It tethers to your cell but uses satellite to send check-in, track progress or help messages.
Do you need to boldly go where you haven't gone before and where cellphone service may not be available? You might just need the Spot Connect, a waterproof (to 1 meter for 30 minutes) GPS receiver combined with a low earth orbit satellite messaging system that connects via Bluetooth to smartphones in a package that is just 3-inch-by-2.6-inch-by-1.2-inch and which might just save your sorry butt should you wander into the wilderness.
The Spot Connect can operate in one of four modes of which all but one have to be executed through a smartphone connection: The first mode is "Check-in/OK" which sends, along with your coordinates, one of 14 predefined messages of up to 120 characters or a custom maximum 41 character message to up to 10 contact groups which can each have up to 50 email and or SMS addresses. The message is sent three times over 20 minutes (the repetitions are for reliability) but the recipients only get a single message.
The second mode is "Track Progress," which sends your location automatically every 10 minutes for 24 hours. The fixes are logged to your account and can also be sent to private or public map pages to plot your wanderings.
The third mode is "Help," which is similar to the "Check-in/OK" mode except the message is sent every five minutes for one hour unless canceled.
The fourth mode, "SOS," is for when you feel you are $%^# out of luck. Selecting this option on your smartphone (and optionally adding 41 characters) or pressing and holding the SOS button on the side of the device will bring the cavalry in the shape of emergency responders unleashed by the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center (IERCC), which alerts the appropriate agency nearest to you worldwide.
The Spot Connect is a terrific product but there are a few areas where the system could be significantly improved. The first is the website user interface, which could do with some serious user experience design work. For example, adding a contact and including dashes in the phone number or too few numbers or entering an invalid email address produces the error message "The phone email has an invalid format," which is just lame. Also, the service doesn't recognize Google Voice accounts as being capable of receiving SMS messages! Come on! Really?
But much more disappointing are the smartphone apps. Available for Android and iOS (though not with an iPad-scaled interface), these apps have a "beta" engineering feel about them. I couldn't get the Android version to run reliably on a Samsung Galaxy S (which runs what is, admittedly, a pretty crappy fork of Android) without it locking up.
On an iPod Touch the software ran better but you have to enable the Bluetooth connection using the Settings applet despite the app apparently offering to handle this. If the Bluetooth connection isn't enabled when the app starts it will hang up. D'oh.
Oh, and the error message -- "due to an Internet problem syncing is failed" -- I got on the Android app is just pathetic. I can only assume the Spot Connect doesn't actually have a product manager.
So, let's bottom line this puppy: It's an excellent idea with some rough edges but there's nothing like it. And if you are going off the beaten track, it could be invaluable. Priced at around $150 with basic annual service at $99, I'll give the Spot Connect a rating of 4 out of 5.
Gibbs is located in Ventura, Calif. Your fix to email@example.com.