UPDATE: DeLorme has discontinued the SPOT Satellite Communicator in favor of their own product, the DeLorme inReach, which offers two-way communication and works as a standalone device or can connect with the PN-60w or with the iPhone or Android smartphones.
A serious tool for backcountry adventurers
Call me crazy, but I love all day mountain bike rides where I go so far back that I’m unlikely to see another human; the more isolated and rugged, the better. I prefer to do these with my biking partner (the most wonderful wife in the world), but all too often I’m out there solo. What’s a crash-prone, wilderness-seeking, aging mountain biker to do? Get the Delorme Earthmate PN-60 with SPOT Satellite Communicator, that’s what. This combo (the two separate units are shown above) is the first consumer product to combine a GPS receiver with the ability to compose a custom message in the field and send it via satellite.
Disclaimer: Be Safe
Having said all that, I feel compelled to add that this device is no substitute for common sense, preparation, proper gear, map reading and survival skills, and general wilderness savvy. Be safe out there!
Note: I’ve decided to break this review up into two parts. Today’s installment will focus on the ability of this device to send messages and location information in areas with no cellular coverage.
A full review of the PN-60w itself will follow in a few weeks.DONE: Here’s my DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w review.
SPOT Communicator basics
Here are the first things you should know about the SPOT Satellite Communicator:
- It will allow you text friends, send an SOS, and post to Facebook and Twitter, even where you don’t have cellular coverage
- The SPOT also allows you to share a track progress Web page, either publicly or privately (password protected)
- It requires a subscription plan for these capabilities, priced as follows:
- $99.99/year for Basic services (minimum service level), including SOS, Check-In/OK, Send Pre-Canned Messages
- $49.95/year for 500 Type & Send text messages ($0.10 per msg)
- $29.95/year for 100 Type & Send text messages ($0.30 per msg)
- $0.50/msg for A la Carte Type & Send text messages (individually priced)
- $49.95/year for Track Progress
I’ll discuss message types shortly, but you can easily get by with the $99.99 plan, unless you want to post your adventures live to the Web.
Shown below is a coverage map:
The darkest orange color represents areas with a 99% or better chance of sending a message within 20 minutes. In the lighter, yellow color, this drops to 96-99%. Dark grey is reduced or no coverage, while there is definitely no coverage in the light grey areas.
I’ll also note that, while coverage is extensive, you can currently only activate the SPOT with a credit card bearing a US or Canadian billing address.
Spot Communicator Setup
I had a little trouble out of the gates, but not too much. When I tried to pair the devices initially, I got a message that both needed a firmware update. This was done via Topo USA (mapping software included with the PN-60w) Sync. You also have to go to findmespot.com to set up your account, contacts, etc., and export device settings, which requires a plugin. It wouldn’t work for me in Chrome, but I had no problem in Firefox.
SPOT Communicator performance
The first thing I learned in testing the SPOT is that it tries to send texts, Twitter and Facebook updates three times (once every ten minutes over a 20 minute period). When I interrupted it after the first or second try, the messages typically weren’t received. The second thing I found out is that the SPOT isn’t a multi-tasking device. You can’t send texts while having the unit post your coordinates to your track progress page. It’s one or the other.
Also be aware that placement of the Communicator module is important. I typically test in mountainous terrain, under canopy, on a mountain bike – a good testing environment for a GPS receiver, so I was curious how the SPOT / PN-60w combo would perform. The manual says it needs a clear view of the sky, and is “not reliable…in very dense woods.” It also suggests that you orient the Communicator so that the logo faces the sky and keep it at least 12 inches away from other GPS devices.
On my first outings with the device, I clipped the SPOT module to the mesh pocket on the back of my CamelBak pack. The performance was very disappointing though, and I was afraid I would need to rig a handlebar mount or put a rear rack on my bike. But I took an intermediate step and moved it to the top of my pack as shown below. This was all it took to get a decent level of performance.
The screenshot below shows the track for one ride (an out and back), with waypoints for each position the SPOT Communicator transmitted:
Pretty darned accurate, I’d say. And SO much better than the first generation SPOT Satellite Messenger.
I saw only minor issues in terms of data transmission:
- Sometimes it seemed like there were server delays in transmitting data, but I never saw a delay of over an hour.
- An out and back track on the findmespot.com page (pictured below) reveals trouble tracking in some situations. The slow uphill was no problem at all, but the faster downhill through a deep cove resulted in no points being received for several miles. Judging by the uphill track though, had I crashed and not been able to move, the unit should have been able to accurately relay my location.
- On one outing, the SPOT device stopped tracking me after changing the batteries in the PN-60w (even though the PN-60w reported messages were being sent); the next time I needed to change batteries, I rebooted the SPOT and had no problems.
I’ll also mention that, while you should be able to see the last 30 days of my testing on my “Track Progress” page, findmespot.com is showing only the last week of data, despite me changing the settings to 30 days, so it may be gone by the time this gets posted. You can however, export trips to a SPOT Adventures page, and you can see a recent trip there.
Custom messages FTW
(That’s “for the win” for those of you who don’t live in social media land – it’s a good thing.) Beyond its ability to send messages sans cellular access, another killer feature is the custom messaging capabilities. Unlike personal locator beacons (PLBs) or even the standalone SPOT devices, you can type a message (up to 41 characters) and say exactly what is going on: “Hurt leg but can get out; will be late.” No longer do you have to choose search and rescue (SAR) or nothing. Of course, one fear is that folks who should call SAR will ask friends for help first, possibly endangering themselves and others. This is counterbalanced by several obvious advantages though. For one thing, you can include a text with an SOS and let SAR know some details – are you lost or hurt, is it life-threatening, etc.
In the first screenshot below at left, you can see options to post to Facebook and Twitter. In the middle screen, I show a drop down of pre-defined groups that you can send messages to. You can set these up at http://findmespot.com, and have them go to email and/or text.
In the last image above, you can see custom messages I set up at findmespot.com. You can set up as many as 14 of these, with up to 111 characters per message. These are included in the basic service plan, so you may be able to get by with the ala carte type & send pricing, referenced earlier.
Here’s a quick video showing the interface (still working on my video technique!):
The SPOT Communicator device can be operated independently of the DeLorme PN-60w, for sending an SOS. The SOS button is located under a cover to prevent accidental engagement (see image below).
One other note before I wrap things up; the clip on the back of the device is quite tight and secure (see images below). Even so, I looped the lanyard for extra security, but I doubt that this thing is going to pop off of a pack strap.
Awesome. The DeLorme PN-60w with SPOT Satellite Communicator is almost a must have for those of us venturing far off the beaten track. The more risky your adventures (off-trail, solo, etc.), the harder it’s going to be to pass this one up. I’m not prepared to make a recommendation until I complete my PN-60w review, but I expect that I’ll be ponying up for one myself (the tested unit is a loaner for review). For obvious reasons, it may be easier to convince my wife of the value of this than some of the other GPS receivers I’ve purchased recently!
Compare prices on the DeLorme PN-60w at these merchants:
- Check the current Delorme Earthmate PN-60w price at Amazon
- Get a great deal on the DeLorme Mapping Earthmate PN-60W Handheld GPS with SPOT Satellite Communicator at J&R Computer/Music World
- Check out the DeLorme Earthmate PN-60w GPS with Spot Satellite Messenger at REI.com, where satisfaction is guaranteed and members get 10% back on eligible purchases
- Get the DeLorme PN-60w + SPOT at Cabelas.com