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 is best for sending out an SOS signal. We tested one PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and four SEND (Satellite Emergency Notification Devices). Read on to see which emergency devices we rated as best to carry on your next adventure. Also, skip to the bottom to see a discussion of how sat messengers compare to sat phones and sat internet hubs.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Analysis and Test Results
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 eight 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 one of them is, 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 and our How to Best Use Your Activity Tracker and Handheld GPS Article to see how you can get the most out of your device.
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 that offer tracking (SPOT 3 and Connect, and InReach SE). 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:
Is it easy to use? Can anyone pick it up and use it if needed?
Of all of the devices, the ACR has the clearest and simplest instructions for initiating an SOS. The SPOT 3 comes in second place here for simplicity, but the InReach has the most thorough instruction label on the device. The SPOT 3 Satellite Messenger has no instructions on the device (you would have to print instructions and keep them with the device).
What are your priorities? Messaging, rescue only, tracking?
If messaging is the most important feature for you, the InReach SE or InReach Explorer 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 that isn't of crucial importance anyway (a significant percentage of the SPOT 3 messages I sent, failed), then the SPOT 3 is a contender. For tracking, all three of the above devices functioned reasonably well, with the InReach slightly ahead. And finally, if you just want the best SOS functionality, then the ResQLink is the device to choose.
In summary, the InReach SE 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.
Experience in the field: Spot 3 vs. InReach SE
We used the Spot 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 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 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 stand-alone 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, wondering if the message was sent or not. Since the chief feature of the Spot 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.
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.
It used to be the Spot had a much less expensive data plan. However, InReach now has a Freedom plan that does not require an annual subscription (SPOT requires a 12-month commitment). For people who only do a few trips a year out of cell service, you save money with the InReach plans, even with unlimited texting at the $65 level. Over a few years, it could actually be cheaper to own the InReach despite it costing $300 compared to the SPOT's $150 price tag. It all depends which service plan you choose so every situation is different.
See the Spot Service Plans
See the InReach Service Plans
How Does the InReach Compare to Satellite Phones and Satellite Internet Hubs?
In brief: The InReach is a bargain and much more reliable. Satellite phones are much more expensive than satellite messengers and satellite internet hubs are insanely more expensive.
Satellite Internet Hubs – These claim to offer a wifi hotspot anywhere and the ability to check your email, run apps, and send texts. A popular model is the iSavi IsatHub that retails for $1350. Expensive, but nothing compared to the insanely expensive data plans: it costs $600 for 100MB of data (most cell phone plans cost $1 for 100MB). A less expensive option is the Iridium GO! for $799. But again, the minutes are expensive: a prepaid card for 500 voice minutes and 3000 text messages is $725. We have not tested either unit, but the user reviews on numerous web sites leave us concerned about the ease of use, connectivity issues and data speeds. Compare that to the InReach which has relatively minor connectivity issues and gives you unlimited text messaging for $60 a month. We really want an affordable and reliable way to browse the web by satellite when deep in the back county, but we just are not there yet.
Satellite Phones - prices and performance vary widely:
In our experience, a good satellite messenger is dramatically less expensive, and less frustrating to use than a sat phone or a sat internet hub. We hope we have been able to help you decide if you need a personal locator beacon or satellite device and if so, which model is best for you. However, if you're still undecided, consider reading over our buying advice for additional guidelines on choosing a model that's best for you.
— Chris McNamara
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