We've been watching, reviewing, and using products in this category for decades now. Improvements are slow and incremental, and the SPOT X is an important step along that path. This fills a narrow niche as a device that will send texts independently, using a real keyboard, without a linked smartphone. In this sub-category, the X indeed delivers. However, what it offers was eclipsed by the nearly simultaneous release of other company's improved offerings. SPOT scrambled to play catch-up by adding Bluetooth and smartphone compatibility just a little over a year after the release of the X. Nonetheless, in most ways, close competitors still edge ahead. Despite this, the SPOT's unique on-device keyboard earns it our Top Pick Award for Standalone Use. One reviewer, the spouse of a backcountry ranger, noted that the X is likely, "a better choice for the person in my life who prefers to ski tour and packraft alone and will never give up the flip phone."
SPOT X Review
Compare prices at 2 resellers Pros: Two-way messaging, on-device keyboard, smartphone interface
Cons: Bulky, tough customer and tech service
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Our Analysis and Test Results
The SPOT X is a stand-alone two-way satellite messaging device. A few other devices we tested also allow for two-way, customized messaging, but they require a smartphone for easy typing. The SPOT's built-in QWERTY keyboard makes it stand out. You compromise nothing by using the X on its own. The latest version of the SPOT X includes Bluetooth functionality that links with a dedicated SPOT app on a smartphone for interfacing that way. This latest update truly sweetens the deal. If you have a SPOT X from before the Bluetooth update, it is worth trading yours in for the newer version.
The SPOT network is contracted from Globalstar. Its emergency messaging capability has been proven now for a decade or so. The X has the same emergency messaging capabilities that many have come to love and trust. Activating the "SOS button" sends an emergency notification and your location information to a central, for-profit dispatch agency. That agency then works to secure local rescue resources.
What is unique about the X, compared to previous SPOT devices, is that you can also text back and forth with friends, family, or additional emergency services while your rescue is unfolding. This latter portion is outside the normal parameters of SOS messaging but can be very beneficial. In certain circumstances, the ability to communicate in both directions in an emergency may mean the difference between positive and negative outcomes.
Two-way messaging can further refine emergency response. It helps manage the stress of those involved in the incident and those at home — so they don't assume the absolute worst if your SPOT is activated. It can also let you provide more information to your rescue team for a more nuanced (and therefore likely better) emergency response.
For non-emergency messaging, the X is great. You can send and receive text-only messages (no photos) with ease. All sending, receiving, and viewing can be completed on the device itself or on the associated smartphone app.
You can configure the SPOT X to continuously monitor for new messages. Then it can sit in your pocket or pack like your cell phone would, receiving messages the whole time. Message speed is limited mainly by satellite reception, which we examine more closely below. Each text conversation is organized into familiar "thread" format, whether on the device or in the app. Conversing is intuitive and clear.
In our comparative testing, signal coverage is almost entirely determined by the network. The device size, design, or power do not have any appreciable impact on signal coverage. All SPOT devices, including the X, use the Globalstar satellite network. This web of lower altitude communication satellites covers only a portion of Earth.
Notably, all 48 contiguous states are well covered, and coverage elsewhere in North and South America and Europe is pretty good. Elsewhere it might work, but reliability is lower. Overall, SPOT devices offer below-average coverage. Consider this when you consider the SPOT. While the Globalstar network that SPOT taps into doesn't cover everywhere, it is entirely possible that it covers your intended travel area. Be honest about your travel habits and communication needs when shopping for a beacon or messenger. You might aspire to that polar trip, but the fact of the matter could be that the entirety of your adventures are in our beautiful Continental US national parks.
Ease of Use
Initially, using the X is a smooth and intuitive process. It doesn't take long to set up, and the subscription plans are fairly obvious and simple. The large screen and integrated keyboard simplify sending and receiving messages. The smartphone app features a user interface that is similar to that of the device itself but employs touch screen function and your familiar smartphone keyboard and text entry.
In ongoing testing and upgrading of the SPOT X, we have had a few service and support issues that are worth pointing out. First, with the original non-Bluetooth SPOT X, we had trouble updating the firmware. A couple of hours of tech support phone time yielded zero progress. Finally, we gave up and bought the new SPOT X with Bluetooth. The timing was right, as our other device wasn't working at all. When the new one arrived, it also was due for a firmware update. We followed the instructions closely but were unable to update this one as well. After another hour or so of time on the phone with SPOT tech support, we had no luck updating the firmware. That phone call ended with no resolution and the advice to "just try again in an hour or so." We only achieved success and a usable product when we took the initiative, prompted by only the vaguest suggestion from tech support, to try a different computer for conducting the firmware update. After weeks of delay and tech difficulties, we had a usable SPOT X and like its function. However, our customer service and tech support experience was poor to mediocre. We hope this is an issue that has been resolved all around, but proceed with caution.
The X is about the size of an adult palm with one short finger as the antenna. It weighs 6.8 ounces with batteries. For what it does, this degree of portability would have been amazing just a couple of months ago.
Today the smallest available devices make the compact stature of the X seem bulky. The difference between the size of the SPOT X and the smallest competitor is an important threshold. Universally, trail runners, multi-pitch rock climbers, and day-trip mountain bikers deem the SPOT X too big. The smaller competitors pass an important line and are considered small and light enough to be carried everywhere, all the time. Of course, if the unique functionality of the SPOT X appeals to you, you will justify carrying the greater mass and bulk.
Value of satellite communication devices and services is difficult to assess and compare. Initial purchase of the SPOT X is competitive in price. Ongoing subscription options are ever-changing.
Consult our comparative table of subscription plans for more information.
If absolute value is important to you, choose a simpler and far less expensive COSPAS-SARSAT product. Any of your options employing that technology will be expensive at initial purchase, but require no ongoing subscription fees. The two-way messaging found with the SPOT X and other award winners is (arguably) inherently a luxury item. Choose between the two-way options for their coverage, ease of use, and portability — don't sweat the endlessly debatable value questions.
One issue we had with the X is that the antenna began to disassemble itself. It is minor and hasn't affected function, but it does hint at durability concerns. We found no other online reviews that mentioned this issue, but a few REI.com reviewers found it to be "super cheaply made" and the like.
The SPOT X represents a step forward in this gear category. Complicating your choice is the availability of a small hand full of close competitors that do some or all things as well or better. Only select users will find the X preferable, overall, to the close competition. When we consider all the important variables, a couple of other products surpass the SPOT. However, it is truly unique on the market because it allows you to text directly from the device. With practice, the "Blackberry" style keyboard is as fast as, if not faster than, the smartphone app option. By letting you step away from your smartphone, the X fills a niche and earns our Top Pick Award for Standalone Use.
— Jediah Porter