Spot X vs inReach SE

I fly in very remote areas. I also live off grid in the Yukon, far from cell service, landline and internet. The advent of personal satellite-based messaging devices was a godsend, allowing near-real-time text communications in areas that were previously incommunicado, or at best, where communications were unreliable to say the least. Remember HF SSB and the infuriating SBX11? How about VHF mobile phones?

As soon as they came on the market, I bought both the inReach SE (original Delorme, not Garmin) and, a few years later, the Spot X. I recently upgraded the Spot X to the Bluetooth model. This is a real world comparison of these devices. (I don’t have any experience with the newer Garmin inReach SE+, but in conversations with owners, it seems that most of my comments re the older device are still valid for the newer one.)

To be fair, there are other options out there, such as satellite phones and satellite internet, but these are expensive to buy and run. The Spot X and inReach devices are inexpensive enough to be accessible to most anyone needing communications from just about anywhere.

First, the nuts and bolts: with one important exception, both devices do what they do (send and receive texts) well and with similar reliability. In a recent session of about 50 messages going back and forth from my place in the Yukon, there were no dropped messages. This is an improvement from previous performance. There have been recent upgrades to both satellite systems (Globalstar (Spot) and Iridium (inReach)) which likely account for the high reliability. Also, Spot and Garmin are in direct competition and they each want to come out on top, so frequent upgrades and improvements can be expected.
The exception I mentioned above is a recent development (I noticed it first in October 2020) and has to do with incoming messages to the inReach. Messages sometimes arrive within seconds, but often do not arrive at all, until a new message is sent from the device. The incoming messages get stuck somewhere and don’t come in to the device, even though multiple listen intervals come and go, even though a manual check is performed, and even though the device is outside with a clear view of the sky. Sending a new outgoing message is the only way I have found to get the stuck incoming messages to arrive. Hopefully this is a glitch in the system and will be resolved before too long. Stay tuned…

Notwithstanding the above, message delivery times normally range from a few seconds to a few minutes (rarely, hours), and are closely related to device orientation and sky view. Satellites come and go on a time scale of minutes, so the device may have to wait for a few minutes or more to connect to the network.

Both devices have tracking and SOS functions.

Both devices also do email, with a caveat: character limits still apply, so if you send an email from the device, the recipient must delete all content from any reply, including the original message and the subject line, before composing a reply, or the character limit will be exceeded and the message will not send.

Now the picky things, in no particular order:

Spot X is about half the cost to purchase and operate as inReach.

InReach is global. Spot X is not. Check their service area map before you buy. North of about 60 degrees north latitude, Globalstar satellites are always to the south, so Spot X will need a good view in that direction. Not so for Iridium satellites.

Spot X prefers to be upright and have a good sky view. InReach is a bit less fussy about device orientation.

Spot customer support is excellent. InReach is less so, but still acceptable.

The Spot X interface is clunky and buggy. Some examples: odd things sometimes appear on the screen, the back button occasionally takes me through loops of screens that never go anywhere, and keys occasionally take a second or two to respond. When the Bluetooth model is paired with a smart device, the experience is much smoother.

The inReach interface is much more highly evolved and smooth. When paired with a smart device, everything is seamless. InReach is paired to a smartphone using the Earthmate app, which is very good.

Incoming Spot X messages occasionally start to appear in the preview screen only, and are never inserted into their respective threads. Since the preview is overwritten as soon as a new message comes in, this can cause messages to be missed entirely. I have made Technical Support aware of this. One temporary fix is to delete the offending thread. A reset also works for a while. Hopefully a future firmware update will address the issue. So far, the Bluetooth model hasn’t had this issue. (The October 2020 firmware update may have solved this and other issues.)

Spot X sometimes locks up, requiring a reset, and sometimes turns itself on while just sitting in my flight bag.

InReach sometimes turns itself off.

Battery life is similar for both devices.

InReach can send texts up to 160 characters. Spot X message length is 140 characters.

If an incoming message is too long, it screws up the system and causes the too-long message and any subsequent messages to be chopped up into little chunks of a word or two, which are then sent out of order and frequently dropped altogether. This happens with both devices. Each tiny message fragment counts as one of your allotment so unless you have an unlimited plan, this can get expensive. InReach seems to suffer from this issue with outgoing messages too, even when they are not too long. It would be nice if the system would not accept too-long messages in the first place. (My spies tell me an intermediary message-handling company called Nexmo is where this trouble originates.)

With Spot X it is easy to compose messages on the device. With inReach it is not. You will want to pair it with your phone, although on-device messaging is possible if quite slow.

The onboard backlit keyboard on the Spot X is very nice.

InReach can get weather forecasts (they can be delightfully inaccurate in remote areas). With Spot X, you will have to text someone and get them to look one up for you.

For the tracking feature to work properly with Spot X, the device must be upright. It won’t sit that way naturally, so some kind of cradle or stand will need to be fashioned (the Bluetooth version comes with a stand). Laying down, only about half of the tracking points actually get through. InReach is better in this regard. If you want bulletproof tracking, get a Spot Gen 3.

InReach can be set to “ring until answered” when there is an incoming message. Spot X just bleeps once and then goes silent, leading to missed calls.

Incoming messages on the Spot X may or may not cause the new message alert to appear, leading to missed calls.

An outgoing Spot X message may remain in the outgoing message queue and not be flagged as delivered long after it has actually been delivered. This is frustrating as the outgoing message queue will only hold so many messages (4 in my experience), and a message doesn’t get dropped from the queue until it has been marked as delivered. This can prevent you from placing any new messages in the queue. You have to manually cancel the offending message in this case. (To be fair, this issue may be related to poor sky view.)

Spot X has a dedicated phone number which never changes. The inReach number refreshes periodically, meaning people may not be able to initiate a conversation after a delay of several months.

Anyone who has the phone number can initiate a conversation with a Spot X. With inReach, the inReach device must initiate the conversation.

So which one do I use more? Spot X. All things considered, it’s more bangs for the buck. The main things that swung me in that direction are:

Significantly lower cost.

Dedicated phone number.

Stand-alone device.

My wish list for Spot X firmware developers:

Squish some bugs.

Add a “ring until answered” option.

Improve the “new message” alert and icon reliability.

Improve the “message delivered” reliability.

160 characters would be nice.

What not to expect from these devices:

Instant texting just like your phone. It won’t happen. They are simply not that fast.

Works from anywhere. They don’t. Poor sky view severely limits performance. In a vehicle or aircraft, the device must be in the windshield and oriented correctly to work properly. In a building, expect poor to non-existent reliability.

Either one of these devices would be a good choice. They are not the same, but considering their main functions, sending and receiving messages and distress signalling, they each do their jobs well.

November 2020.