Thursday, September 01, 2011

Quick Review Notes on the Spot 2 and Spot Connect

Summary: If you're pondering buying a Spot for tracking and emegencies I'd suggest NOT getting the Spot Connect. To do anything but send an SOS message doesn't work without a bluetooth phone, and the bluetooth pairing is sketchy even sitting at your desk at home. A spot 2 is better if you're actually outside of civilization, which is where I generally use a Spot. Bad product design. Spot needs a Spot Connect with Spot 2 physical buttons/menus.


Spot beacons are a great idea. They send short satellite messages from anywhere, and there's a button for "SOS" services so if things go totally sideways the Spot may save your life. But the more day-to-day useful functions include tracking, which shows where you are every 20 minutes or so on a Google Map accessible to anyone on the internet. Your friends, family, etc. can see where you are (some screen grabs here), and Spot tracking pages are increasingly common for adventure races, expeditions, guiding, wherever people are out of cell range. The Spot 1 and 2 also have a button for an "OK" message, which sends that message to a set of friends/family/whatever emails. So far so good.

I recently bought the Spot Connect, which theoretically does all the same stuff as the Spot 1 and 2, but also allows you to send 40-character text messages, which seemed cool. You compose these messages on a Bluetooth "smart" phone (Iphone, Droid, whatever) App, and then send them to the Spot over Bluetooth. If you're paired properly and if your phone has battery juice then this system works. But my phone did not pair well with the Spot; or rather, the phone paired well with the Spot, but the Spott App wouldn't recognize that connection, and wouldn't allow me to send messages at least half the time.

This is only annoying at first, but after 24 hours your Spot Connect basically becomes a brick only capable of sending SOS messages unless you can connect to it with Bluetooth (and the App will work, not guaranteed). Put another way, to turn Tracking on or off, or send an OK message you need to have a Bluetooth phone connection, which is flaky at best. With the Spot 1 and Spot 2 models the physical buttons turn tracking on and off and send OK messages, so as long as you had Spot power you were good to go. With the Spot Connect there are no buttons beyond the SOS and power buttons, and after 24 hours you can't use the Tracking or "I'm OK" features. Those features must be turned on through the phone after 24 hours or they shut off and can't be turned back on physically, only through the phone... Oh, and if you turn the Spot Connect off (to replace or conserve batteries for example) during that 24 hours then when you turn it back on it's in "brick/SOS-only" mode again, and you'll need to pair it with your dead cellphone's bluetooth connection that doesn't work so well anyhow.

I think this is really poor product design. A product designed to be used outside of cell range should not be reliant on a cell phone for most of its functions. All it would take is a couple of buttons on the Spot Connect so it would do the same stuff as the Spot 2 at least. I didn't believe the Spot Connect would have such bad design when I bought it; generally new products do more than the old ones.

If you're using your spot primarily in the backcountry, as I imagine most of you reading this are, I'd also suggest adding a line in your Spot emergency contact information that you will most likely need helicopter rescue. Some friends of mine had an accident, hit the SOS button, only to eventually have an ambulance pull up at the trailhead 10K away... Make it clear in your pre-defined message that you're likely to be in a wilderness setting without road access.

So I'm taking my Spot Connect back and getting a Spot 2 until Spot makes something more functional. The added function of the 40-character messages on the Spot Connect is a nice idea, but for most people the ability to use the Tracking and "I'm OK" features is more important.

I didn't find any good reviews on the Spot Connect on the web, so I thought this info might be helpful to those pondering a Spot purchase.