The Spot X is a GPS communication device that works outside of cell range. It’s capable of sending SMS messages, pushing updates to social media, location tracking and even signaling for rescue.
The Spot X is a small, handheld device. It’s essentially a rugged chunk of plastic, designed to handle tough impacts, fairly extreme weather conditions and temperatures, and is waterproof (IP67). It has a full keyboard, diagonally based directional buttons, and dedicated buttons for tracking and rescue signaling, the later of which is located under a protective cover to prevent accidental activation. It has a basic monochrome LCD display with a toggle based backlight, a flashing LED to help located the device, and a protected mini USB port on the bottom for charging and updates. It retails for $249, requires a monthly service plan (starting at $12 a month), includes a charge cable, and weighs about 7 ounces.
Features include sending and receiving messages via SMS, updating to Facebook and Twitter, location and trip tracking , sending location data to friends/family, and even a basic navigation suite with a compass and coordinate based way points.
What I liked
The Spot X just works. As long as you have a clear shot at the sky, the device can send and receive messages, push location data, send updates to social media, and navigate, all without a cell signal. Everywhere I’ve tested the device, outside of being in deep crevices or around/within buildings, the signal was strong and reliable. I was even able to push a signal from inside my backpack and my house. Sending a SMS (a text) usually delivers the message in about 30 seconds, and social media updates are similarly fast.
Sending out the occasional “I’m still alive” message to concerned family member is a great feature if you’re someone who enjoys going out alone, or perhaps you put yourself in challenging conditions. By simply choosing “check in” on the main page, the device will send a message to whoever you program it for, with location data, a time stamp, and a link to where they can see your real time progress online. The message can also be personalized, and you can store several of them to choose from an appropriate one, such as “reached camp” or “at my car, heading home”. If you become injured or suddenly disappear…they’ll have a last known location, and the device will continue sending updates at preset intervals making for an easy rescue. It also greatly eases the mind of anyone who would rather keep tabs on a loved one, instead of them being off-grid while exploring.
I really like being able to pull up the compass, set a waypoint at my car or my destination, and using these to navigate to and from points of interest. This is handy in areas where maps either don’t exist or aren’t as reliable as they should be, or the trail system may just be confusing. It’s very basic, but it does show coordinates, a directional compass, and can be hugely beneficial if you lose yourself on a map or get completely lost. This can be the difference between losing a few minutes of time and an all out rescue situation, which can otherwise result from something as simple as getting turned around.
The device is exceptionally durable, with a sturdy impact resistant body that’s obviously designed to take a beating. I’ve dropped it a couple times already with no signs of damage, or even a scuff. The charge port is well covered and insulated, which keeps dirt and water out (the weakness of any electronic device) and the device has had no trouble at all shedding water in my tests.
The battery life is exceptional. With the device setup to push updates every 2.5 minutes (a bit excessive but good for testing) the device easily for an entire day, I didn’t even lose a bar of battery (seemingly depicted by four 25% increments). When setting the tracker to a more reasonable 10 or 30 minute refresh rate, the device lasted for about 10 days in warm weather. If tracking is turned off completely, only keeping it on for emergencies, the battery seems to last for weeks (I only had the device for two weeks for testing). Instead, one can choose to manually check and send messages at important times, such as landing at base camp or going to sleep for the night. Constantly sending SMS message and pushing to social media will greatly speed up the battery drain, but still aren’t an issue for even week long journeys.
Service plans at the time of writing are quite reasonable.
What I didn’t like
The keyboard is quite stiff, and the keys are a bit narrow. Even with small fingers, navigating with the diagonal control pad and attempting to press the enter button in the middle, I frequently moved the cursor around instead. The back and tracking button are particular hard to activate, usually requiring me to rely on a hard deliberate press of the tip of my thumb to even get it to respond. Wearing gloves rendered the device basically inaccessible for me, and cold hands only exaggerate the issue. On the plus side, the stiff keys do prevent most accidental button presses, but also results in a device that isn’t necessarily fun to use, with fingers tiring quickly after just sending a few messages. Thankfully, it can mostly be automated online, and check ins and sending generic messages are just a couple presses away.
The user interface is simple to use, with every main function being front and center. At the same, using the device feels like taking a trip to the past, with the layout feeling very dated and archaic. This is fine, but it certainly reminds me more of the Blackberry age than a cutting edge 2018 device. A few of the functions can be a bit confusing, such as when you open up “messages”only to see a list of messages you sent and “check-ins” being piled on top of ones you’ve received, and writing requires selecting a small pencil/pad icon at the bottom of the screen instead of immediately dumping you into a compose function. However, things like this generally just takes a few seconds to figure out and with a little experience most of the quirks don’t feel like a big deal.
The device works best in an upright position to maintain a connection, and the device likes to remind you of this frequently with a popup message (which can be disabled). However, confusingly, the device cannot stand on its own. The bottom of the device is curved and angular, making it impossible to stand up. Trying to place it up on a rock or in a clearing for best signal while you wait to be rescued? Good luck with that. Instead, it has to be propped up against something relatively tall or hung up in order to keep it upright, which can actually obscure the signal in itself as the antennae must lean into the object propping it up. This is problematic if the connecting is spotty to begin with and you’re struggling to find a connection. Also, if the device is in a pack, it needs to be oriented properly for it to work, and near the top of the pack. The last thing anyone wants to deal with when in a life threatening situation is trying to prop up a rescue device or rearrange a pack. This is an odd design choice that honestly kind of baffles me.
There is a small flashing LED which makes the device easier to find at night or if it is dropped. The problem is it is sunk into the face of the unit, making it only visible if you’re facing the screen. If it is face down, it isn’t visible at all. A better option would have been to house the light in a plastic dome that diffuses the light in all angles.
Instead of tiny, hard to press, constantly exposed buttons and a screen, I’d much rather see these under a clam-shell like cover that can be opened up. This would allow for larger, easier to press buttons without worrying about accidental presses. It would also help to prevent damage to the screen during a fall.
There are a lot of complaints to be made about the Spot X. It’s at times a pain to use, feels a bit dated, and generally can come across as a bit unrefined from a user standpoint. However, the real effort would put into the devices functionality. This thing just works. The device absolutely achieves its goal of providing a constant, reliable means of communication. I love being able to press one button to “check in”, which sends an automatic, programmable update to one or more people to let them know I’m safe. Even better, on long solo trips, or just a trip in generally where navigation could be a challenge, having the ability to let the device track and continuously update my location, on map, and send this information to someone is a huge benefit. If anything ever did happen I couldn’t send a message or make a phone call, the device has my back. Despite having some room for improvement, the usefulness of the devices cannot be understated. One emergency and the Spot X easily earns its keep. Because of this, any small complaints I might have with its usability, most of which can be automated, are easily outweighed by its usefulness. Being the case, this is easily a device that I can recommend for any adventurer.
*testing note* I only had two weeks with this device before having to send it back, so long term viability, durability, and even my own thoughts on the device should considered more first impression than final thoughts.
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I want to extend a huge thanks to Spot for providing this product for review. We couldn’t do it without their help. Our full disclosure can be found here.
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