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Review: SPOT X Satellite Messenger || I’ll keep my inReach, thanks

The SPOT X retails for $250, weighs 6.7 oz, and features a 2.7-inch dot matrix illuminated screen and physical QWERTY keyboard. It looks like an orange Blackberry with an over-sized antenna.

Exactly one week after Garmin announced the inReach Mini in May, SPOT released its first new device in five years and its first device with two-way satellite messaging.

The SPOT X retails for $250, weighs 6.7 oz, and features a 2.7-inch dot matrix illuminated screen and physical QWERTY keyboard. It looks like an orange Blackberry with an over-sized antenna.

I used the SPOT X for over a month this summer while guiding trips in the Colorado Rockies and High Sierra. The unit was loaned to me by Backbone Media, the professionalism and helpfulness of which was greatly appreciated but (unfortunately, for them and SPOT) did not affect my overall conclusion.

Review: SPOT X

To break into the two-way messaging market, the SPOT X needed to be somehow better than the category leading inReach units. In some respects, it is:

  • It’s simpler, designed to be fully functional as a standalone device.
  • Each unit has a dedicated mobile U.S. phone number, which makes sending messages to it easier from standard mobile phones or other two-way satellite messengers.
  • It has twice the battery life of the inReach SE+ and Explorer+, at least when in 10-minute tracking mode. And,
  • It’s less expensive to own and operate, costing less for the unit and for comparable service plans.

Since it’s initial launch, SPOT has released several firmware updates to eliminate coding bugs and improve the user-interface. SPOT is listening to customers and seems to be invested in the X.

But currently the SPOT X still falls short:

  • The keyboard and control pad generally suck, lacking touch-sensitivity and responsiveness.
  • It’s twice as heavy as the inReach Mini.
  • No smartphone connectivity, which could allow allow sharing of contacts, wireless setting syncs, and use of the phone’s keyboard and touchscreen.
  • Navigation features are minimal, and it has no weather reporting. And,
  • The online portal needs to be aesthetically refreshed and more user-friendly.

Barring significant improvements to the SPOT X and its platform, the two-way satellite messenger that I recommend for most users remains the Garmin inReach Mini, which is slightly more expensive but which is more pleasant to use, more featured, and lighter weight. That said, I can think of two scenarios in which the SPOT X would be the better device:

  1. If your budget does not include an extra $50 to buy the Mini; or,
  2. If you don’t have a smartphone or don’t carry one into the backcountry, in which case messages can be more efficiently sent with the SPOT X.

The SPOT X (right) competes directly with Garmin inReach devices like the (left to right) SE, Explorer+, and Mini.

Key product specs

  • 6.7 oz (verified)
  • 2.7-inch dot matrix display
  • Integrated physical QWERTY keyboard
  • Optional illumination of the display and keyboard
  • Non-replaceable lithium battery, chargeable via USB
  • Resistant to impact, dust, and water (IP67)
  • $250 MSRP
  • More information

The screen and keyboard can be illuminated, for easy nighttime use.

The damn keyboard

The SPOT X has a major, perhaps irrecoverable, flaw: its physical keyboard. Even if the SPOT X was perfect in every other way, the keyboard makes me not want to use it.

In fairness, the “virtual keyboards” on the inReach units are annoyingly tedious. But at least there’s a workaround: using the Earthmate app on my smartphone.

The keyboard has three problems:

  • The keys are small and flat-topped, so it’s difficult to feel individual keys and to press a single key without also pressing adjacent keys.
  • The lowermost three keys — ALT, SPACE, and uppercase — do not work properly, requiring excessive force and/or crackling when pressed. And,
  • The Select button should be taller than the surrounding directional keys so that it’s easier to press.

The physical keyboard has problems. The keys are small and flat-topped, and the lowest column of keys are not responsive or smooth.

If you can get beyond the keyboard, here’s the rest of what you need to know…

What does the SPOT X do?

The SPOT X has four capabilities:

1. Messaging

The SPOT X can both send and receive text messages and short emails. This makes it fundamentally different than other SPOT devices like the Gen3, which can only send messages. Messages can be predefined, custom, or posted to social media (Facebook, Twitter, or both).

Each SPOT X has a personal U.S. mobile number, which makes sending messages to the device much easier. The process of sending messages to an inReach device is less straightforward.

2. Tracking

The SPOT X can broadcast its location at 2.5-, 5-, 10-, 30-, and 60-minute intervals. The more basic service plans do not include the 2.5- and/or 5-minute intervals.

3. Emergency

If life or limb are in danger, the SPOT X can send an S.O.S message directly to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), which will notify the appropriate emergency responders. More info.

4. Navigation

The SPOT X has a digital compass; and can create and go-to waypoints. (Waypoints can be created more efficiently in the online portal, but still only one at a time.) It does not support maps, neither a simple grid map nor image-based maps (e.g. USGS 7.5-minute tiles, or proprietary data).

The navigation capabilities of the SPOT X are comparable to those of a standalone inReach Mini. However, the Mini is designed to be paired with Earthmate, a navigation app that gives a smartphone similar (or even greater) functionality to a conventional handheld GPS unit.

The SPOX X has rudiumentary navigation capabilities. It has a digital compass, and can create and go-to waypoints.

What does the SPOT X not do?

Compared to existing two-way messaging devices, what functionality and features are lacking in the SPOT X?

1. Phone connectivity

The SPOX is a standalone unit, and cannot be connected with or controlled by a phone. This would be useful:

  • Contacts could be shared with the SPOT X, instead of needing to enter them beforehand in the online portal.
  • The phone’s touchscreen could be used to navigate the user-interface and to type messages, which would be preferable to the crappy keyboard on the SPOT X.
  • Settings on the SPOT X (e.g. recipient list for check-in and predefined messages, predefined message text, social media passwords, etc.) could be updated without a hard-wire sync to a computer with the SPOT X Device Updater software.

2. Weather

Before I leave for a trip, I always check the backcountry weather forecast. But on longer trips, receiving an updated forecast can be extremely helpful. Unlike the inReach, the SPOT X cannot pull down a forecast for a current or user-specified location.

Cost of ownership

The long-term cost of a SPOT X has two components: its initial purchase price, and its service plan.

Initial purchase

The SPOT X retails for $250, which is $50 to $100 less than competing units.

Service

In addition to the initial purchase price, a service plan is required to use the SPOT X. Initially, SPOT offered only two annual plans, but they subsequently created a third tier, and made each plan available as an annual or month-to-month subscription.

  • Basic ($12/$15 per month)
  • Advanced ($20/$30 per month)
  • Unlimited ($30/$40 per month)

The annual plans are charged a one-time $20 activation fee. The month-to-month plans are charged $25 annually.

The plans all provide unlimited check-in and SOS messages, but vary in the included number of included custom messages and frequency of the shortest tracking intervals (10, 5, or 2.5 minutes).

SPOT vs Garmin subscription costs

The service plans for the SPOT X and the inReach devices do not match up perfectly. But overall SPOT charges less for service. For example:

  • For $15 per month, SPOT includes 20 custom messages, while Garmin’s plan includes only 10.
  • For $30 per month, SPOT includes 100 custom messages, while Garmin charges $35 for only 40.
  • SPOT charges $.25 per overage, whereas Garmin charges $1.00.

Due to the lower retail price and the lower subscription plans, the SPOT X should be more attractive to those who are on a tight budget and willing to overlook its other shortcomings.

Have questions about the SPOT X, or an experience with it? Leave a comment.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

21 Responses to Review: SPOT X Satellite Messenger || I’ll keep my inReach, thanks

  1. Sean W October 23, 2018 at 2:45 pm #

    As for the weather, if you bribe/donate to the guy who runs WX2InReach, he might be nice enough to consider expanding his WX2InReach weather system to the Spot. It’d require coding since he strips data from the location sharing URL that you send from Delorme and chews it for a weather forecast. Before Delorme/Garmin introduced weather forecasts, this system was the only way to get weather reports.

    https://wx2inreach.weebly.com/

    It’s a nice alternative even with the InReach weather report. And if you program the request to one of your frequent (free) pre programmed messages, it only costs 1 text to get your weather report.

  2. JayC October 23, 2018 at 5:22 pm #

    I don’t know if it matters for most of your audience, but I believe the inreach uses the Iridium network, vs the Globalstar one for the Spot devices. In the northern half of Alaska the spot trackers have a pretty mixed history, but the inreach seem to work pretty well everywhere.

    The coverage map for the globalstar network is here:
    https://www.globalstar.com/en-us/products/coverage-maps

    nice review!

  3. Brandon October 24, 2018 at 5:37 am #

    I feel the same. I was able to snag an older Delorme inReach for my AT thru-hike this year and was very happy with the functionality. Although the Garmin plans are more expensive per month, the fact that you aren’t locked in for a full year makes them cheaper if you only plan to use it for a season or a thru-hike as I did.

  4. Matthew October 24, 2018 at 8:03 am #

    One thing I like about the Spot service options is two of their upgrade options: Spot Save Our Vehicle (S.O.V.) and GEOS Member Benefit. SOV is like AAA, but cheaper. I could use that all year around for my commute or family trips even when I’m not in the wilderness. GEOS member benefit is search and rescue cost insurance for peace of mind should you ever need a rescue. I don’t believe Garmin offers either type of plan. Each is only another $25/$30 per year.

    I haven’t bought a satellite communicator yet, but the cost and extra service options have kept the Spot X on my wishlist over the Garmin so far. Though the weight and phone linkability of the InReach Mini are very attractive.

  5. Bob S. October 24, 2018 at 4:33 pm #

    I don’t know if not being able to afford an extra $50 for a Garmin Mini is a valid argument because most people who could afford a trip to someplace where there is no cell coverage could probably come up with a little extra scratch for a better device even if it meant skipping a couple trips to Starbucks. Most importantly, why skimp on equipment that could save your live.

    As far as not having a smartphone goes you could always buy a cheap prepaid phone and not activate it. I bought a discontinued Motorola Razr M for $35 that works great with both Gaia and my inReach.

  6. Marc October 26, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    Regarding the pricing scheme for InReach, there are other options with more messages included available from protegear

  7. 205guy November 1, 2018 at 6:28 pm #

    I think you’re dismissing this new device a bit too easily. With the keyboard and 2-way messaging, this new spot could replace a cellphone in your backpack. For now, I use a Garmin hiking GPS and a cell phone. A cell phone provides limited comms in some areas, can be used for photos (though I have a dedicated waterproof camera for that), and has entertainment (music for me) but that’s not indispensible. I take the cell phone in the backpack anyway because I have it in the car, and because I don’t want to leave it in the car at the trailhead–but it’s mostly dead-weight for me.

    Currently, I don’t have any sat-comms, neither inReach or Spot–so I’ve been following your reviews. Let’s say I want to finally shell out to get 2-way texting and emergency with a satellite device. The big inReach would need to wait for when I need to replace my GPS in a few years. The mini inReach is very tempting, giving me all the functionality in a smaller cheaper package when paired with my phone. But with this Spot and its keyboard (usability issues to be determined), I could leave the phone at home and have texting and emergency on the road and on the trail–so one less device (and a fragile one at that) to carry.

    • Andrew Skurka November 1, 2018 at 7:39 pm #

      The simplicity of the device is not lost on me. For someone who does not own or carry a smartphone while backpacking, it would make more sense than the inReach devices. But that’s a very small market.

      Let me suggest to you this combination:

      1. Smartphone
      2. GaiaGPS app on your smartphone
      3. Garmin inReach Mini

      Leave your Garmin GPS unit at home. Actually, sell it, because your smartphone with GaiaGPS is just as good, and in many respects even better. GarminGPS is awesome: it offers many more imagery layers than a normal GPS unit, it takes advantage of your awesome smartphone screen (bright and high-res, easy typing, pinch and swipe), and even the premium subscription is much less than a basic GPS unit.

    • 205guy November 1, 2018 at 9:23 pm #

      Actually, I suggested that even if you *do* own or carry a smartphone on the trail, you could leave it at home if you got the Spot X.

      But that’s a good alternate suggestion, to ditch the dedicated GPS and use the phone. What I really want is really good GPS, large screen, topo maps, and if possible aerial imagery. When I looked into GPS apps a few years ago, I was disappointed that you couldn’t use the GPS with the phone in airplane mode to save batteries. And the large-screen GPS units (Garmin Oregon) didn’t have as good performance as the good old 64st that I ended up choosing.

      Now that GPS in airplane mode is possible, I should evaluate the apps again. Does anyone know the battery life of a typical smart-phone in airplane mode with the GPS app running? With a waterproof case and a good holster, it should be possible to keep the phone safe and accessible.

  8. Karl Wilcox November 5, 2018 at 10:48 am #

    Why does anyone need or want these gadgets? I remember navigating in the 1980’s by map and compass in the Norwegian arctic on skis without any landmarks whatsoever. Every couple of days, I had to locate one of the small self-service huts in a complete white out. I did it for 2 weeks with a map and compass. I never missed a hut (although I did ski off a cliff in a whiteout while following a compass bearing). Last time I did a Norwegian ski tour, a Norwegian friend brought along one of these small computers. It was an amazing device. No thought required; no skill; no brain; just do as told. We never got lost or confused (how dull was that?). I was impressed by how helpful the device could be in white-out conditions on skis. I was even more impressed by the corresponding lack of human skill required to navigate. The tour was comparatively easy; I never had that ‘on the edge’ total brain concentration that map and compass require. But the sense of achievement was reduced accordingly. I got bored.

    • Andrew Skurka November 6, 2018 at 5:47 pm #

      I understand your general sentiment, but I think it’s wrongly directed at the product category into which the SPOT X falls. The SPOT X is a satellite messenger, and can really save your a$$ if you get into trouble; more likely, it just calms the worries of those at home and gives them an opportunity to communicate with you if something goes wrong on their end. I think for a lot of people, myself included, I get much less push back from my wife if she knows that she can get hold of me.

      As far as navigation by GPS, I totally understand what you are saying. I think of route-finding is an art, and nav-by-GPS really takes the fun out of it. I still prefer to nav with map and compass for functional reasons (no batteries, more durable, fast) but I think GPS is good back-up for instances when you get really twisted around (“Where the f– am I?”) and when the conditions alone demand all of your bandwidth (e.g. white out and very cold-and-wet conditions).

  9. Karl Wilcox November 6, 2018 at 6:50 pm #

    I take your point regarding the wife’s peace of mind. I just take my wife with me. I am not sure, however, that it always gives her much ‘peace of mind’.

    For possible rescue when either solo tripping or alpine climbing, I carry a ‘Fast Find’ unit (its called a ‘Personal Location Beacon’). It does not rob me of the joys of navigation plus it has a 10 year battery life and no subscription fee. I paid 135.00 dollars for it retail. You do have to register the Fast Find every 5 years with NOAA.gov. Basically, in order to activate a rescue, you pull a lever and the device sends your precise GPS co-ordinates to the local Sherrif/law inforcement. This is a device commonly used by boaters. It fits easily in the palm of the hand. I store it in the fridge to improve battery life. Eventually, you do have to replace the battery (not real cheap). I started using it when working as a climbing guide at Red Rocks and the High Sierra; almost used it once when a client went unconscious at a hanging belay— revived her with Gatorade (she turned out to be borderline type II diabetic). Gatorade is a key rescue tool when guiding! I think the Fast Find is under appreciated among wilderness travelers; especially, given that you already pay for the NOAA subscription with your tax dollars. In essence, it is a ‘free’ government rescue network.

    • Ann November 22, 2018 at 11:35 am #

      I would love to just get a PLB to give my husband ‘peace of mind’. Unfortunately they are not legal everywhere (and I guess they wouldn’t work for this reason) including half of my week-end-hiking/climbing-area. If the inreach wasn’t so damn expensive, I would already have bought one.

      • Andrew Skurka November 22, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

        Not legal? Have never heard of that being the case anywhere.

        If you are okay with *a* inReach, some of the older models are reasonably priced, e.g. first-gen DeLorme SE or Explorer.

        • Ann November 24, 2018 at 4:31 am #

          Yup, some countries in Europe (and Japan as far as I know) only allow them on ships or not at all for civilists, I can’t even register one in Germany. I read that the work-around used to be a registration in the UK but they don’t seen to do this for foreigners anymore. Maybe in preparation for Brexit…

  10. Matt November 24, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

    I’ve seen talk of a hidden “Network Maintenance Fee” added to Spot’s service plans, but I can’t find much info. Anybody have any experience with that as it relates to the Spot X?

  11. Art November 29, 2018 at 2:30 pm #

    I’m interested in the battery life value for my iPhone 6+ in the field with its use with the InReach. Smartphone done seem to have enough battery life unless your carrying a solar charger (more weight, susceptible to weather functionality). I’m talking about 1-2 weeks in the wild. Comment about having overview, I use OnX mapping and can download a very large area to my smartphone & avoid battery use for gps. Real time overhead is great with map & compass. Hard to tell the vegetation planning a route with just topography maps & can save turning back to reroute

    • Andrew Skurka November 29, 2018 at 3:42 pm #

      I’m on Android so I can’t give you specific battery life numbers.

      But you can significantly extend battery life by shutting down nearly everything on the phone, i.e. put it in airplane mode, and battery-saver mode if iPhone’s have that, and turn off wi-fi, bluetooth, and location tracking until you need them.

      I don’t think any phone will last 1-2 weeks in the wild if you use it regularly. The solution is a portable battery pack like the Anker PowerCore 10,000 (my pick) so that you can recharge it as needed, along with your sat comm device, GPS watch, and maybe your headlamp.

  12. Art November 30, 2018 at 7:11 am #

    Thanks, I do have a battery pack but have not field tested it yet for the amount of charges I can get out of it. Going to test it this week through charges instead of my home power source. I’ll reply to the tread to provide my test results so it might help others. I appreciate the feed back on shutting things down on the phone

  13. Rob Davidson December 4, 2018 at 8:25 pm #

    I had to learn the hard way this summer about the limits of a PLB and family stress. I plunged down a late spring National Recreation Trail that was badly damaged by the winter snows and I believe a bad storm or small microbursts. it was supposed to be a long day and half trip, but I had to opt for a second night out. i had food, water, shelter and chagrin…still slept well. Given the conditions I had struggled through all the prime day, i was not going to try 2200″ climb and five miles in the dark of unknown trail.
    With no way to communicate that I was in good shape, just going to be late, a SAR mission was launched. I ran into the lead Deputy about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Both my BFF hiking partner and LEO daughter met me at the trailhead. The SAR folks liked Spot 3’s and the new Spot X.
    I was placed under house arrest by those two from soloing until I had the Spot X.
    I have really wrung it out, gone through 4 updates, and the product has grown. Andrew’s review is the best I have read. I like having the SpotX, leave the cellular phone in the car and use a small LG 4×6 tablet with GAIA Pro or Avenza. I like the smaller investment also because in a few years, the price and scalability of satellite phones for service everywhere all the time is just around the corner.

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