SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Compact and lightweight ergonomic design, rental option
Cons: No two-way communication, no smartphone interface, Globalstar is arguably less effective than Iridium or COSPAS/SARSAT
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The third iteration of the venerable SPOT device, along with its proprietary satellite messaging service, is a simple, clear, and largely reliable way for a wilderness traveler to send rudimentary communications to the outside world. There are nuances with preprogrammed messages, tracking, and SOS capability, but it is a basic tool to access a network to send information out of the wilderness. What it does, simply, is send messages that tell your loved ones, "I am ok, and I am right here," and give you the option to send notification of a dire emergency to a professional dispatch office. That is all.
The Gen3 has a clear and easy-to-use SOS button. Activating this feature sends your location and an alert, via satellite relay, to SPOT headquarters. From there, a team of Search and Rescue dispatch experts works to secure the help of resources local to your position. This service is crucial, and this is what the SPOT device offers. It requires a subscription, and responsible backcountry travel demands that you understand the realities of local, on-the-ground emergency response.
Your message will get out rather quickly, often in a matter of minutes. However, wilderness SAR response rarely occurs within an hour and — depending on weather, terrain, socio-political issues, economic factors, and cultural limitations — it could be days, if not weeks away. Activating a SPOT device's SOS mode in Grand Teton National Park (where, incidentally, our lead test editor interviewed SAR experts on the function of various emergency location and notification products) will result in a very different response time than in high-altitude South America. Your SPOT device and service is good at getting word out, but it can't circumvent the realities of remote emergency response.
In addition to the SOS function that sends a message to professional dispatch, the Gen3 also features a Spot Assist button that notifies your contacts that you are in a non-life-threatening situation but need help. You and your contacts should agree, before you head to the wild, the parameters around your use of the Spot Assist mode. You can also subscribe to a version of 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 automobile gas in the desert situation instead of an arm crushed under a rock in the desert situation.
Even with the "SPOT Assist" mode as an option, the device's emergency messaging is rudimentary. Those responding to an SOS message must assume the worst.
The Gen3 offers rudimentary non-emergency messaging. As mentioned above, there are two degrees of emergency messaging. The third mode of messaging is the "OK" message. You can preprogram the text of this message, and you can determine where that message is sent, as long as you have an internet connection. You can set it up to send via SMS, email, and to certain types of social media. This also needs to be programmed while still in civilization. Once in the field, you simply press the "OK" button, and it transmits whatever message and delivery options you programmed.
We found that about 70% of these OK messages made it to their recipients. Because of this attrition rate, repetition is important, and your loved ones should thoroughly understand the device's function. As with any of these satellite communicators, agreeing with your contacts at home that "no news is good news" is the best idea.
Finally, the fourth type of messaging available from a SPOT device is its tracking mode. This is something that can be programmed and then allowed to passively send your position on some pre-set interval to SPOT's public or private web interface. Your contacts can be apprised of this tracking in a variety of ways. For some, this is an important attribute. Our test team finds it interesting in select circumstances, but it is largely a non-factor in our use.
SPOT Gen3 has no ability to receive any sort of messaging.
The SPOT device you might carry is only part of a much larger system. When you send a message from the SPOT, whether that message is of the SOS variety or not, it goes to the outside world via the "Globalstar" satellite network. Contrary to how it sounds, the Globalstar satellite constellation is not entirely global. Consult SPOT and GlobalStar's documentation to see where coverage exists and to see if it might matter for you. For many adventurers, Globalstar covers all you might need.
Also note that, just like all satellite communications, the SPOT device's "view" of the sky is critical. Local vegetation, terrain, and electronic interference can impede the transmission of SPOT messages. This is the same for all satellite communications. In a specific place and time, since the respective satellite communication networks use satellites located differently and moving at different rates, one device and network might work slightly better than another.
Over the course of our testing, the SPOT completed about 70 percent of its message-send attempts.
Ease of Use
When you receive your Gen3, the instructions make it clear that you will need to buy a subscription for it to work. The setup process is relatively painless. Create an account, pay, and activate. You have several service options — consult the specs for details. An important step, which should be an ongoing dialog, is to inform your contacts in civilization how to respond to the various types, timing, and potential lack of messages from your SPOT. Again, we recommend a "no news is good news" approach.
Once configured, paid, and activated, your SPOT is easy to use. Depending on the agreements you have with your contacts, you might leave the SPOT in your pack for days and weeks and years with no use at all. If you wish to use it for non-emergency messaging, there is some set up you must do at home. If you want to use the tracking function, there is even more configuration you must do. With tracking especially, mind your battery life.
For what it does, the SPOT is tiny. For many years now, people have carried the SPOT on adventures of all kinds. It could get a little smaller and lighter, but it is hard to imagine a device like this cutting a major percentage off.
Emergency communications can save lives. The capability to do so is virtually priceless. That said, you've got options. The SPOT device strikes a balance. The technology and subscription service combine to hit the "middle of the road."
Beyond that initial purchase price, though, there are subscription costs to consider. COSPAS-SARSAT devices require no subscription cost at all. The initial purchase price of our Best Buy emergency-only beacon is almost twice that of the SPOT. But, over five years, the SPOT device and service will cost more than four times as much.
The SPOT Gen3 is an iterative refinement of a proven and well-regarded product. As an early leader in the field, the brand, the product, and the service have traction. However, other products are surpassing the SPOT. It still fills a niche, but critical examination of your options is important. Overall, with its compromised set of features, the Gen3 doesn't score very high in our review. Some devices do more, for a little more money, and some devices do the same important things that the SPOT does at a much lower overall cost. For many, though, the SPOT's set of attributes and functions hit the sweet spot.
— Chris McNamara and Jediah Porter