Editor's Note: This article was opened to the public on July 22, 2010. To subscribe and see Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2010 articles as they are published, click here.
At 3:30 PM MST, June 21 2009, SPOT announced the next generation of hardware for their SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger. The product name stays the same, "New SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger." For clarity, I will refer to the new model as SPOT Gen 2, or simply Gen 2.
The product was introduced by Astronaut Scott Parazynski, who took a Gen 1 SPOT to the summit of Everest in May 2009.
When we reviewed Gen 1 SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, we thought its concept so innovative that it could possibly transform backcountry safety. But after testing it over a number of months we concluded that "...in field conditions we believe likely to be encountered backpacking and hiking, the SPOT unit did not 'deliver virtually every message,' as the SPOT unit's literature claims. As such, we see the SPOT unit as an innovative system with a lot of promise, but with some glitches and room for improvement." It seems that SPOT Gen 2 has addressed many of Gen 1's shortcomings and may come closer to SPOT's innovative potential.
Of all Gen 2's improvements listed below, the GPS chipset and improved antenna/transmission matter the most. Only these have the potential to improve the reliability of SPOT's message delivery, especially in areas with tree cover or in deep canyons. Of the two, it is probably the message transmission improvements that will make the most difference. It will take some time and field-testing to determine if Gen 2 has significantly improved message delivery reliability over Gen 1. We certainly hope so. I, for one, would like to carry an improved SPOT Gen 2 on many of my trips.
The new 5.2 oz SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger
Also in attendance at the SPOT Gen 2 rollout was Les Stroud. Les and Scott share a few quips before the beginning of the press announcement.
SPOT Gen 2 Improvements Summary
- 30% lighter (5.2 oz)
- 30% smaller (3.7 x 2.6 x 1.0 inches)
- 3 AAA batteries decrease size & weight. Operating time is slightly less. Standby (On) 110 days, Tracking 6 days, SOS or Help 4 days.
- Improved GPS performance.
- GPS upgrade to uBlox AMY-5M chipset. Similar to SiRF and other high performance GPS chips.
- Advanced GPS capabilities - Time-to-First-Fix (TTFF) usually seconds instead of minutes.
- New antenna improves performance in foliage and canopied environments.
- New Rogers material antenna (Gen 1 was ceramic material).
- Gen 2 increases performance at the horizon. Power same as Gen 1 (.16 Watt) using a proprietary Global Star tuning pattern and spread spectrum.
- Improved user interface.
- Message-sending LED notifications.
- GPS acquisition light.
- New separate Tracking button.
- New extra "Custom Message" button that works the same as OK but with different message content.
- Also has separate email notification list.
- New backlight message function buttons blink when the specific function is engaged.
- Safety covers over the SOS and Help buttons.
- Universal communications symbols on buttons.
- Available in two colors: orange and silver.
Availabilty: Fall 2009
Gen 1 vs. Gen 2Gen 1: No verification that a message was successfully delivered.
Gen 2: The new dedicated Message Sent light helps considerably. Now it is easy to tell if the SPOT attempted to send/transmit messages (even if you don't know if the satellite received them). The message light blinks green when the unit is transmitting a message. True message delivery confirmation is still not available, since SPOT is only a one-way communication device.
Gen 1: Confusing user interface
Gen 2: SPOT has made considerable improvements. Backlight function buttons that blink when the function is activated (also makes night use a lot easier). Dedicated GPS fix and Message Sent status LEDs. Safety covers over the HELP and SOS buttons. Message LED blinks green when sending messages and blinks red when in Tracking mode. GPS LED blinks red when it does not have a fix and blinks green when it does.
Gen 1: Activating Tracking mode confusing - one long press of the OK button did not give a good indication if you were, in fact, in Tracking mode.
Gen 2: A dedicated Tracking function button is both easy to use and know when you've activated it.
Gen 1: Limited message length and limited number of message recipients on the SPOT website.
Gen 2: New Custom Message button: This expands your ability to communicate by sending a message besides I'm OK or I need help. (We know of users that would send three OK messages in sequence to indicate a new message status for their trip.) The Custom Message operates in the same way as the OK message function, but has a different message content and a separately maintained email notification list.
Gen 1: GPS receiver performance is not as good as the best handheld GPS units.
Gen 2: A new high performance GPS chipset should help a lot. That being said, the Gen 2 single antenna is still optimized for message transmission to communications satellites (a different frequency than receiving GPS signals) so GPS performance will not be as good as "straight" GPS units with an antenna optimized for GPS reception.
Gen 1: Tracking mode may have significant message gaps while hiking and backpacking.
Gen 2: New GPS chip and improved antenna should help here. Also Gen 2 queues the previous two tracking waypoints. If message transmission fails a couple of times, but the GPS is working, the waypoints will not be lost. The queued waypoints will be conveyed on the next successful message transmission. This will make your track log plots a lot prettier.
Gen 1: Long wait time to transmit OK messages. One of the Gen 1 slowdowns was for a first fix due to slow GPS chipset. Gen 1 could take as long as five minutes to get first fix.
Gen 2: SPOT claims that Gen 2 should normally acquire a first fix in less than a minute (the best dedicated GPS units are in the range of 20-40 sec for a first fix), but this is still a complicated issue. SPOT makes three attempts to transmit an OK message in the twenty minutes after you press the OK button. Getting a fast GPS fix should speed OK message transmission considerably in areas with a clear sky view and good satellite coverage, but the real challenge for SPOT is message transmission. So for maximum reliability, especially in areas without a clear sky view (and possibly poor satellite configuration), one should still wait the full twenty minutes so the SPOT will make all three attempts to send an OK message.
Gen 1: At 7.3 ounces (208 g) with batteries, the SPOT could be lighter.
Gen 2: A 30% reduction in size and weight is quite welcome. A slightly less ruggedized (it's could be a word!) unit could weigh even less.
What is Still Not Addressed
No text display (probably due to operational problems of LCD displays in extremely cold environments). For those of us not at the top of Everest or in Antarctica, it would be nice to get a SPOT with a small LCD display.
- An LCD display would allow the SPOT to display GPS coordinates. As such, it could do double duty as your GPS unit, saving weight and the amount of gear you carry.
- An LCD display would convey the unit's operational status in a way that a few LED's can't come close to matching.
No message delivery confirmation.
- This will not happen until Globalstar gets new satellites in the sky. The current ones have failing amplifiers that complicate two-way communication. SPOT was in part developed to make use of the working channels on satellites that were no longer useful for sat phone communication. A SPOT with two-way communication/message delivery confirmation would probably be larger, heavier, and more expensive. The service plan would likely be more expensive as well.