This budget satellite text messaging, tracking and emergency alerting device is a stand-alone back up for conventional sat phone systems
Satellite trackers have improved enormously recently. Instead of simply pinging your position, plus potentially a small range of predetermined text messages, the Spot X is a full-function two-way messaging system, including a facility to update social media accounts. Key limitations are a 160-character limit and the extent of Globalstar’s coverage (see map below).
First impressions are of a clunky device, but it’s important not to lose sight of the benefits the Spot X brings – being able to communicate at economic prices when no other option is available is a huge step forward.
It’s a similar weight and volume to an iPhone Plus, but has a different form factor – it’s shorter and thicker. The unit feels solid, thanks to rubber protection and the benefit of IP67 waterproofing.
The qwerty keyboard is reasonable, though I’d forgotten how small the keys were on Blackberry-style phones. The lack of a touchscreen can also feel like stepping back in time, but is entirely appropriate for this application, allowing unhindered use even in the wettest environments.
In any case, the latest version has the option of a Bluetooth interface with an app that gives a smartphone like experience, while retaining the rugged all-in-one aspect for emergency use in challenging or emergency conditions. Battery life, which is measured in days or weeks, is another obvious benefit.
A GPS signal is needed to send messages, which means the unit gets its best signal if held vertically, which isn’t natural for typing. However, there’s a useful single key “I’m OK”, as well as a range of predefined messages.
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Tracking and automatic retrieval of messages can be set to different periods to extend battery life – the unit is not in constant contact like a conventional satellite or mobile phone. Settings for message retrieval range from every 2.5 minutes to every 24 hours and every 2.5 minutes to 60 minutes for tracking.
As well as for use as a back up it’s ideal for anyone making occasional offshore passages in less busy areas such as the Celtic Sea or the Bay of Biscay. Equally, it will appeal to those who enjoy exploring off the beaten track in home waters, but need to stay in contact even in the many UK anchorages that don’t have mobile phone signal. The unit also has GPS, course, speed, altitude, waypoint functions for navigation.
Garmin’s GPSMAP 86 series now combines a handheld chartplotter (when loaded with optional BlueChart 3G charts) with an inReach satellite messenger. The latter has worldwide coverage on the Iridium network and has functions including two-way 160 character text messages, an SOS function, plus route tracking and sharing.
In standard mode the lithium battery has a 35-hour life in a 10-minute tracking mode, which extends to 200 hours thanks to less frequent tracking pings in ‘expedition’ mode. Prices start from £519.99 and satellite airtime plans cost from £15-£95 per month.
The Globalstar Spot X is not a device I could easily fall in love with and it’s important to set the unit up properly and become familiar with it before setting out. Nevertheless there are many situations short of a long ocean passage in which I’d love to have the ability to communicate, without the substantial cost of a conventional satphone airtime plan.