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SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test

Results of 80 days (750 hours) of field testing of the new SPOT2 in Alaska, the Andes, the Pyrenees, and the Lower 48, including the Sierras and a southwest canyon system.

Hightly Recommended

Overall Rating: Highly Recommended

A satellite tracking device is not essential to the comfort and safety of lightweight backpacking. It falls into that category of "things that give me more enjoyment in backcountry travel" - much like a GPS unit, a digital camera, trekking poles, or pocketknives. Consequently, these sorts of things are subject to more critical review by our editors, peer reviewers, and editorial board. As a further result, to award a device like this Backpacking Light's Highly Recommended Rating is a pretty special thing. The SPOT2 is significantly lighter and smaller than its predecessor. It is also easier to operate and delivers greater message reliability. During 80 days of testing on three continents and in a variety of geographic environments, it delivered 100% of its OK messages. Particularly impressive is its Tracking Mode performance in deep canyons, where it delivered around 90% of Tracking Points each day. This is significant, as the original SPOT1 delivered Tracking Point messages with poor reliability, even with a view of clear sky. In “typical” mountain conditions under open skies, the SPOT2 had a daily Tracking Point message reliability approaching 100%. In summary, the SPOT2 addresses most of the limitations of the original SPOT1 and reflects a mature technology. For features, weight, and price there is currently no device on the market that's comparable - and certainly not as reliable.

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by Alan Dixon and Amy Lauterbach |

Version Two of SPOT Delivers the Potential of their Technology

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 1
The new SPOT2 (right) is almost half the size and weight of its predecessor. It is easier to operate and delivers far greater message reliability, especially in Tracking Mode.

As we reported at the Press Release of SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT2) at the 2009 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, the folks at SPOT addressed many of our suggested improvements to the original SPOT1 in the Generation Two: SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.

Now, after 80 days (750 hours) of field-testing of the new SPOT2 on three continents, we report improvement in three significant areas:

  • Lighter and Smaller: 43% lighter (4.16 oz vs. 7.33 oz) and 45% smaller.
  • Improved Reliability: 100% delivery of all OK messages for 80 days. Near 100% delivery of Tracking Point messages in “typical” mountain conditions, e.g. the Sierras and Andes. And daily delivery of ~90% (or better) of Tracking Point messages in deep canyons or when bushwhacking (vegetation cover).
  • Improved Operation: Dedicated button and status light for each function and safety covers for Help and SOS buttons make for intuitive operation and easily understood operational status.

In the field, the SPOT2 is easier to use and delivers a much higher proportion of Tracking Point messages than its predecessor. In addition, the Web-based software that supports SPOT is also better and now has a separate social networking site, SPOT Adventures, to share your adventures/data with others. In summary, the combination of the physical SPOT2 unit and supporting software is beginning to look more like a mature technology.

What impressed us most about the SPOT2 was its performance in a difficult transmission situation, a “typical” southern Utah canyon system. On a five-day slickrock canyon backpacking trip, the SPOT2 successfully delivered a daily average of ~90% of Tracking Point messages. Every OK message made it out. We saw similar message delivery performance on bushwhacking days in Alaska.

Basic Specifications - SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger (SPOT2)

Weight 4.17 oz, 118 g with batteries - BPL measured (4.8 oz, 137 g with carry case and biner clip)
Size 3.7 x 2.6 x 1.0 inches - 93 x 65 x 25 mm - BPL measured
Batteries 3 AAA - lithium only
MSRP $170 ($150 retail)
Basic Service $100 for one year (does not include Tracking Mode)
Tracking Service $50 in addition to yearly service
Includes Armband, case, and carabiner clip

SPOT2 Improvements Summary

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 2
SPOT2 weight.

  • 43% lighter - 4.17 oz vs. 7.33 oz, BPL measured with batteries.
  • 45% smaller 93 x 65 x 25 mm (3.7 x 2.6 x 1.0 inches) vs. 110 x 70 x 36 mm (4.3 x 2.8 x 1.4 in) 3 AAA batteries decrease size & weight, but operating time is less. BPL field measured Tracking mode 5.0 to 5.8 days (120 to 140 hours). Manufacturer reported Tracking mode, 3.5 to 7 days depending on percentage of sky view.
  • 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. (BPL note: also deep canyons)
    • 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 indicator.
    • GPS acquisition LED indicator.
    • New separate Tracking button.
    • New extra "Custom Message" button that works the same as OK but with different message content and its own email notification list. The addition of the new message improves your ability to communicate your status and intentions to people monitoring your trip.
    • New backlit message function buttons blink when the specific function is engaged.
    • Safety covers over the SOS and Help buttons.
    • Universal communications symbols on buttons.
    • Short SOS instruction placard on the back of the SPOT.
    • Comes with more detailed instructions (Quick Reference Guide) printed on a 2 x 3.5 inch fanfold plasticized card stock.

SPOT Concept of Operation - General Overview

For those unfamiliar with how SPOT operates, please see our review of the original SPOT1, SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker - Full Review.

Field Test of SPOT2

Message Delivery Reliability

As we reported at the press release on SPOT 2:

Of all Gen 2's improvements... 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... It will take some time and field-testing to determine if Gen 2 has significantly improved message delivery reliability over Gen 1.

We are happy to report that the SPOT2 has made significant improvements.

In our field testing, the SPOT2 has improved the reliability of Tracking Point message delivery - probably our single greatest gripe with the original SPOT1. While not tested as extensively, the increased reliability in Tracking Points we measured should also translate into a higher reliability in transmitting the OK, Custom, Help, and SOS messages. We had 100% success of transmitting OK messages in our 80 days of testing.

The increased message reliably for SPOT2 is probably due to (listed in order of greatest contribution):

  1. A better antenna and antenna tuning pattern,
  2. Queuing of the last three Tracking Point locations (even if two Tracking Points are unsent, if the SPOT2 successfully transmits a third Tracking Point, the previous two will also be sent), and
  3. An improved GPS chip set.

In “typical” mountain conditions (the Sierras, Andes, and Pyrenees, and the Talkeetnas in Alaska), the SPOT2 had a Tracking Point message reliability approaching 100%.

But what really impressed us about the SPOT2 was its performance in a difficult transmission situation, a “typical” southern Utah canyon system. On a five-day backpacking trip, even in a deep canyon with significant vegetation at times, the SPOT2 successfully delivered 88% of expected Tracking Points (best day was 98%). Every OK message made it out. Even on its worst day, it delivered 83% of Tracking Points. This is more than adequate for your emergency contacts to accurately track your trip.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 3
A plot of our Tracking Points in a southern Utah canyon system. The SPOT2 is surprisingly reliable at transmitting Tracking Points in a deep canyon as indicated by the tightly grouped points with no obvious gaps.

Prior to using the SPOT2 in the Utah, I had warned my emergency contacts to not expect much in the way of Tracking Points due to the depth of the canyons we’d be traveling in. To all our surprise, it was easy to track our progress via the SPOT2 Tracking Points, even in the deep and narrow sections. After this experience, I have confidence that with a little intelligence on selecting a location, that the SPOT2 would successfully get HELP and SOS messages out of many popular southwest canyon backpacking destinations (but probably not very deep slots like Buckskin Gulch).

In Alaska, we averaged more than 90% of the Tracking Points on our bushwhacking days - also not the easiest transmission conditions due to frequently dense vegetation cover.

This canyon and bushwhacking data is a bit more impressive because in our field testing we didn’t bother to be particularly careful about SPOT2 use:

  • We used a lazy person’s mounting method: just hanging the SPOT2 vertically off the back of a backpack. (With a fully upward facing mounting method, the SPOT might have delivered a greater percentage of Tracking Points.)
  • We weren’t particularly fastidious about using the SPOT2, e.g. at rest stops we sometimes put our packs down in a way that partially blocked the SPOT2’s sky view for transmission.
  • Sometimes we turned the SPOT2 off for a few minutes at a rest stop but didn’t record doing this. Thus, at the end of the day, there are a few “missed” Tracking Points that aren’t really missed.

The combination of a very deep canyon WITH heavy tree cover was the only time we had significant gaps in Tracking Point transmission. On a three-day trip in coastal California, the SPOT2 had two Tracking Point gaps of approximately an hour. Both were from the bottom of a ~2000 feet deep, narrow canyon with trees. Even so, we had similar daily tracking percentages as on the southern Utah canyon trip, around 90%. Daily tracking percentages on the worst day (the day with the two gaps) was 82% and still more than sufficient to track the trip. Other days it was 90% or better.

Operation

SPOT2 is a significant improvement in the ease of operation over its predecessor and addresses the majority of our operational gripes with the original SPOT1. Most operations are fairly intuitive and the operational status of the unit easily understood. Each function has its own button, as well as its own status LED. There are also status LEDs for “GPS Fix” and “Message Sending.” There is a short SOS/basic instruction placard on the back of the SPOT2, and it ships with more detailed instructions (Quick Reference Guide) printed on a 2 x 3.5 inch fanfold plasticized card stock that is easily carried on the trail. With a new and much faster GPS chipset (acquisition in seconds rather than minutes), the SPOT2 gains a fix much faster and therefore operates much faster than its predecessor. In summary, both Amy and I are satisfied with the basic operation of the SPOT2.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 6
Rear view of the SPOT2 showing SOS/basic instruction placard and the Quick Reference Guide printed on a 2x3.5-inch fanfold plasticized card stock that is easily carried on the trail.

A few functional observations:

  • A nice feature of SPOT2 is that if you initiate an OK message when in Tracking Mode, the unit automatically reverts back to Tracking Mode once the OK message is done. (Tip: When you start hiking, first initiate Tracking Mode. Right after that, put the unit in OK mode. When the SPOT2 is done with the OK (20 minutes), it will automatically go into Tracking Mode for the rest of the day.)
  • The SPOT2 function buttons need to be depressed fully and for a long time. I usually dug a thumb tip deep into the button cavity and counted to five. This helps prevent accidentally engaging a button (a good thing), at the expense of being incompatible with thick gloves (not good for certain conditions); in cold weather in the Andes, we took our gloves off to press SPOT2 buttons.
  • The SPOT2 status LEDs are not easy to read in bright daylight. Sometimes you need to cup your hand over the button lights to create enough shade to see what mode the SPOT2 is in.

Battery Life

Battery Life Lithium Claimed by SPOT

Utilizing fully charged Energizer Ultimate 8x AAA Lithium batteries under the specified usage environments, the following guidelines apply to the anticipated battery life of the SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger:
Mode 100% clear view of sky 50% clear view of sky
SOS (or Help if reactivated) ~ 6 days ~3 days
Track Progress ~ 7 days ~ 3.5 days
Check-in (OK) or Custom Msg ~ 700 messages ~ 350 messages

Testing of SPOT under common usage environments has shown that battery performance can be degraded in operating environments where SPOT's GPS must take a longer time to acquire your GPS location, such as trying to send a message indoors or under extreme canopies. For optimal performance, please try and utilize SPOT in locations with a clear view of the sky with the logo side up. SPOT also recommends that you carry extra Energizer Ultimate 8x AAA Lithium batteries.

Battery Life - BPL Field Testing

Mode Mixed field conditions/Mixed sky view
Track Progress (lithium batteries) 5.0 to 5.8 days (120 to 140 hours)
Track Progress (alkaline batteries)* ~1.7 days (40 hours) near 100% success
+ ~1.7 days (40 hours) degrading success
Total of 3.4 days (80 hours)
*Not a manufacturer approved use. Batteries of unknown expiry date. 

Battery Life Lithium - BPL Field Testing

In warm to hot weather in the Pyrenees, one new set of lithium batteries lasted twelve days for a total of 120 hours in Tracking mode, plus twelve OK messages, in total approximately five days of operation. This is right between the minimum and maximum operation time claimed by SPOT. Almost perfect delivery of six data points per hour was consistent until the unit shut down completely. The red low-battery warning came on after about nine days (90 hours), however, the unit continued to transmit data successfully until the batteries were completely dead.

In a combination of field testing in Peru finished up with testing outside Alan’s home (fairly benign transmission conditions) the SPOT2 lasted approximately 140 hours in Tracking mode until exhausted (including two OK messages per hiking day). In combined use in Alaska and a southern Utah canyon system, with a new set of lithium batteries, the red low-battery warning came on after about 100 hours of operation.

Battery Life Alkaline - BPL Field Testing (not a Manufacturer approved use!)

SPOT clearly specifies to only use lithium batteries. However, on a long walk where battery resupply is from small shops (for example on the Haute Route Pyrenee), lithium batteries are not available. As such, Amy used four sets of alkaline batteries over 31 days.

On average, the alkaline batteries gave approximately 40 hours of reliable delivery (at or near six data points per hour) followed by approximately 40 hours of degraded delivery, degrading to as low as 50% success. The red low-battery warning light came on after about 40 hours of use, roughly concurrent with the start of the degraded delivery. When delivery rates were low, the delivery pattern was often to show a couple of hours of data points at ten minute intervals, followed by a couple of hours with no data points. We cannot substantiate this speculation, but the pattern in the data suggests that when the alkaline batteries were low, delivery would fail if any conditions were not optimal (for example if the device had slipped into a vertical orientation, had less than perfect sky view, or less than optimal satellite configuration), but if the conditions were optimal, then delivery would still be consistently successful. Note: The battery expiry date/freshness was unknown as they were bought from tiny shops in fairly remote locations.

Mounting SPOT2 on a Backpack

The manufacturer recommends a horizontal position for the most reliable message delivery. But the SPOT2 does not come with an effective “out of the box” method to mount the unit horizontally on a backpack. Most attempts to mount the SPOT2 with the manufacturer supplied mounting hardware (armband strap, or biner-clip), or just stuffing the SPOT2 in a pack pocket, result in the unit hanging vertically. While this is not the optimal transmission orientation, it turns out to be less of a problem for SPOT2 than the original SPOT1. Even with a “lazy person’s” vertical mounting, we had a high percentage of successful deliveries from SPOT2 even in difficult situations.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 4
Lazy person’s vertical mounting of the SPOT2 used when field testing in a southern Utah canyon system (biner clipped to top pocket closure strap). While not horizontal, we still had a high percentage of successful deliveries from SPOT2, even in difficult conditions.

SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test - 5
Horizontal mounting: Amy's SPOT2 in a roughly horizontal position inside the pack. It rests on top of all the gear but under pack’s roll top closure (pack is shown from above with closure open). This method works well with roll top closures, common on many lightweight backpacks. Notes: 1) The SPOT2 is tied to a loop inside her pack. It never gets untied, so the only way it could get lost is if the whole pack is lost. 2) She has taped over three of the buttons in order to make absolutely certain they don't get dispatched by mistake.

Amy’s under the roll top is only one solution for horizontal mounting on a backpack. We are certain that user ingenuity will devise many more methods for horizontal mounting.

Protocols for Our Use - Use and Meaning of SPOT2 Messages

Note: The following use of SPOT2 messages and their meaning is only used as an example. Readers are obviously free to use and interpret SPOT2 messages as they see fit. Alan carries a satellite phone and Amy does not. Therefore, there are some differences in our protocols.

Amy and I have been emergency contacts for each other’s trips since well before the advent of the original SPOT1. We both use the SPOT2 and have agreed upon the following interpretations for the four types of SPOT2 messages. Note that we use the Custom Message, Help Message, and SOS Message to indicate increasing severity of problems.

Meaning of SPOT2 messages

OK = We are OK and just checking in. Will generally do this starting hiking for the day at the end of the day when we make camp. We may occasionally send an OK at lunch, a summit, or significant point of interest. Also used to indicate that a significant deviation from route or schedules is “OK,” and to not worry.

Alan’s Custom Message = There is something up but it does not require rescue at this point. Start to closely monitor your phones (including mobile), email, trip blog, etc. Somebody is feeling ill, we have an orthopedic issue, terrible weather has set in, or we have significantly changed route or itinerary under duress, etc.

Amy’s Custom Message = There is something up, but it does not require rescue at this point. Monitor our SPOT locations and messages closely. Illness, injury, bad weather, unexpected ground conditions, etc.

Help = We have a problem we cannot solve and require rescue in 24-72 hours. Possible reasons include being lost or non-life-threatening illness/injury that is serious enough that the ailing person should not be left alone while the other goes for help. We are safe and this is not urgent, but we need assistance.

911 = We have a major problem that requires immediate rescue. Although you won’t receive this message, you are on the list to be contacted if it is sent out. (See below). We will not send this message unless we believe there is a serious threat to life or limb.

SPOT2 goes dead (no more messages)

Alan carries a sat phone, and his protocol is this: Start to closely monitor your phones (including mobile), email, trip blog, etc. for messages, calls, and voice mails from our sat phone. Absence of messages from both SPOT2 and sat phone for 24 hours indicates a significant problem, since it is unlikely that both the SPOT2 and the sat phone will fail and that we haven’t managed to move into a good transmission area to send out some sort of message.

Amy does not carry a satellite phone, and her protocol is this: If there are no tracks or SPOT2 messages, it does NOT mean that we have a problem. It could be one of many reasons, but you should NOT worry about it. (dead battery, device lost or damaged, etc). In this case revert to protocols used before we started carrying SPOT2: assume all is well until 24 hours after our expected trip completion time, at which point Responsible Party should notify the appropriate agency to initiate SAR.

If the track shows regular progress and/or there are daily OK messages, assume that all is well, even if hikers are off course or out past their planned trip completion time. This would be a normal scenario if a trip is delayed or rerouted due to weather, unexpected on-the-ground conditions, or minor injury/illness.

In the SPOT2 account, the text for the 911 (SOS) message includes the following information:

  • Names (and optional – Passport Numbers).
  • Ages, medical conditions, allergies, medications.
  • “Will initiate 911 (SOS) message only when there is a perceived threat to life or limb for ourselves or somebody we encounter on the trail. (Note: we will NOT initiate 911 for non-urgent request for help.)”
  • Planned itinerary and dates.
  • Local emergency phone numbers or the area were hiking: Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, local Search and Rescue Organization, local sheriff, etc.
  • Full contact information for the Responsible Parties/Emergency Contacts (names, addresses, cell/work/home phone numbers, email addresses).

The SPOT2 user leaves their login/password information with the Responsible Party/Emergency Contact, in case there are any problems with the account.

Pre-trip, the SPOT2 user sends tests for all four types of messages, OK, Tracking, Custom, and Help to all Responsible Parties/Emergency Contacts and makes sure they receive all email and text notifications, and that all messages show up on the Web tracking page.

Suggestions for Improvement

  • We’re still waiting for some sort of display on a SPOT2. We’d love to at least get our GPS coordinates from the unit. And while the new status LEDs are an improvement, even a one line alpha-numeric LCD display would give greater understating of the unit’s operational status.
  • Increase the queue of Tracking Points to six - a full hours worth. This would be useful for SPOT2 units operated in canyons and/or heavy tree cover.
  • Smart management of Tracking Points when going from OK back to Tracking mode: Usually the first OK message attempt is successful, but the SPOT2 continues in OK mode for another 20 minutes before returning to tracking mode. This usually leaves a 20 minute or so gap between OK and the next Tracking Point. The Web interface could convert subsequent OK points, sent in the 20 minutes after the first OK delivery, into Tracking Points.
  • Devise a simple and reliable way to mount the SPOT2 horizontally on a backpack.
  • To be a bit greener, we’d like to see the SPOT2 have the option to be compatible with NiMH rechargeable batteries, even if the operational life with NiMH batteries was a bit shorter than lithium batteries.
Disclosure: The manufacturer provided this product to the author and/or Backpacking Light at no charge, and the author/BPL has/will return this product to the manufacturer upon completion of the review period of one year. The author/Backpacking Light has no obligation to review this product to the manufacturer under the terms of this agreement.

Citation

"SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test," by Alan Dixon and Amy Lauterbach. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/spot2_personal_locator_review.html, 2010-11-30 00:10:00-07.

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SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test
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Jon McConachie
(hyker) - MLife

Locale: Sierra Nevada
Testing data types on 12/01/2010 09:17:17 MST Print View

Regarding playing with the buttons... please do not test the Help button either, it could also initiate a SAR response.

Using tape to help block the hot buttons from being bumped on points to further improvements that the manufacturer could make to the device.

Steven Clark
(sclark58) - MLife

Locale: Costa Rica
PLBs vs SPOT on 12/01/2010 10:18:53 MST Print View

>The disadvantage of a PLB is that the only thing you can do is request urgent assistance.

Now, there is www.406link.com which takes the PLB's self-test and sends an "OK" email to one whomever (Plus service - you get 5 whomevers).

I would like to hear more from adventurers using PLBs. As I understand it, SPOT uses the same (low orbit) comm sats used by sat phones (I've had limited success with sat phones). Whereas, PLBs use the 406 MHz capable of penetrating tree/cloud canopy to SAR sats directly (no 3rd parties).

The ACR 'SarLink View' has a GPS coordinate window too.

Right now, I'm a shopper, not a user (of any of these tech) - so I would appreciate learning more from you guys.

Thanks, Steve
Living the "Pura Vida" in Costa Rica - where tree and cloud canopies are the norm.

Steven Clark
(sclark58) - MLife

Locale: Costa Rica
Re: Re: Position display on 12/01/2010 10:27:58 MST Print View

LCD displays can freeze, but LED do not. SPOT III?

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
avalanche beasons on 12/01/2010 10:59:42 MST Print View

some reputable ones use displays ... if it was really a huge issue i dont think theyd be using them ,,,

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: Delorme GPS with SPOT anyone with experience. on 12/01/2010 11:36:28 MST Print View

Hi Shontelle,

For anybody who wants to carry both a GPS and a SPOT (or other emergency device) they're a viable option. With Delorme I've only used the older PN20 in the field. It has very good sensitivity and a good feature set, offset by clunky controls and menus, and ponderous response on the go (i.e., slow screen refreshes while moving).

Playing with the newer Delorme models convinces me they've addressed the speed and processing issues, making the PN60 series technically a very good GPS that's the equal of other top handheld models. Of course whether one likes the display, menu system, controls and general shape is a very personal thing--some will prefer Garmin, Magellin, etc.The Delorme maps are pretty good and they offer satellite imaging, which adds a whole other dimension to backcountry navigation uploaded to a GPS (although it cries out for a larger display).

But pairing with SPOT sets the PN60w apart from everything else, significantly enhancing SPOT with the personalized texting. This SPOT unit is much smaller than even the SPOT2 and takes only two AAA cells. It can also be used as a standalone unit, but will only send an SOS by itself.

The pair retails at a high price but I've seen it for as little as $350, which seems attractive to anybody who happens to be in the market for both a GPS and a communicator.

Here's a PN60w review that includes a link to a review of the SPOT unit.

http://gpstracklog.com/2010/11/delorme-earthmate-pn-60w-review.html

Cheers,

Rick

Edited by halfturbo on 12/01/2010 14:21:35 MST.

dallas shewmaker
(dallasshewmaker)

Locale: Southwest
SPOT Reliabilty on 12/01/2010 12:07:34 MST Print View

Some good/bad comments from the perspective of someone who owns a lot of both SPOT 1 and 2 models - my company has rented them out since they first came out a few years ago.

These units are valued by those at home much more than those in the field - they are lot more worried about safety than the user is.

We've never had any problem with the web portal setup, although maybe we're just used to it since we apply it so much.

We rarely get complaints about reliability in the field, but when they go out, it's a 100% failure - working fine one minute; dead the next. SPOT 1 was as reliable as SPOT 2 in our experience, but SPOT 2 captures a signal a lot faster.

SPOT customer service has been pretty good and responsive, but there's only so much they can do.

The units are frequently lost by the user - be sure to use a lanyard. The belt clip isn't that secure. Despite worthlessness in the hands of another, they are also occasionally stolen.

Test contact emails and cell phones at home before leaving on a trip. Assume some percentage of OK messages are not received, so send at least 3 or 4 a day to better ensure daily receipt at home. There is no pattern to when they aren't received (open clear sky may not complete; a canyon transmission may complete in 2 minutes). Absolutely tell contacts that absence of a message does not mean anything is wrong.

Leave the SPOT unit on for at least 20 minutes for every message transmission effort.

The HELP button has limited practical value - most users are not in a location where a friend or family contact can actually help them out. We suggest using that button as an alternative message conveyance, with a interpretation protocol established with the contacts before the trip.

The SHARED PAGE function showing the cumulative tracks seems to be preferred by those at home over the periodic message postings.

The button text on the unit wears off quickly.

The contacts you list for the 911 setup should be levelheaded and knowledgeable about your trip - they are going to get a call from the monitoring station first when the 911 rescue button is pressed.

In those rare cases where a renter has placed a 911 request, they were in fact rescued in a reasonable time, so the system does work.

Rick Dreher
(halfturbo) - MLife

Locale: Northernish California
Re: SPOT Reliabilty on 12/01/2010 12:10:20 MST Print View

Wonderful feedback and suggestions Dallas, thanks so much for sharing!

Cheers,

Rick

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
SPOT2 Personal Locator Review on 12/01/2010 12:53:45 MST Print View

In three more years, I will retire and plan to move to either Oregon or Washington state. I live in Michigan and going from a flat state to a mountainous state will put me in very new terrain and conditions to learn about. I am also a solo hiker (none of my friends are into the outdoors), and given these two factors, I am very interested in the SPOT2. Thank you for such a good review and for the information on something that I think I should have for my new hiking life out west.

Daryl Hawkins
(dlh62c)
HELP Button and SAR Response on 12/01/2010 15:30:20 MST Print View

'Regarding playing with the buttons... please do not test the Help button either, it could also initiate a SAR response.'

It will if you have it configured to do so. I used the 'HELP' as a sort of poor mans tracker before I purchased the 'Track' option. It would drop a 'HELP' flag every 5 minutes along my route. But I always forgot to repress it after 1 hour.

I modified my contacts page so I didn't cause any undue distress for my loved ones.

daryl

Edited by dlh62c on 12/01/2010 15:45:11 MST.

Scott Bailey
(Smbailey) - F
Re: SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test on 12/01/2010 16:50:47 MST Print View

During a 2 week trip last July on the Sheenjek R. N of Double Mountain Sat Phone signal was spotty. Waited up to 4 min for lower strength signal acquisition-when there was one-on open tundra bench above the river. During a hike up Pk. 5040' N of camp we stopped at a small notch facing S @ the 3500' level. Signal was all bars with minimal wait time.
Not sure how above operation would impact battery life of the SPOT2 in any of the operating modes.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: Re: SPOT2 Personal Locator Review and Extensive Field Test on 12/01/2010 17:04:18 MST Print View

"During a 2 week trip last July on the Sheenjek R. N of Double Mountain..."

What state or country or locale or lattitude?

Edited by greg23 on 12/01/2010 17:51:37 MST.

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
On the fence about SPOT 2 on 12/01/2010 17:13:53 MST Print View

I would echo the posts of Steve O and Bob R - I have seen a lot of online reviews (that appear to be firsthand accounts) warning of message failure, unit failure, and poor or rude customer service from the SPOT folks. The REI reviews are a great example of this.

Counter to that is the experience of a frequent hiking companion of mine who owns a SPOT 2. His is one of the recall replacement (refurbished) units. On the trips we have done together, it has performed flawlessly. He reports it always works that well.

Now adding to the positives is BPL's glowing praise for a pair of Post-Recall SPOT 2's, even giving them a Highly Recommended rating. Plus BPL now reports a better web interface, despite others here who still malign the SPOT website useability. I didn't see any commentary on customer service.

So I am left more conflicted then before. I would like a messenger like SPOT 2 for reasons Amy noted, and for the comfort it would bring my family and friends when I am in the middle of the wilderness for a week or two. But I am really not anxious to invest in or depend on a device for this manner of communications when it has so many critical reviews floating around.

For now I guess I will keep doing it the old way - leaving a detailed trip plan and renting a sat phone when I am on prolonged solo trips.

Alan Dixon
(alandixon) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: On the fence about SPOT 2 on 12/01/2010 17:55:36 MST Print View

>I didn't see any commentary on customer service.

We had no cause to use customer service. The units operated as described and we had no problems.

Nor did we have difficulty using and web interface. We used the full gamut of message types, email address, SMS messages, shared web pages, exported trips to GPX, CSV, and KML fies, exporting them to SPOT Adventures, making adjustments on the fly to each others accounts mid-trip, etc., etc.

Amy has a very cool 3D Google Earth version of her Pyrenees trip that she created from the SPOT2 output.

Russell Adams
(rradams@q.com) - F
website on 12/01/2010 18:08:28 MST Print View

Not sure why people say the website is unusable. I get on from time to time and have had no difficulty doing what I need to do.

Also I do believe people have problems with their Spots. As mentioned it is an electrical device and can fail. In addition, after you factor in all the different locations and environments it is used in, it is understandable why people have different experiences.

I bought mine with an expectation of performance and was prepared to return it if not satisfied.

Danny Milks
(dannymilks) - MLife

Locale: Sierras
Cost of Spot2 on 12/02/2010 09:17:51 MST Print View

I wanted to see if there were any discounts on SPOT2 and found it for $104.96 on Amazon with free shipping. That's a pretty good deal.

Still, it doesn't help the $100/year contract.

Keith Selbo
(herman666) - F - M

Locale: Northern Virginia
Re: Re: Re: Position display on 12/02/2010 09:46:39 MST Print View

"LCD displays can freeze, but LED do not. SPOT III?"
I had the opportunity to test a low temperature LCD display for a product I designed. It didn't freeze per se, it just changed more slowly as it got colder. At minus 40, it was unusable for my application because the seconds display took more than a second to update which made for a jumble. A GPS readout that updated at a slow rate, say less than a minute would be legible at -40. I think that would cover most applications.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: Position display on 12/02/2010 14:38:16 MST Print View

Yes, most LCD displays get increasingly sluggish as the temperature dips to the point where digit changes kind of blur together. That can be mitigated by placing a heater behind the display, but that requires battery power. If you leave the whole unit inside your coat for a while, it can operate, but it won't do a good job of transmitting or receiving signals inside your coat.

--B.G.--

Frank Deland
(rambler)

Locale: On the AT in VA
SPOT in use on 12/02/2010 22:06:57 MST Print View

I have used the SPOT in Yosemite and on the AT in the VA woods when cell phone reception was no available.

Here is what my wife saw at home in MA when I stopped by this area of Yosemite. Zoom in and the name of the lake appears. As I was hiking along the PCT just before I sent the message, I passed two Park Rangers hiking along with a hiker who had become ill on the trail. Even thought the Rangers carried a satellite phone, they had found it unreliable. Their connection had been dropped.

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=37.99367,-119.41841&ll=37.99367,-119.41841&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

It had been raining when I sent the following SPOT Ok message from this campsite in the woods along Virginia Canyon in Yosemite:Virginia Canyon forest

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=38.03432,-119.33882&ll=38.03432,-119.33882&ie=UTF8&z=12&om=1

I sent a test message from my backyard. Zooming in, one can see the arrow on the exact spot where I was standing. My house driveway and garden are clearly visible, as is the spot on my lawn where I stood. I think the SPOT is a great device.
I a lost hiker had both a cell phone and a SPOT, the contact person could zoom in on the location of the lost hiker and tell him which way to travel to safety. A lost hiker in the woods could be very close to a trail, or a lake or road, etc. he cannot see.

Edited by rambler on 12/02/2010 22:32:51 MST.

Jason Brinkman
(jbrinkmanboi) - MLife

Locale: Idaho
Re: Re: On the fence about SPOT 2 on 12/03/2010 13:21:33 MST Print View

I appreciate the reply Alan.

If I were to get the SPOT 2, I would hope not to need their customer service either, but their reputation is so bad that it's actually weighing into my decision on whether or not to get their device.

I am glad to hear of your positive experience with the web interface - that helps.

Ultimately my decision on when to buy one of these devices is affected by how fast the technology is moving. I suspect we are within just a year or two of a moderate-cost device that will allow custom text messages. The Delorme PN-60W with separate wireless SPOT pod is already there of course, but by my count that's actually two devices. I am looking for one.

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
User error? on 12/05/2010 14:18:02 MST Print View

Wow. I have been using the SPOT2 since it came out (I never had a SPOT1, I waited for the improved unit) and have been impressed as hell with it. Having read this thread, I started looking up these scathing reviews.

I'm sure there are people who have had a bad time with their SPOT2- as was mentioned they are electronic devices and electronic devices sometimes fail- but at least a few of the more scathing reviews of the SPOT2 were written by people who really don't know how to use the device. I found a couple that seemed to indicate that the user was expecting instantaneous transmission, and they were saving battery life buy leaving the unit off, turning it on to send an OK, and then turning it off again long before the 20 minute transmit window. No wonder they didn't like the transmission reliability!

Heck, I can only recall half a dozen or so dropped messages from my unit in the past year- and they were all points on the Tracking feature, not "real" messages sent by pressing one of the buttons. (FYI- I've been hiking in Colorado, not "Kansas.") As I said, I was actually expecting it to work much less reliably than it actually does, having read a lot about SPOT 1.

Anyway, I suspect that a decent percentage of those bad reviews represent user error, not a failure of the device. You can fix a device, but you can't fix stupid. (Just kidding- I actually made the same mistake. I would send a final OK message when i got back to my car, but then turn the unit off soon afterward to pack it in the vehicle, and noticed that those final OKs never went through, so I read the manual more closely.)

Doubtless, some failures are real, too. As I said, electronic devices fail. But I've generally been very impressed.

What I cannot speak intelligently about is SPOT customer service. My only experience in that area was returning my original device for the recall. I returned it immediately when the recall was announced (actually, before I'd ever used it in the field) and as near as I can tell I did get a new unit in exchange. And it arrived much more promptly than others described- about six weeks- but perhaps that was because I was one of the first people to send it in for exchange.

All of the stories about rude customer service reps and problems canceling the service do sound distressing, though. Especially since I need to cancel my service, as I'm leaving the country for the next year and won't be able to use it.

Edited by acrosome on 12/05/2010 14:43:55 MST.