Hands on with the SPOT Connect
The SPOT Connect allows you to communicate with loved ones and social media, or call out search and rescue, even from remote wilderness areas without a cell phone signal. Like the DeLorme PN-60w + SPOT Communicator, the Connect allows you to compose messages on the fly, but instead of the DeLorme you can use your smartphone for this task, by downloading the free SPOT Connect Android or iPhone app (iTunes link).
Most of my outings are solo and I tend to go where few others do. I’ve never had to call out search and rescue and hopefully never will. But I have been late, had my mountain bike break down, etc. Having the peace of mind the SPOT Connect could give you, and the ability to communicate your status with your family, is priceless.
I’ll look at how well it fulfills this promise, but first, some basics…
SPOT Connect capabilities, cost and coverage
Here are a few key things you should know about the SPOT Connect:
- When paired with a compatible smartphone app, 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
- $49.99/year for 500 Type & Send text messages ($0.10 per msg)
- $29.99/year for 100 Type & Send text messages ($0.30 per msg)
- $0.50/msg for A la Carte Type & Send text messages (individually priced)
- $49.99/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 tracks live to the Web.
Search and rescue (SAR) insurance is available for an additional $12.95 per year. Taxes were added when I purchased my plan, so the basic services, SAR insurance and taxes totaled $123.67.
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.
SPOT Connect Hardware
The device itself is nearly identical to the SPOT Communicator sold with some DeLorme PN-60w models.
On the front are five LED status lights for power, GPS, message sending, SOS and Bluetooth wireless connection. There are only two buttons on the device, both on the left side. One is the power switch; the other, an SOS button for summoning search and rescue, has a protective cover over it to prevent accidental engagement. On the back is a clip and battery cover removal thumbscrew, and there is a lanyard attachment point on the top (though no lanyard comes with the device).
SPOT Connect setup
Setup is neither simple nor intuitive. There are several steps involved:
- Creating an account at findmespot.com
- Purchasing annual services
- Setting up contact groups and custom messages
The latter options are found on the My SPOT Devices tab, under the Contact Details column, as shown below.
Once you delve into those settings, you can add up to 14 predefined messages of up to 111 characters each.
This was pretty straightforward, but I did have trouble adding contacts to contact groups the first time I tried it in Chrome. It worked fine in Firefox, and subsequent attempts in Chrome were successful, so perhaps they updated their code. One other note; when selecting a contact to add to a group, you can choose whether to send them text messages or emails or both.
This was a little challenging. For one thing, you need to be quick; the device doesn’t seem to stay in discoverable mode for long. After a couple of tries, the Connect did come up in my list of paired devices. I was asked to verify the passkey, which is funny since there is no screen to read it from. That doesn’t seem to matter though, as it worked anyway. Also, don’t assume the device isn’t connected because the phone says so. That’s what my Motorola Droid said, even when it clearly was.
SPOT CONNECT App
Shown below are the four main tabs on the SPOT Connect for Android app.
Sending a message
The screen at left below shows a check-in screen. In the top field, you can choose the contact group to send it to. You’ll also note that I’ve enabled Facebook and Twitter for this particular message. Tap Add message to be taken to the screen shown at the right, where you can choose from your predefined messages or compose one on the fly by choosing Type & Send.
SPOT Connect placement and performance
It took a little while for me to get the device to reliably send messages. According to the manual, you should “orient the SPOT Connect logo toward the sky to improve performance.” This was definitely the case in my testing. The image below shows the SPOT clipped to the top webbing loop of my daypack, a placement that just didn’t work for me as it allowed the device to flop into a vertical position.
Fortunately my pack has an elasticized band above this, which protects the hole that you snake a hydration tube through. Clipping it to this, as shown below, did the trick, allowing it to stay in a more horizontal position.
I had no trouble with my CamelBak when mountain biking, thanks to the position my body is usually in for that sport. This is the same position I used for the SPOT Communicator for the DeLorme PN-60w, as shown below.
The GPS LED flashes green when the device has a satellite lock. This never seemed to take too long, but it is something to be aware of. One day I turned the unit on and sent my wife an “at the trailhead” message that never sent, but I suspect it’s because it didn’t yet have a lock. The next message I sent, 20 minutes later, went off without a hitch.
I had some trouble early on with text messages in general, but I think I finally figured out most of what was going on. What happened was that my wife received text messages with no location data attached. Shown below are check-in/OK messages, first as received on my own Motorola Droid (showing my coordinates), and below that, the same transmissions as they appeared on my wife’s Motorola Droid X (no coordinates).
After extensive testing, it appears that if I sent a message with parentheses, she would only get what was enclosed in the parentheses. Not so on my phone – go figure. I tested many other “special characters;” you know, the kind used to indicate expletives in cartoons – *!#& – without any problems.
I also saw at least one case where a text was received by her but not me. Whatever SPOT’s issue is with text messages, it appears to be limited to that. Every successful transmission (meaning the message was sent) that went to email, Twitter or Facebook was received without a hitch (links go to examples).
One other texting oddity; check out the screenshots from my phone (top image above). The coordinates are linked, but they are given in two pairs. When you tap one (expecting a map perhaps), the phone thinks it’s a phone number. Emailed links worked fine for me.
SPOT Connect tips
Try it out before it’s critical – Like a handheld GPS, the SPOT Connect and accompanying app are complex tools. Don’t wait for that big trip to the middle of nowhere to use it the first time. Try it out on routine trips in a safe environment, then experiment with more challenging locations (under canopy, in mountainous terrain, etc.). Expect to test it on several outings before you get the hang of it.
Type & send messages – Unless you are wordy and need to relay a lot of detail, there’s not much reason to spring for a custom message plan. You’ve got 14 canned messages of 111 characters that you can set up, and if you really need to be specific about something, type and send messages will only cost you fifty cents ala carte. Also note that type and send messages, while they can be composed in the field, are limited to 41 characters.
Cellphone battery preservation – In my experience, nothing wears down a cell phone battery like having it search for a cell signal where there isn’t one or in marginal conditions. You can’t put the phone in airplane mode, because you need Bluetooth active to use this app. What to do? I don’t know about iPhones, but there’s a great Android widget called Dazzle that will let you independently shut down the cellular radio. And it’s free. (EDIT: And here’s an iPhone solution)
Read the manual – Especially the section detailing what the LEDs mean.
Watch the orientation – I worked out how to keep the unit oriented to the sky while I was hiking or biking, but it’s easy to forget when you take a break and set your pack down.
Test text messaging extensively – Don’t use parentheses (or at least test them with your recipients first). Also, remember, text messaging seems to be the least reliable delivery method, so make sure you also port those messages to email.
Conclusion and recommendation
I’m going to cautiously recommend the SPOT Connect. Until we get a device where someone can text back and say “ok, received your message” (and we may have that within a year or two), this is probably your best choice, at least at this price point. Every aspect of it — device, app, website — is a little rough around the edges though, but while it can be unintuitive, for the most part it works.
My biggest reservation is text message reliability. I think I’ve got that one figured out, but I still expect occasional messages to be dropped. The unit just wasn’t 100% reliable for me when it came to delivering texts.
If you decide to buy one, I’d get it from somewhere with a good return policy (just in case) like Amazon or better yet, REI – it’s hard to beat their guarantee. Also, follow the tips above, and test the hell out of the device; learn it’s limitations and don’t count on it any more than you should.
More SPOT Connect reviews
- Consumer-authored SPOT Connect reviews have been posted at Amazon
- Sammydee posts his first and second impressions
- A SPOT Connect review posted on the NorCal FJ forum
- The Gear Junkie does a brief SPOT Connect field test from off the Pacific coast
- Panbo posts a belated marine-focused review of the SPOT Connect
- Wired compares the DeLorme inReach to the SPOT Connect
- Cycle World reviews the SPOT Connect
I’ll be posting more hands on GPS reviews as they appear, but in the meantime, here are some…
Other SPOT Connect resources
Compare prices on the SPOT Connect at these merchants:
- Check the current SPOT Connect price at Amazon
- Get SPOT Connect Satellite Communicator at REI.com, where satisfaction is guaranteed and members get 10% back on eligible purchases
- Find the SPOT Connect at GPS City, one of our favorite low cost vendors