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Second Generation SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger Introduced

Initial Hands-on Report – Second Generation SPOT

SPOT 2SPOT, LLC introduced their second generation “SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger” at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, Utah, this week. The new device (I’ll refer to it as SPOT 2 to differentiate between it and the original SPOT) appears to address many of the deficiencies we found in the original SPOT, both in terms of ergonomics and human interface issues as well as GPS performance.

SPOT provided the following list of new features in their press release and I have annotated the list with my thoughts and comments:

30% smaller and lighter than the original model at 5.2 ounces – As the images show, it is quite a bit smaller, which is rarely a bad thing. In comparison to the new McMurdo Fast Find PLB, it is a bit shorter and thinner, but wider. I suspect volume would be similar.

SPOT 2, McMurdo Fast Find, original SPOT

New enhanced satellite antenna for improved performance in foliage or canopied environments and Advanced GPS performance chipset – The original SPOT suffered from less than stellar GPS performance in challenging environments and even some not so challenging. In part it was the GPS receiver, which wasn’t leading edge, but in larger part it was caused by the fact that the GPS receiving antenna and the satellite transmitting antenna were one and the same and it was optimized to transmit to the Globalstar satellites. SPOT claims the new dual use antenna is a major breakthrough and doesn’t compromise GPS performance. I’ll take that with at least a small grain of salt, but expect that there will be a significant improvement in GPS performance between having a current generation, high sensitivity GPS receiver and a better antenna. Only testing and field experience will show how much better.

Because SPOT 2 still relies only on GPS to provide location information in the distress signal, improved GPS performance would be a significant advantage. If you are already a fan of SPOT, and plan on it being your distress alerting device, that alone would be worth the upgrade, assuming it delivers on the promise. At this point, particularly without having tested it, I am not suggesting that SPOT is, in my mind, a replacement for a 406 MHz Personal Locator Beacon for distress alerting, but if you intend to use it for that purpose, the improved GPS would be good to have.

GPS Acquisition light and “Message Sending” indicator light – dedicated indicating LEDs should help eliminate some of the confusion that was caused by the many different flashing LED indications on the original SPOT. That was a continual source of annoyance and, in many cases, serious problems when a user misinterpreted what the device was doing. The lighted buttons (see below) are part of that solution.

SPOT 2 buttons and LEDsDedicated GPS Tracking button – Again, this should help make it less confusing and easier to use the tracking function. This is actually pretty important because the tracking function can provide a degree of back-up in case the device does not transmit a GPS location in a distress alert. SPOT 2 will transmit a distress alert, even without a GPS location. If you have tracking engaged and you have an emergency, but the distress alert does not include a GPS location, then Search and Rescue might have the digital bread crumb trail to provide a starting point for a search. The key here is that you have to manually engage the tracking feature and you have to do that on a daily basis.

SPOT has improved the tracking feature by recognizing the issue that often showed up with the original SPOT when in the field, that a tracking point or points were often not received by the system, which could occur for a variety of reasons. In an effort to mitigate this issue, SPOT 2 now sends the current tracking location and the previous two locations in every tracking data burst (three bursts every 10 minutes). Thus, if the system doesn’t receive a few of those tracking data bursts, for whatever reasons, it can recover to a degree. Obviously, if there are more than a couple tracking locations not received, as we would sometimes see or have been reported with the original SPOT, it cannot recover more than two locations previously. There is no suggestion that satellite communications have been improved, so satellite visibility may likely still be an issue in some cases.

New, dedicated pre-programmable Custom Message button – This could be very helpful by allowing an alternative message to the Help or I’m OK messages available to the original SPOT user. Uses for this message function are limited only by your imagination.

Protective covers over S.O.S and Help button to prevent inadvertent message transmissions – This should help prevent accidental activation and the unexpected arrival of SAR at your location. This is a requirement for PLBs and I’m glad to see SPOT adopt this to their device.

Illuminated buttons – Helpful at night, for sure. But, even better, each is used to indicate that function is engaged and working, which will address the confusion caused by the LED indicators on the original SPOT

SPOT 2 silver

Choice of orange or silver – I think this is aimed primarily at their SPOT Assist vehicle assistance market where perhaps bright orange isn’t considered quite so fashion forward. Orange makes a lot more sense for our wilderness, marine, aviation and other similar uses

Included case and neoprene fastening band – There’s no integral clip like on the original SPOT; they provide a cell-phone style soft case with a clip. The Velcro dot can be used for mounting on your car dashboard or aircraft glare shield, etc.

The new model includes globally recognized symbols for its message buttons to accommodate use in international markets and stimulate distribution to a growing customer base in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia – 911, as used on the original SPOT, is not universally understood, but S.O.S. is. The button symbology is pretty straightforward and much better than the original SPOT.

SPOT 2 case

SPOT 2 is powered by three AAA-cell lithium batteries (compared to AA-cells for the original SPOT) which will provide a bit over 4.6 days of S.O.S. transmissions every 5 minutes with a full charge. Of course, if you are using the tracking and other features, that will shorten the S.O.S. transmission time. There is a low battery warning, the Power On LED flashes red, when battery capacity reaches 30% remaining. Just like on the original Spot, two screws retain the battery compartment cover on the back of the unit.

SPOT 2 Battery CoverSPOT 2 reportedly meets or exceeds the same environmental and abuse resistance standards as the current PLB standard requires. It is claimed to be significantly more waterproof than the original SPOT. That was rated to one meter for 30 minutes, but we are aware of a number of instances where that appeared not to be the case or insufficient for use while running a river and the like, even when it wasn’t immersed that deep or that long. SPOT 2 is rated to 5 meters (16.4 feet) for 1 hour and that should be adequate for most users.

Pricing will be the same as the current SPOT, with an MSRP of $169.95 and an expected street price of about $149. As before, a subscription is required and cost of that remains the same; $99.99 for distress alerting, HELP and Check OK messages and use of the customizable message button. Tracking adds another $49.99. GEOS insurance for costs incurred in a rescue remains at $7.95 per year. Normally this hasn’t been much of a concern for those adventuring in the U.S., but given all the publicity recently about persons being stupidly charged ridiculous amounts for rescue in some cases, unfortunately, I suspect that will be a strong sales point for SPOT.

As before, if your subscription lapses or the computer loses you, they won’t pass along your distress alert or messages. No money, or record of money, no rescue. I still have a serious issue with this policy.

GEOS continues to provide the distress alerting interface, and my concerns about how they accomplish that remain as well. While they seem to have improved significantly since they first started, often with a push from authorities, I am still not impressed by some of the reports I receive about them stumbling to make contact with the correct SAR service in some instances. Giving credit where due, they have plenty of saves to their credit, but I cannot ignore the issues that remain or the difficulties that have manifested themselves in the reports I get.

GEOS reportedly provide a generally responsive interface with the listed emergency contacts during the search and rescue phase, but they still need to improve how they interface with SAR, based on reports, and they need to become more proactive in doing so. Their proprietary position towards their system and performance and lack of openness makes it even more difficult to both access their performance and service and to come up with better solutions. This continues to be the subject of much discussion in the SAR alerting community. GEOS remains an issue and question mark for me with regards to using SPOT for distress alerting.

SPOT 2, like the original SPOT, is assembled in China.

SPOT 2 is scheduled to be available “later this fall” according to SPOT. All SPOT was showing at Outdoor Retailer was a non-functional model. We have been promised one of the first units manufactured and we’ll bring you an initial evaluation as soon as possible, once we have it in hand.

Initial Hands-on Report – Second Generation SPOT