually like the one-way nature of SPOT: I'm alone in the wilderness, but can let my loved ones know I'm safe, and can slightly increase my chances of survival in an unplanned life-threatening emergency.
I know this is a long, poorly written, and lackluster essay on the merits and limitations of SPOT. I just feel that the SPOT is always being dragged through the mud. Nothing always works, and nothing is 100% safe 100% of the time. If another device becomes popular, which it looks like the Delorme InReach SE will, we'll see forum posts about it not working as well.
PLBs, Delorme, Satellite phones, there are a lot of of devices out there now, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Rest assured that if a device had negative weight, near eternal battery life, and worked 100.0000% of the time that this and other webforums would find flaws, and still manage to have threads about it that would devolve into personal attacks.
I'm going to continue using my SPOT 2 messenger, and continue recommending it to friends. Though, I can be a little bit cavalier in this regard: I once breathed campfire smoke, so according to BPL I'm not long for this world anyway.