The SPOT X is a two-way satellite messenger that can send and receive SMS messages and emails with friends and family or search and rescue services anywhere in the world. It is a big step forward from SPOT’s Gen 3 satellite communicator that could only send SOS or pre-defined text messages, but could not have a two-way conversation with recipients to determine if sent messages been received or not. The SPOT X also has other functions including tracking, a digital compass, GPS waypoint navigation, and social media sharing of your GPS coordinates on Facebook and Twitter.
But the SPOT X doesn’t quite cut it in my book because the user interface is hard to use and provides little feedback to let you know if the device is doing what you’ve commanded it to do. With patience, you can get the SPOT X to function close to spec, but the learning curve is steep and there are some major pitfalls along the way.
Let’s take a closer look at this new device and you can decide for yourself if it’s worth buying.
The SPOT X requires a subscription plan to use, in addition to the one-time device purchase price. SPOT X offers two different service subscription options (click for listing). You can choose either a monthly Flex Plan or an Annual contract plan, with multiple service tiers available in each. The biggest difference between the tiers are the number of ad-hoc messages you can send per month or the frequency in which tracking pings the satellite to record your current location. Flex Plans are best for seasonal use and only require a one-month subscription. Annual plans are perfect for year ’round use by outdoor junkies with an added benefit of monthly payment.
The SPOT X requires access to a website to activate the device, enter emergency contacts, and specify pre-defined messages so you don’t have to type them every time you send a check-in update. You need to be able to synch this information to your SPOT X using a USB cable connected your computer every time you update this information (along with device software updates), using either a Macintosh or a Windows computer. You can’t use a phone to do it however, since the synchronization application requires a computer to run.
SPOT chose to develop a new user interface for the X with its own look and feel so they could make a standalone device, without providing users the option to use a simpler, more familiar user interface like a Smartphone connected using Bluetooth. While SPOT does offer an app for download, it can’t be used to control the SPOT X device or interact with it, so it’s pretty worthless.
The SPOT user interface is raw and inconsistent, which is what you’d expect in a first release on a new device. It’s basically a set of icons that let you navigate up and down through a hierarchical menu system, pointing at different options using a directional pad with a selector button on the middle. However, the navigation mechanism is jerky and often jumps to a different menu item than the one you intended. The most important button on the interface is the “back” button so you can get back to the previous interface item and try again.
When you select a top-level item using the directional pad, you never really know how the SPOT X is going to react. Some commands like the Check-in button create icons in the top status bar to show you that they’ve been initiated, like a check mark in a waypoint icon, footprints to let you know that tracking has been turned on, or an inbox with a number in it to let you know that new messages have arrived for. But there’s no visual notification or audible beep to tell you that whatever command you’ve triggered has actually completed and the status bar icons are quite difficult to see because they’re so small. Some commands are also mysteriously delayed and undocumented status messages are displayed on the screen instead.
The front of a SPOT X has a full QWERTY keyboard like a blackberry, but the keys are tiny. I have the nimble and thin fingers of a violinist (fiddler, actually) and even I mistype characters because the keys are so small. While the keyboard is smart enough to capitalize letters at the beginning of sentences, there are certain characters, like the “@” that can only be entered into address-specific fields if you enter a special, undocumented mode where the special character keys work. Seriously?
The SPOT X provides the ability to send SOS message to rescuers in an emergency along with your GPS location. There are two ways to activate an SOS message. The first is a red button, protected against accidental activation, behind a dedicated door on the front of the unit. The second is top-level user interface item at the bottom right of the front screen, which is very easy to select by accident using the jittery user interface. While it requires a second interface selection to activate a rescue, and there’s an adjacent button to cancel it immediately, I can’t fathom why this item isn’t similarly protected behind a physical panel. My advice, be careful to keep this device away from small children who like to press buttons or you’re likely to have a helicopter land at your campsite unexpectedly.
Most of the time, you’ll probably send loved ones check-in messages to let them know where you are and that you’re ok. Called predefined messages, you have to define these in the Web Portal and download to your Spot X unit using the SPOT synchronization application and a USB cable.
Here’s an example of a typical check-in message.
SMS Messages and Email
You can also send and receive un-canned (not predefined) SMS messages or Email messages via satellite using the SPOT X. When you activate a SPOT X, you also get a dedicated mobile phone number so people can send SMS messages to it from anywhere in the world. This includes phone spam and unwanted messages. The Spot X web portal includes a setting that let you white-list the phone numbers of a small set of people, so you’re not bothered with spam messages using the device.
SMS messages are generally sent promptly from the SPOT X and recipients can respond in turn. Email message delivery is far less predictable and generally much slower, ranging from 16 to 30 minutes for each message that you send. The reason is that the SPOT X sends three copies of your message to their mail server for redundancy to make sure that your message is received by their mail server. Your SPOT X device must remain on while the repeated sends take place. You can check periodically to see whether the messages have been received by the SPOT mail server by looking at icons next to your outbound message list, but you can’t tell whether they’ve been received by their intended recipients.
Email recipients can reply to messages that you have sent, but all email messages have a fixed character limit of 140 characters. People can only respond to your emails. They can’t initiate an email thread because your SPOT X doesn’t have a dedicated email address.
The SPOT X also does a curious thing if someone sends you a message and you’re offline for more than 72 hours. It deletes the messages, which is a very odd thing to do. Email which is supposed to be a “reliable” messaging system that stores messages on a mail server indefinitely, until their downloaded by an email reader.
“While SPOT X is powered off or has not communicated with the SPOT Satellite Network, incoming messages will not be delivered to your device. All incoming messages will be queued for up to 72 hours from the time they were sent and will only be delivered if your SPOT X device turns back on within that time period. After 72 hours, if the SPOT X device has not powered on, all queued messages will be deleted permanently and will not be delivered to your SPOT X device.”
This is not email as we know it…it’s SPOTTY email. My recommendation would be to avoid using the ad hoc email functions on the SPOT X and only use its SMS capabilities, because they are far faster and reliable.
The SPOT X has a tracking capability that lets you record your current location at set interfaces during a trip. This is handy if people want to check on your progress during a trip or you want to document that you took a certain route. The tracking intervals available are every 2.5, 5, 10, 30, or 60 minutes and the frequency may depend on the service plan you’ve selected. Frequent tracking uses up your battery more than less frequent tracking, which can be a consideration if you’re trying to preserve power. To share a track with friends and family, you send them a link to a SPOT Share Page (shown above), which gives them a virtual breadcrumb trail of your adventure. My wife really likes this feature…
The SPOT X has a rudimentary navigation capability that has a digital compass, lets you record trip statistics, or enter a list of waypoints and navigate to them on as-the-crow-flies bearings. There’s no way to specify these waypoints graphically on the device itself and you must type in their lat/lons by hand. I’d recommend that you keep using whatever Smartphone GPS app or GPS device you’re already using instead of the navigation functionality included in the SPOT X because it is so primitive.
Battery life on the SPOT X is directly proportional to how much you use it. If you only turn on the device to send check-in messages once or twice a day, the battery will last for many days. But if you turn up the tracking frequency to every 2.5 minutes, you’ll burn through a battery charge in a day.
Recharging the unit is another issue entirely. In two weeks of near constant use, I was never able to fully recharge the unit from a handheld battery pack using the USB cable, even during all-night-long charging attempts. The only way I could recharge the SPOT X was to plug it into a wall and let it charge overnight. You’ll definitely want to carry a battery if you use the SPOT X on extended trips and if you use the tracking capability.
The SPOT X is not ready for prime time and I can’t recommend this device to anyone. It’s difficult to use, it’s buggy, and not well documented. This product would be so much better it was just a streamlined satellite-based two-way SMS (only) messaging device with an SOS capability, pre-defined messages, ad hoc text messaging, and tracking, that didn’t require a computer to activate and use. I think SPOT underestimated how difficult it is to implement a new graphical user interface from scratch on proprietary hardware. They’ve also missed the boat in not integrating the device with Smartphones, which have become the defacto single device that most backcountry users and travelers want to use instead of a proprietary unit.
If you’ve been tempted by the lower price of the SPOT X, I’d encourage you to take a hard look at the Garmin inReach Two-way Mini Satellite Communicator instead. The inReach Mini is much easier to learn and use, fully tested and documented, and sends messages faster and more reliably despite being slightly higher priced. See my recent Garmin InReach Mini Review for more a more detailed analysis of its features.
SPOT provided the author with a loaner unit for this review. Published 2018.
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