The Best Personal Locator Beacon and Satellite Messenger Review

We took some of the best and most popular emergency electronic devices and used them side-by-side for six months. Our mission: to find out what is the best for telling your family and friends you are okay and what the is best for sending out an SOS signal. We tested one PLB (Personal Locator Beach) and three SEND (Satellite Emergency Notification Devices).

Read on to see which emergency devices we rated as best to carry on your next adventure.

Read the full review below >

Review by: Chris McNamara and Matt Gerdes January 20, 2013

Top Ranked Personal Locator Beacons Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 << Previous | View All | Next >>
Our Ranking #1 #2 #3 #4 #5
Product Name
DeLorme InReach Satellite Messenger
DeLorme InReach Satellite Messenger
Read the Review
Video video review
ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon
ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon
Read the Review
Video video review
Spot 2 Satellite Messenger
Spot 2 Satellite Messenger
Read the Review
Spot Connect Satellite Messenger
Spot Connect Satellite Messenger
Read the Review
Apple iPhone Find My Friends
Apple iPhone Find My Friends
Read the Review
Editors' Awards  Editors' Choice Award  Editors' Choice Award       
Street Price Varies $240 - $250
Compare at 2 sellers
Varies $267 - $390
Compare at 4 sellers
$71
Compare at 1 sellers
$110
Compare at 1 sellers
$Free with iPhone
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43% recommend it (3/7)
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1 rating
Pros Easy one-handed (and gloved, if not mittened) SOS operation. Two-way messaging is awesome. Smartphone interface works well. Pairs automatically on startup. Overall very intuitive and easy to use.Five-watt transmission power, dual frequency SOS transmission, COSPAS/SARSAT’s reliability and long track record, no annual fees, easy one handed (even gloved) operation.Compact and lightweight ergonomic design.Small, light.It’s free. Good way to keep an eye on your girlfriend or boyfriend (or kids)… or their phone, anyway.
Cons Expensive. Clunky ergonomics and design. Largest of the devices we tested. Not as effective as a PLB in life-threatening situations.Unless the lack of messaging is a con for you, we found no faults with this device.Message-send performance was sub-par. No smartphone interface. SOS access and cover flap require bare fingernails or a tool. 0.4 watt transmission power. Globalstar satellite constellation is arguably less effective than Iridium or COSPAS/SARSATPairing problems are persistent and standalone functionality is SOS only.It only works when your phone is on and has an excellent data signal, it does not connect you with emergency services, and is useless as an SOS device.
Best Uses Any activity or expedition during which satellite messaging and tracking is useful or crucial, absolutely needs clear view to sky in order to function properly. Water resistant.Any activity or expedition during which an SOS broadcast needs best chance of being answered, functions best with clear view to sky.Any activity or expedition during which simple pre-defined satellite message sending or tracking would be fun. Absolutely needs clear view of sky to function properly. Water resistant.
Date Reviewed Mar 13, 2013Feb 06, 2013Jan 21, 2013Jan 21, 2013Jan 21, 2013
Weighted Scores DeLorme InReach Satellite Messenger ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon Spot 2 Satellite Messenger Spot Connect Satellite Messenger Apple iPhone Find My Friends
SOS - 30%
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7
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10
10
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5
10
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5
10
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1
Reception - 20%
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8
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6
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6
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1
Sending Messages - 10%
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Ease Of Use - 15%
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Indicator Clarity - 15%
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Tracking - 10%
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3
Product Specs DeLorme InReach Satellite Messenger ACR ResQlink 406 Personal Locator Beacon Spot 2 Satellite Messenger Spot Connect Satellite Messenger Apple iPhone Find My Friends
Dimensions (in./cm) 4.8 x 2.8 x 1.7 inches, 12 x 7 x 4.3 cm 3.9 x 1.9 x 1.3 inches, 9.9 x 4.8 x 3.3 cm 3.7 x 2.6 x 1 inches, 9.4 x 6.6 x 2.5 cm 3" x 2.6" x 1.2"
(7.6 cm x 6.6 cm x 3.2 cm)
N/A (size of an iphone)
Weight w/ batts oz/g 8.18oz / 232g 4.6oz / 130g 4.97oz / 141g 4.9oz / 139g N/A (weight of an iphone)
Battery Life (hours) 125 hrs (lithium batterys) 5 year lifecycle (30hrs on SOS) 78 hrs (lithium batterys) 108 hrs (lithium batterys) N/A (battery life of an iphone)
Minimum Annual Subscription (US dollars) 120 0 (but 5 year battery costs 150 to replace) 99 99 0
Ideal Annual Subscription (includes tracking and some messages if applicable) 160 (4 months) or 300 (includes unlimited tracking and predefined messages, plus 40 custom text messages per month) $0 163 (minimum, plus tracking and insurance) 163 (minimum, plus tracking and insurance) $0
Transmission power 1.6 watts 5 watts 0.4 watts no data found N/A
2-way messaging yes no no no yes

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review


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Over the past few years, we don’t know how many times we’ve heard someone say what a good idea it would be to “get a SPOT.” Launched in 2007, the ad campaign for the original SPOT introduced many outdoor sports enthusiasts to the concept of emergency satellite messaging devices. But more than five years later there still remains a lack of understanding of how these devices work. When we began researching them for our own use, we were struck by the variety of options available and especially by how truly different each of them are, even though they are widely viewed as all fitting into the same category of device.

Before reading further, we encourage you to read our How to Choose a Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Messenger which explains the different satellite networks and how they interact with the devices we tested.

We start by asking and answering three key questions:

Will it successfully transmit an SOS when you most need it to? What if you are unconscious?
For SOS functionality, the long track record and dual transmission power together with the COSPAS/SARSAT satellite network make the ACR ResQLink the clear winner, and virtually any PLB will perform better in this capacity than the SEND devices we tested here.

However, there is a possible theoretical advantage for devices which offer tracking (SPOT 2 and Connect, and InReach). In the case of our lead tester, if he's going wingsuit BASE jumping or paragliding, he can initiate tracking before his launch. In the event of a crash in which he loses consciousness, there is still a chance that he can be found without having to actually press the SOS button. However, there are two major caveats here:
  1. If he crashes in dense trees or in a canyon and ends up lying on his device it very likely will not work (based on our testing, and many reports from friends and user reviews). They are serious when they say “Give clear view to sky” in the manual of each device. Even a small amount of backpack material or light forest coverage can prevent a successful GPS coordinate lock.
  1. In this case, someone else has to immediately recognize that you’re in trouble and then get the coordinates from your shared map page and organize the rescue. This will likely take time, but it may make body recoveries easier.

Click to enlarge
All four devices in the Costa Rican Jungle.
Credit: Matt Gerdes

Is it easy to use? Can anyone pick it up and use it if needed?
Out of all of the devices, the ACR has the clearest and simplest instructions for initiating an SOS. The SPOT 2 comes in second place here for simplicity, but the InReach has the most thorough instruction label on the device. The SPOT Connect has no instructions on the device (you would have to print instructions and keep them with the device).

Click to enlarge
Screen shot of locating someone using the DeLorme InReach
Credit: DeLorme

What are your priorities? Messaging, rescue only, tracking?
If messaging is the most important feature for you, the InReach is by far the winner and beats the SPOT Connect by a large margin. If you want the ability to send one simple pre-defined check-in message which isn’t of crucial importance anyway (a significant percentage of the SPOT 2 messages I sent, failed), then the SPOT 2 is a contender. For tracking, all three of the above devices functioned reasonably well with the InReach slightly ahead. And finally, if you really just want the best SOS functionality, then the ResQLink is absolutely the device to choose.

In summary, the InReach bills itself as a “2-way satellite communicator” and it lives up to its title. You can indeed communicate via satellites and it also, on the side, has as SOS feature.

The SPOT devices are advertised as “satellite messengers” and in the case of the Connect, a “satellite communicator” (one-way only, that is). Fair enough, you can get some messages out to your contacts, sometimes.

Click to enlarge
All four contenders in the Personal Locator beacon showdown
Credit: Matt Gerdes

Experience in the field: Spot 2 vs. InReach
We used the Spot 2 side-by-side with the InReach throughout the test, recording the time needed for standalone messages to be received by contacts and confirmed as sent. The InReach messages were received faster than the Spot 2 messages about 60 percent of the time, with the InReach messages either confirmed as failed or received within 20 minutes almost every time. The Spot 2 messages at times confirmed as failed only 45 minutes after the send attempt, and were sometimes received more than two hours after the initial send. Testing these two devices side-by-side in standalone mode is the “apples to apples” test, but it’s only fair to mention that the InReach, when paired with a smartphone, allows the user to watch the progress of the message send on the phone with a clear visual confirmation of it being sent successfully or not. This is a lot nicer than trying to decipher the blinking lights on the Spot 2, wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the Spot 2 is its ability to send messages to your contacts, and the InReach performs message sending so much better, the InReach is quite clearly a superior device for this purpose. Again, if SOS functionality is your main priority, we recommend the ResQLink.

Example of the InReach messaging when paired with a smart phone.
Example of the InReach messaging when paired with a smart phone.
Credit: DeLorme

A popular anecdote illustrating a drawback of any satellite messenger device which performs with less than 100 percent consistency is that if your contacts are expecting to receive “okay” messages from you, then not receiving them is almost a guaranteed source of stress. If your family or significant other is expecting to receive “okay” messages at a certain frequency, and then they do not, it could cause them to raise the alarm unnecessarily. Indeed, there are many reported cases of this documented by rescue services, and many stories of a messaging device causing, instead of alleviating, stress for people who are tracking the progress of the user.

If you are using a device to reassure your contacts that you are okay on an hourly/daily basis, then be sure that everyone fully understands the limitations of the device and establish a clear understanding of what it could mean if the messages are not received.

Field tests: Pairing the InReach and Spot Connect
The InReach paired with our phone immediately the first time, and automatically every time after that.

The first and most important issue that we had with the Connect was its resistance to pairing successfully with our iOS/iPhone (mainly) and Android smartphones. Out of the box, the Connect failed 17 attempts in a row, only pairing successfully on the 18th attempt. It continued to fail pairing an average of 90 percent of the time throughout out testing. Unfortunately, pairing is only the first step; the Connect then failed to be found by the SpotConnect Aapp even more than 90 percent of the time.

If this was just a setup hurdle, and after a day of technical frustrations the Connect would have just worked for the rest of the tests, then that would have been one thing. But the Connect does not pair automatically nor does the app automatically find the device, so each time the app is closed or the Connect is turned off, the re-pairing issues start anew.

The Bottom Line
Editor's Choice - Best for Messaging and Tracking
The DeLorme InReach Satellite Messenger is by far the best for sending and receiving messages. It costs a lot, but we found it is well worth it.
DeLorme InReach
DeLorme InReach
Credit: DeLorme

Editor's Choice for SOS and Best Buy
If actually getting rescued is your top priority, choose the ACR ResQLink 406 Personal Locator Beacon. It has an upfront high cost, but once you add up the messaging plans of the other devices, the ACR is less expensive after two years and drastically less expensive if you hold onto it for 5+ years.

When all was said and done, our head tester choose to mainly travel with the ACR because he doesn’t have to worry about changing the batteries for 5 years or paying a subscription. And when you're really in trouble, it’s the device that has proven to work best.
ACR ResQlink 406 personal locator beacon
ACR ResQlink 406 personal locator beacon
Credit: ACR

Chris McNamara and Matt Gerdes
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