I have been using a satellite communication device since 2013. My original device was SPOT Gen 2, and even today I think the Gen 2 is a great little device. So why did I purchase a SPOT X? Simply, because I wanted the ability to do two-way communication when in the backcountry. The Gen 2 has two pre-set messages it can send to a contact list that you set up prior to leaving on your trip. There is also a “not critical but please send help” message and an emergency “SOS” message. Once in the field you cannot adjust any of the messages or who receives them. The Gen 2 will also track your hike so people back home with the app or the website login can watch your dot move down the trail.
The Gen 2 has two major drawbacks. First you have to wait a full 20 minutes for the message to go to be sure that it has been received even if the green OK message sent light lights up sooner. I have never not had a message go through if I waited the full 20 minutes. The second limitation is the lack of two way communication.
When we started planning the Great Divide Trail trip, I thought it would be a good time to upgrade to one of the two-way communication devices that have become more common in the backcountry so that we could communicate more clearly with the people at home. The Garmin In-Reach Mini is the gold standard for two-way communication. The drawback to the In-Reach Mini for me was that for full functionality you had to pair it with a smart phone. You can do two-way communication with just the Mini but it harkens back to the days of flip phones and scrolling through letters to compose your text. The SPOT X is a fully stand alone two-way communication device with a wonderful Blackberry inspired keyboard (I still use a Blackberry, the KEY 2). I liked having only one device instead of two for communication as there are fewer failure points. I read some reviews of the SPOT X and it appeared to work as advertised, so I purchased one.
First off, the SPOT X saved our trip on the GDT by allowing us to communicate back home and get the much needed blister supplies that allowed us to make it to day 10, even if we did fall short of completing our original plan of 14 days. Unfortunately operating the SPOT X involved a lot of gnashing of teeth and high levels of frustration until I worked out a system. The first time we used the SPOT X on day 1 to let people know we were ok but running late it worked flawlessly. I sent the message from an open slope and we then continued on to our campsite. During that time I received two reply messages. This early success may have raised my expectations. On day 2 when we messaged from Palliser Pass and again continued on our way, the SPOT X worked perfectly. The shortcomings with the SPOT X arose when in camp I tried to use like a cell phone and send multiple different messages to different people. It just seemed to lock up and do nothing.
My solution on the trail was to slow down and do one thing at a time. Arrive at camp and send a preset check in message. Then later send a message to Laura. Wait for a reply from Laura and if required reply. Then it would be Emily’s turn to message her mom if she wanted. Not snappy two-way communication, but it worked.
I also ran into battery issues. The battery is suppose to be much improved over the Gen 2. When using the tracking feature the Gen 2 is good for two days but the SPOT X is said to be good for 6. All the messaging we were doing and the SPOT X seemingly locked up appeared to drain the battery. An oversight of the SPOT X is that despite the nice large screen, there is no percentage battery display just a four bar graphic. I plan to ask SPOT at what point does it drop from four bars to three. So while I was not using the SPOT X to track and actually had it off for most the day we seemed to be going through the battery. This gave me concern as to whether I had enough recharging ability since I had to recharge both my tablet and the SPOT X from the same battery pack. I plan to do more experimenting this year to determine under regular use just how long the batter will last.
Once home I found the reason for the behaviour of the SPOT X in a review posted by someone who purchased a SPOT X from REI (an American version of MEC before MEC sold out and went private). The SPOT X can only send one message at a time and you must wait for the system to reset which is every 20 – 30 minutes.
Quote from the REI review on the SPOT X
“I let my Spot stay on for an hour or two waiting for them to send and nothing. I eventually turned it off and back on and the messages still never got sent. I then sent a new message and it went through, but the old ones remained????
Finally I got frustrated and called tech support, as mentioned by another review here, all my tech questions got relayed through a middle person who would put me on hold to ask the tech then get back to me (it take two people to do the job of one). Eventually I was told by Spot that the Globalstar system would only accept ONE message every twenty to thirty minutes and any message sent before the system reset itself would be discarded without notice. I know that the 20 minute time for a message to go through was discovered by another, BUT I did not think that there was also a limitation as to only ONE message being allowed.”
So by only sending one message at a time I had allowed the system to reset. This information is not listed anywhere on the website or in the user manual and would have been valuable to know ahead of time. While the limitations of the Globastar system is not a dealbreaker it lags in comparison to the usability of any of the current Garmin two-way communication devices.
The Check In messages I would send appeared to go through quickly and with the SPOT X you receive a definitive “Sent” notice so that you know you message was delivered.
In doing research for this review the overwhelming feedback on the internet is that the Garmin devices are consistently more reliable in terms of communication than the SPOT X. Some of this may be due to people trying to send too many messages at once. I never had a Check In message not go through.
A small perk of the the contract plans for the SPOT X is that you can go monthly so during the off season you can cancel your plan and save a little bit of money.
The SPOT X is water proof in accordance with an international standard. It can survive being in 1 m of water for 30 minutes. As far as durability this is something that was important to me. One of my concerns with using a cell phone to pair up with my communication device is that I did not really want to have to use my cell phone in inclement weather.
The primary purpose of a backcountry messaging device is to let people know that you are OK and to ask for emergency rescue if things go wrong (thankfully, I have never needed to hit the SOS button). In this regard the SPOT X in my experience appears to send the one-way messages very well. As a two-way communication device the SPOT X is very limited.
In summary I would be hard pressed to recommend the SPOT X over the Garmin In Reach Mini. Now that I have the SPOT X I feel that I can work with its limitations, but if I was buying a new device I would be going in a different direction.