Hands-on Gear Review

SPOT X Review

A two-way texting device with a built-in keyboard reminiscent of old Blackberry phones with slightly limited geographic coverage.
By: Jediah Porter ⋅ Review Editor  ⋅  Aug 20, 2018
Price:  $250 List  |  $249.95 at REI
Pros:  Two-way messaging, on-device keyboard
Cons:  Bulky, no smartphone interface
Manufacturer:   SPOT
79
OVERALL
SCORE


RANKED
#3 of 7
  • SOS Emergency Messaging - 30% 9
  • Non-Emergency Messaging - 30% 9
  • Signal Coverage - 20% 7
  • Ease of Use - 10% 8
  • Portability - 10% 3
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Top Pick Award

Our Verdict

We've been watching, reviewing and using products in this category for decades now. Improvements are slow and incremental, and we eagerly anticipated the recent launch of the SPOT X. Finally, a device that will send texts independently, without a linked smartphone. In that niche, the X indeed delivers. It is the only device to do so. However, the improvements offered by the X are eclipsed by the nearly simultaneous release of the tiny Garmin InReach Mini. The Mini is much smaller than the SPOT. It requires your smartphone for efficient texting, but the signal coverage is better. Overall, the Mini edged out the SPOT for our top award. However, the SPOT's unique self-contained function earns it our Top Pick award.


Compare to Similar Products

Our Analysis and Test Results

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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. In fact, you couldn't link it with your smartphone if you wanted to.

Performance Comparison


On a fast-paced day-hike  being able to send and receive text messages quickly can be an asset. The stand-alone function of the SPOT enables this better than the phone-linked options.
On a fast-paced day-hike, being able to send and receive text messages quickly can be an asset. The stand-alone function of the SPOT enables this better than the phone-linked options.

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 of options like the Editors Choice Garmin InReach Mini. By letting you step away from your smartphone, the X fills a niche and earns our Top Pick award.

We did have a minor issue with the construction of the X. It still works just fine  and this protrusion can be pushed back in. Nonetheless  it is worth noting.
We did have a minor issue with the construction of the X. It still works just fine, and this protrusion can be pushed back in. Nonetheless, it is worth noting.

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.

SOS/Emergency Message


The SPOT network is contracted from Globalstar. Its emergency messaging capability has been proven now for a decade or so. 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.

We go to the mountains and wild for simplicity. But we also might need to communicate. The X's on-device texting can be simpler than one of the app-linked products.
We go to the mountains and wild for simplicity. But we also might need to communicate. The X's on-device texting can be simpler than one of the app-linked products.

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.

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.


Both Garmin InReach devices have the same emergency messaging capability as the SPOT , and all ranked highly in our review. These two entities use different dispatch services, but the nature of the messaging is the same. Garmin and Spot devices will both secure essentially the same local resources.

The SPOT Gen3 is similar to the X, except that the Gen3 does not send texts. Devices that use the COSPAS-SARSAT networks, like the Best Buy OceanSignal PLB1, work more like the SPOT Gen3, but government emergency dispatch offices coordinate the response.

When base camping in the wild  being able to text with folks back at home has great appeal to some. The X can fill that niche.
When base camping in the wild, being able to text with folks back at home has great appeal to some. The X can fill that niche.

Non-Emergency Messaging


For non-emergency messaging, the X is great. You can send and receive text-only messages (no photos or emojis, for instance). All sending, receiving, and viewing is completed on the device itself. You can configure it 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.

In terms of non-emergency messaging, the X is pretty similar to the InReach products. They all allow two-way, customized messaging. The InReach products work better when interfaced with a smartphone, while the X works on its own. These are your best non-emergency message options, as you can see in the following chart:


You can send a couple different types of non-emergency messages on the SPOT Gen3, but it cannot receive any messages. You can configure the ACR ResQLink to send a very rudimentary "I'm ok" message. The Best Buy OceanSignal PLB1 offers no sort of non-emergency messaging.

The results of a three-way time test. All three messages  sent simultaneously  arrived within a minute  in this particular test iteration.
The results of a three-way time test. All three messages, sent simultaneously, arrived within a minute, in this particular test iteration.

Signal Coverage


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 geosynchronous communication satellites (i.e. those "hovering over a specific place on earth") 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 reliably is lower. Overall, SPOT devices offer below average coverage as you can see in the chart below. Consider this when you consider the SPOT.


Garmin's InReach devices use the Iridium Network, which is truly global. This is also true of the COSPAS-SARSAT network used by the Best Buy OceanSignal PLB1 and the ACR ResQLink+. You might not need this though. While the Globalstar network that SPOT taps into doesn't cover everywhere, it is entirely possible that it covers your travel areas. Be honest about your travel habits and communication needs when shopping for a beacon or messenger.

Texting the X in a dense New York forest. All satellite communications are compromised in dense forest. This particular message got out  but we have always noted difficulties in the trees. This is an inherent issue of satellite communications.
Texting the X in a dense New York forest. All satellite communications are compromised in dense forest. This particular message got out, but we have always noted difficulties in the trees. This is an inherent issue of satellite communications.

Ease of Use


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.

Scoring a product's ease of use is a little tricky. More accurately, comparing scores for ease of use is tricky. Some of the products we tested, like the ACR ResQLink and the OceanSignal PLB1 have very limited and targeted function. The one thing they do, sending an SOS signal, they do very well. Activating this one feature is very easy. Others, like the X with two-way messaging capabilities, are more complicated. The X does more than the OceanSignal. For all it does, though, the is pretty easy to use. It receives a high score in this metric as a result.


Without the complication of syncing with a smartphone, the X earns higher ease of use scores than the Editors Choice Garmin InReach Mini and earns our Top Pick award.

By 2010 millions of people got really good at typing on a keyboard like this. If we learned it then  we can make it work now. You can type quickly and clearly on the physical board of the SPOT.
By 2010 millions of people got really good at typing on a keyboard like this. If we learned it then, we can make it work now. You can type quickly and clearly on the physical board of the SPOT.

Portability


The X is about the size of an adult palm with one short finger as the antenna. It weighs 6.8oz. For what it does, this degree of portability would have been amazing just a couple months ago.


Today the Garmin InReach Mini makes the compact stature of the X seem bulky. The Mini is truly tiny, especially for all that it does. As long as you carry a smartphone anyway, the Editors Choice Garmin InReach Mini does all that the SPOT does at about half the weight and one third the size. The X is similar in size and weight to the Garmin InReach Explorer. The simpler devices, like the GoTenna Mesh, SPOT Gen3, and the Best Buy OceanSignal RescueME PLB1 are much smaller than the X.

Size comparison of the two newest satellite messengers available. Even without the keyboard  the X would be much larger than the InReach Mini.
Size comparison of the two newest satellite messengers available. Even without the keyboard, the X would be much larger than the InReach Mini.

Best Applications


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."

While this satellite communicator for the Luddite labeling is perhaps oxymoronic, it is certainly a niche that exists. For two-way communications that do not rely on your smartphone, the X is just the ticket.

The SPOT in use with its unraveling antenna in Utah's Lone Peak Cirque.
The SPOT in use with its unraveling antenna in Utah's Lone Peak Cirque.

Value


Value of satellite communications devices and services is difficult to assess. Let's look at these two newest satellite messengers on the market. The SPOT, right away, costs $100 less than the InReach Mini. However, the lowest monthly subscription cost of the SPOT is almost twice that of the InReach.

Over five years, if you choose the least expensive plan for each, the SPOT costs almost $400 more, overall. Further muddying the waters is the fact that, with just these respective cheapest subscription plans, the SPOT gives you 10x the text messages as the InReach. Also, subscription costs can change and there are activation costs and contract terms that we haven't even touched on.

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 like the Best Buy OceanSignal RescueME. The two-way messaging found with the X and Garmin InReach Mini is inherently a luxury item. Choose between these for their coverage, ease of use, and portability — don't sweat the endlessly debatable value questions.

Conclusion


The SPOT X represents a step forward in this gear category. Complicating your choice, though, is the nearly simultaneous release of the generally superior Garmin InReach Mini. Only select users will find the X preferable to the InReach.

Jediah Porter

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