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:
- If your budget does not include an extra $50 to buy the Mini; or,
- 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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The SPOT X retails for $250, which is $50 to $100 less than competing units.
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.
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