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SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger Review
Cons: No two-way communication, no smartphone interface, low 0.4 watt transmission power, Globalstar satellite constellation is arguably less effective than Iridium or COSPAS/SARSAT.
Bottom line: The lowest up-front cost satellite messenger and it comes with a rental option.
The SPOT the best selling and least expensive of the devices we tested. However, in many cases, the annual plan is no longer always that much cheaper than the Garmin plan. We go into detail below and in our complete Satellite Messenger Review. It wins our Best Buy award, but carefully read the complete review to make sure it's thebest value for your situation. While it worked in our tests and the SPOT website says it has aided in over 5,000 rescues, we found it to be not nearly as reliable or feature-rich as the Garmin inReach Explorer+ which won our Editors' Choice award.
RELATED REVIEW: Best Satellite Messengers and Locator Beacons
Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results
Updated Fall 2017
SPOT changed their pricing in good and bad ways.
The good: you can now rent a spot for short trips. Three days cost $75, and it's $15 each additional day. That is a great option for people who only take one or two short trips a year.
The Bad: There is now a "network maintenance fee" of $15 a year which raises the annual plan cost to $165. That is now, roughly, the same annual cost as the Garmin inReach Explorer+ and SE plans with similar functionality. But Garmin has the tremendous upside of letting you choose to spend more on two-way messaging, which is not supported by SPOT.
The bottom line: The SPOT may have a much lower up front cost than the Garmin devices but, depending on your usage, it might not be that much less expensive on an ongoing level. For example, if you only wanted to use the device for one month a year, the Garmin would costs you $90 AND give you unlimited two-way text messaging. If you didn't want unlimited text messaging, it would only cost $40 for that month. The SPOT only provides you with the option of a year plan renting.
When you receive your Spot Gen3 the instructions make it clear that you will need to buy a subscription for it to work. The setup process was relatively painless. Create an account, pay, and activate. You have several service options, see the specs for details.
Over the course of our testing, the SPOT successfully completed about 70 percent of the message-send attempts, at best. Globalstar's satellite network is rumored to be improved since 2011, but the SPOT Gen3 consistently took longer to send messages than the inReach, which operates on the Iridium network. Whether this was a question of device functionality (the inReach transmits at 1.6 instead of 0.4 watts for the SPOT Gen3) or satellite coverage, we don't know.
You might have already seen your friend's SPOT messages on Facebook, checking in. Our newsfeed frequently features notices from friends who landed their paraglider okay, or checked in while ski-touring or BASE jumping. However, the SPOT Gen3 only allows one pre-defined message, which is usually some form of "I'm fine." The inReach, in contrast, allows you to send three different custom pre-defined messages and has text message capabilities, which is a big advantage if two-way communication is useful to you.
The tracking function allows you to create shared map pages on which your friends and family can track your progress. This is a fun and useful feature that could be just as valuable as the messaging ability to many users. The tracking function worked adequately in our tests.
In your hand the SPOT Gen3 is small, light, and much sleeker than the other devices we tested. The buttons themselves blink red or green depending on whether or not what you're doing is working, and there is a simple satellite coverage indicator light.
In addition to the SOS function, the SPOT Gen3 also features a "Spot Assist" button that notifies your contacts that you are in a non-life-threatening situation but need help. You can also subscribe to the SPOT Assist program that will send your message to land- or marine-based assistance services. This would, in theory, be used in an "out of gas in the desert" situation instead of an "arm crushed under rock in desert" situation. This could be a nice feature in a situation where your phone doesn't work and it's not life-and-death but you could use a hand. That said, the inReach's two-way text message system blows the doors off of Spot Assist.
One final note: we've been to the Arctic and to Sub-Saharan Africa four times in the past few years, and the SPOT Gen3 would not have worked in any of those places. Be sure to check the SPOT website to see if you will have coverage where you intend to use it.
— Chris McNamara
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