Monday, 12 August 2013

SPOT Gen3 - A non-techie review

After much anticipation, having ordered it in May, the latest model of the SPOT GPS Messenger arrived last week.

For those who haven't got a clue what I am on about; "The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger is a device that provides a vital line of communication with friends and family when you want it, and emergency assistance when you need it. Using 100% satellite technology, SPOT works virtually anywhere in the world, even where cell phones don't – all with the push of a button."

The Gen3 is an improvement on the "perfectly adequate" SPOT2, with enhanced functionality and design. Whereas SPOT2 required a harness to attach it to your rucksack, the Gen3 has a lighter, narrower, velcro strap that makes the job much simpler and gives more options as to where you position it.

Another niggle I had with SPOT2 was the tiny raised buttons. When pressed, they lit up to alert you, but quite often they were hidden by your finger, and also difficult to see in direct sunlight. Now, the buttons are flush with the device and the notification lights are separate. The lights are also brighter, although I did see a complaint on the SPOT Facebook page about how distracting they were when using in a vehicle at night; perhaps the next version will include a way of dimming them.

What persuaded me to part with my money was the new customised tracking features.
  • Dependant on subscription you take out, you have the ability to send tracking beacons every 2.5, 5, 10, 30 or 60 minutes. 
  • I, and many other users, believe that the "Extreme Tracking" option, which gives you the 2.5 minute capability, is too expensive, and so I went for "Unlimited Tracking", which gives me 5 minute intervals.
  • Motion activated: the SPOT Gen 3 will send track updates when you are moving, so when you stop for a break, it won't send messages until you are on your way again. You don't have to remember to switch it off, either, if you are motionless for an hour, the device goes into standby.
Another improvement is the battery life. It was pretty good with the earlier models, but with the Gen3 you can also use NiMH rechargeables, or, if you are in a vehicle, you can plug into a 5v power source via a USB cable. However, and they missed a trick here, it would have been great if you could recharge the batteries whilst in the device.

With a clear view of sky, a single set of Lithium 8x batteries, and assuming 9hrs of constant movement per day, you are supposed to get;
  • 2.5 min Interval: 20 days
  • 5.0 min Interval: 25 days
  • 10 min Interval: 45 days
  • 30 min Interval: 50 days

If that rings true, with the 5 minute tracking option, I'm expecting to get through a couple of sets of rechargeable batteries on the Bibbulmun Track.
I'll admit I didn't find setting up the subscription and the device straightforward, thanks to the poor SPOT website. I did end up ringing the U.S. and doing it over the phone, to ensure the subscription replaced my previous one. The assistant on the other end of the line was helpful and it all went without a hitch.

Once you have made your Tracking option, a firmware update is required, which involves attaching the device to your PC via the USB cable and downloading a small app. That all went smoothly.

So, to my testing it in the field; Off to Dartmoor!

First up, I thought I'd track the journey down on the Friday evening, using the USB cable power source, and see how it faired on a road trip. This involved a Custom Message, Check-in/OK Message and Tracking. I should note here that maps included are from Social Hiking, and not the official SPOT Shared Page as, unfortunately, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Both the Custom and Check-in/OK messages were received within a minute of sending, and 45 tracking beacons were sent over a period of 4 hours and 11 minutes. That's an average of about 5 minutes and 30 seconds per beacon., and considering this includes a ten minute period where I was parked up at the petrol station, so the motion sensor kicked in, I reckon this is pretty good!

Next, on the Saturday, out onto the open moor for a walk. For this, I sent a Custom Message, Check-in/OK Message, and used the Tracking. I particularly wanted to see how an extended lunch stop affected the beacons sent, and if it faired better than the SPOT2 in woodland.

Once again, both Custom and Check-in/OK messages went without a hitch. The walk totalled 4 hours and 45 minutes, and within that time 49 beacons were sent. When I stopped for lunch, the motion sensor worked a dream and it was 21 minutes before I was on my way again. Virtually all the tracking beacons were regularly spaced at 5 minute intervals but I should note I only encountered a small amount of woodland, and when I did, a beacon was missed. Mind you, it was pretty dense, and the fact I stopped may have contributed to it not being sent.

Dense Woodland or did I stop too long to take photo's?

I'll test the woodland scenario properly in the leafy Chilterns next weekend, but for areas with a good view of the sky, the SPOT Gen3 performed brilliantly, and is a vast improvement on the SPOT2.

Here's the New SPOT promo video for those where my words are not enough.

Finally, how much has all this set me back?
  • The device was purchased from US retailers GPS-City and included overseas delivery: £139.86
  • The Annual Basic SPOT Subscription plus additional Unlimited Tracking: £157.67.
  • A Customs and Excise charge I wasn't expecting!: £30.06

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