The SPOT-1 — Less Than Spotless

Emergency personal location
and messaging with a few
important limitations.

The SPOT Personal Tracker uses simplified automatic satellite communication to update the family back home as to where you are, if you’re ok, and whether or not you want them to come save you from whatever peril you blundered into. Maybe you came back to the car and the battery’s dead, or a bear tried to eat you the third day out, or you got lost. Heck, maybe you’re just lonely and tired. Push the Help! button and the folks back home get an automated message telling them to bring the car around.

Or push the OK! button and send a signal back home telling all the people who have nothing better to do than worry about you, “Mom! I’m fine!” You can even set the SPOT up to automatically update your position every 10 minutes, marking your spot on the Google map of the planet earth so your friends and loved ones know you’re alive and still moving.

Beyond that you can add services for AAA-style (but not AAA) car service on the road, or the equivalent of that for boats. You’ll have to program the Help! button to call one of these services instead of the home phone, axing the home assistance option, but it gives you access to nationwide professional service. Even if there are no cell phone bars where you wind up, push-button rescue is still available with SPOT because SPOT uses omnipresent satellites, not cell towers.

Suppose you get into real trouble and need medical help — SPOT’s 911 button brings the emergency rescue people to your side in minutes. Pay a little extra  and you’ll even get coverage in third world countries without emergency 9-1-1 service.

Houston Call Center? We’ve Got a Problem . . . .

Sound too good to be true? It is too good to be true. The realities of SPOT have lived up to the company’s advertised expectations only sporadically. Users have experienced many technical difficulties with the units, foreseeable problems with transmission through heavy cover, misunderstandings about how to actually operate the SPOT, and unrealistic expectations of perks which are only included at extra cost. SPOT-1 advertised personal location tracking on Google Earth, for example, but personal tracking turned out to be a feature not included in the basic plan. For the unit price  plus the basic package fee for one year’s service  — $200 total — owners got 911 service that was confused and imperfect, since the call center dealing with this limited option had to figure out where you were without using the SPOT tracking system. $249 got SPOT owners the tracking package as well.

Check the serial numbers
on this SPOT2 Messenger;
Numbers 0-8000000 to
8053925 were recalled.

Even with some genuine rescues already on file, as well as numerous customer tests of the service which came up embarrassingly short of acceptable, you might justifiably wonder if the cost of this emergency location and rescue device is worth what it might or might not provide. If you want real reliability, you’ll have to step up to something more expensive and less fancy that works dependably. Anyone who may be responsible for the welfare of others — guides or scoutmasters for example — should consider paying more for something with fewer bugs to work out. But if you like electronic toys and don’t mind all the maybe’s and the company’s poor customer service reputation, have fun. Don’t bet your life on the SPOT, but enjoy.

Before you buy, be aware of some technical details about the SPOT which you might not glean from the pretty picture in the advertisements.

The Perks:

  • Water Resistance: good to 1 meter for about 30 minutes. That’s worse than a cheap watch. The case should be sealed well enough to work in humid conditions, but if distorted (i.e., sat on or stepped on) expect that water tolerance to go away. The company says it floats, but grab it quick.
  • Shock Resistance: SPOT units are spot-tested by dropping them six times — once on each side — onto a hard surface from a 1 meter height. Oh, come on now! I test things harder than that in the store. Don’t put the SPOT in your hip pocket and accidentally fall on your hinder. Many ordinary actions could break it. That’s not necessarily a reason to avoid the SPOT — I’ve carried many cameras that didn’t survive one-yard falls but did survive hikes and I don’t regret having them, but I also didn’t think of them as emergency gear.
  • Transmission and Setup Time: On first use and anytime you move more than 600 miles from the original startup location, SPOT has to re-orient itself with GPS. That’s supposed to take four minutes, according to the manual, but owners have reported lag times of as long as 20 minutes before the setup completes. The setup issue isn’t limited to those long relocations — change the batteries or set the SPOT on the shelf for more than two weeks and it will need to reboot.
  • Battery Life: Nothing but great. Two AA lithium batteries will send 1900 Help! or OK! messages and send out an automatic 9-1-1 signal every five minutes for an entire week. SPOTcasting personal tracking will update your position every ten minutes for 14 days on the same amount of battery juice. There is a catch, though — SPOTcast must be activated every 24 hours or the system turns off and tracking stops.
  • Insure yourself with GEOS for $12.95 per year and be covered for up to $100,000 in rescue expenses. If no offical search and rescue team is available in the country where you vanished, GEOS provides one. But there are some exceptions — see the next list for the reasons you won’t be covered.

The Quirks:

  • Owners can’t test the 9-1-1 service. If you push the button it’s treated as a real emergency. Accidental emergency calls are possible — if the unit is powered up and the button is pressed for longer than two seconds, the call goes out. Or does it? Without a test function you can’t really know.
  • Owners are liable for rescue service costs even if the call is accidental. Many rescue agencies no longer work as a taxpayer service. If they have to come get you, you have to pay for that helicopter ride and for calling in all those emergency response workers on their days off. If you purchase additional GEOS rescue insurance, GEOS will bill you for accidental or test calls at the rate of $345 per hour — minimum of one hour and maximum of two. That’s in additional to any fees levied by the official rescue service. Be careful how you pack the gear, because there are plenty of ways to press that button for longer than two seconds.
  • GEOS coverage is limited. In fact, you’ll just have to read the contract for all the exceptions to coverage, but here are a few: The maximum benefit of $50,000 per incident and $100,000 per year essentially cuts the value in half unless you’re really clumsy and stupid. On the other hand, GEOS coverage does not apply to emergencies resulting from actually being incompetent or stupid. GEOS does not cover natural climate disaster emergencies (flood, earthquake, storm, and the other usual things which cause disasters may be included in the exceptions). Emergencies in which drugs or alcohol were contributing factors are not covered. Don’t expect help from GEOS unless you’re calling from North America, Canada, the European Union or Australia. Service may not extend to other countries and definitely does not not extend to North, Central or West Africa, the  Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, or any other country GEOS deems dangerous. The GEOS contract isn’t like the American Army’s “no man left behind” policy — they don’t go after bodies. Recovery of the dead isn’t in the contract.
  • The SPOT unit needs a clear view of the sky and no obstructions between it and the satellite system, in order to transmit. It won’t always work from the pocket or pack, and the best way to get it to work is to set it down flat in an open area. Some redundancy is built in — SPOT attempts to send each OK signal three times, but to do that the manual suggests leaving SPOT stationary and untouched for 20 minutes. Ten minute position updates on the automatic setting while on the move may not get through.
  • The fragile pocket clip carry system isn’t better than safety pins according to some users who actually prefer pinning the unit to their gear with safety pins rather than depending on the SPOT clip for security. SPOT does not come with a carrying pouch but one is now available at extra cost.
  • Travel records with SPOT are stored temporarily at the company’s home base. Data gets cleared after 30 days unless you transfer records to SPOTAdventures, the company’s equivalent of Facebook.
  • SPOT’s technical reliability is uncertain. Many problems may be due to owner operation issues, since those willing to wait and tweak seem usually to have better luck. Other technically savvy SPOT users simply haven’t been able to get their units to work and encountered customer service people who were less than helpful. Although SPOT maintained the units were not at fault, SPOT did recall 53,925 SPOT-2 units marketed after October 1st, 2009. Citing problems with batteries and messaging, the company provided owners with shipping materials on request, free replacement units and a three month free extension on already activated plans.

Important Links

Let me just say that I’m still having trouble understanding why anybody wants a cell phone, let alone a personal tracking device like the SPOT-1 or SPOT-2. I like it when nobody knows where I am. But if you’re the other type of person who likes being part of the electronic world no matter where you are, and wants to always be in range of professional assistance, you may like the SPOT. To avoid disappointment, read the SPOT operation manual and the Terms of Service before purchase. Sadly, the SPOT is not a direct line to the A-Team.

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