The friendly folks over at SPOT Africa offered me a Gen 3 unit to play with for a month. I only recently became aware of this neat device, mainly through Ryno Griesel's tweets and secondly after one of the runners at Koppie X-ing 2016 had one, and set me up as the emergency contact person.
During the run I had a chance to chat with him about the device, and was very impressed with what I heard. Shortly afterward, I received an email from SPOT, and here I am writing this review!
For those of you not familiar with SPOT, in short, it is a small GPS tracking device, which can track your outdoor excursions. Most people's reaction to that is: "… and so? My phone can do that as well.” So can mine; there are many great apps out there that can use your phone as a GPS tracker. BUT, what makes the SPOT different is that it has the capability of letting people (family, friends, etc…) know that you are OK or in trouble with the push of a button.
You set up your account with contact details (phone number and/or email) and then when you press the relevant button, the designated people get an SMS or email with a custom message (you set up the message in the device setup) stating your coordinates. This, together with the web interface, makes it possible for anybody who has the link to follow your SPOT tracking URL. That makes this device revolutionary, and pretty handy, especially for me as I spend a lot of time in the mountains without cell signal. Now I can check in once a day, send a message if I am in trouble, or my family and friends can just check where I am at any moment on the internet.
Another cool thing about SPOT is that it is revolutionising non-spectator sports, as you can now watch people climb Everest, or just see how your friend is doing in a local trail run.
Seeing the SPOT for the first time, only one word comes to mind: ADVENTURE. It's pretty kickass and if you see one, and if you are an avid outdoorsman who goes into the wilderness often, you will definitely want one!
The set-up of the device was really very easy, and pretty much plug 'n play. I did have to download a little program onto my laptop, but the rest was a seamless interface on the SPOT website.
The device is very easy to use, but you need to read the manual first. It took me quite a while to work out the functions, and I was only successful once I read the manual. However, if I had read the manual first, it would have been super easy.
There are several functions. Two buttons (Check-in/OK and Custom) allow you to send customised messages to pre-designated email addresses and phone numbers.
Then there are two "emergency" buttons. One is Helping Hand, used for emergencies, in the same way as the other two buttons. You set up a message and designate certain people to receive it when you push the button, e.g. "I am in trouble, please come and help"! This message, as well as the custom messages, is accompanied by your GPS coordinates.
Then there is the SOS button, reserved for life-threatening situations where you need fast/immediate evacuation. This button should only be used for critical, life-threatening emergencies as it sends a message to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC). Depending on what plan you have with SPOT, pushing this button could result in you having to pay for mobilisation of emergency services.
Lastly there is the tracking function. When you press the tracking button, the unit sends waypoints to the web interface and people with the tracking URL can follow you on your adventure. This feature I used more than any of the others. You can also then go back and check out your route on the map when you get home.
Obtaining a GPS signal with this baby is really amazing. I feel this is pretty much what you pay for. It quickly locks onto a signal with the satellite as soon as you switch it on. When I first switched on the device I was in a double story house in Cape Town, and I was convinced it would not pick up the satellite. However, as soon as I switched it on it locked onto the satellite. The result is that even though the manufacturer suggests you mount the SPOT outside on your pack with a clear view of the sky, I am happy carrying the device inside my pack.
There is no doubt that it works better outside your pack, but it worked well in the top of my pack, with the logo facing up.
In all of my tests over the month, only once did a message not go through, which I thought was pretty impressive. In the user manual the manufacturer does warn you that some messages might not go through.
I am very impressed by how light the unit is on batteries. I set my device to ping every 4.5 min, I am sure the more often it pings the heavier it will be on batteries. It uses 4 x AAA batteries and you can only use Lithium or NiMH rechargeable. Pick n Pay had Lithium batteries but they were quite expensive (R80 for 2).
The device can also be powered by USB cable from a 5V stream. I used my Amped battery pack for longer trips, to conserve the batteries and it worked great. Note that if you have the USB port open, the device is not rated as waterproof, and if you have rechargeable batteries the battery pack WON’T charge the batteries, it will only power the device.
Social media integration:
The social media integration feature is new to the Gen 3 and really useful. You simply link your account to Twitter or Facebook or both. On Facebook you can post to your wall or to a page you manage (not both though).
Although it's a nice feature, I think SPOT can invest some more in this feature. The device posted to Twitter like clockwork, but sometimes it did not post to my Facebook wall.
Furthermore, the interface says that the OK/Check-in button links to your social media. However, when you use the other button (Custom SMS), it also posts to social media. I found the function to disable this, but it kept on occurring.
I had the SPOT Gen 3 device for just under a month and I loved it. I used it for reccing large parts of the Sneeuberg Traverse, and everybody who had a link to the tracking URL could watch where I was. I could let friends and family know I was safe, and I could post updates to Facebook and Twitter.
The SPOT changed how I approach outdoor activities, especially those that take me away from my loved ones for extended periods of time, as I had the peace of mind they always knew where I was, and that if I did get into any trouble, I could summon help at the push of a button.
SPOT is revolutionising the adventure sport and outdoor activity market, and will become an integral part of turning traditional solo sports into spectator sports.