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Backpacker Magazine – March 2008

March 2008 Essentials Review: High Tech

by: The Backpacker Editors

Photo by Sethhughes.com
Photo by Sethhughes.com
SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, Sethhughes.com
SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker, Sethhughes.com
V.I.O POC.1 Video System
V.I.O POC.1 Video System

DIGITAL CAMERAS

Best Buy
Olympus SP-560 UZ
It used to be that hikers had to lug heavy telephoto lenses to capture crisp wildlife images. No longer. This compact 8mp features a stunning 18x optical zoom; compare that to the 4x found in most point-and-shoots. And its digital zoom magnifies subjects up to 100x. You'll need to spend twice as much on an SLR and lens kit to beat that. The built-in lens does a decent job with wide-angle shots, too; it zooms out to an SLR-equivalent 28mm. Action shots and skylines are crisp and color-correct, thanks to an image stabilizer and light sensor that work together. Other sweet features: 33 shooting modes including 640 x 480 video, plus full manual control; fast auto-focus; and a speedy image processor (up to 40 frames per second). And since it uses AAs, there's no recharging on long trips. Video tip: Turn the sound on before shooting (it's shipped with the sound off). $500; 12.9 oz.; olympususa.com

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T20
This high-performance mini raises the bar for ultra-compact, sub-$300 point-and-shoots. It has a big 3-inch screen with touch controls, shoots art-gallery-ready prints (8.1mp), and runs slideshows on an HDTV–all in a pocket-friendly package. A large sliding cover protects the lens (3x optical/2x digital). Advanced users can edit colors and trim photos inside the camera without a PC, and there are 31MB of extra internal storage in case you forget a memory stick or run out of space. It comes preset with 10 scene modes and runs on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. $270; 4.5 oz.; sonystyle.com



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READERS COMMENTS

Seattle Coastie
Dec 25, 2008

As a Coast Guard Search and Rescue Controller who is very familiar with SPOT, (also an AT and PCT alum)I wanted to add my thoughts to this forum. I first learned about SPOT with an open mind, but have since found many reasons to dissuade mariners and others to use the device. I can't stress strongly enough the need to go with a 406 MHz beacon, such as an EPIRB / ELT / or PLB as the distress-alerting device of choice. As a reference, I'll point to SPOT's own web site.

Unfortunately, it is full of half-truths and other misleading information.

Below, I've included a transcript of their online video about its "Alert 911" function.

A point-by-point discussion/rebuttal:

Claim: "Every year, emergency authorities conduct 50,000 rescue missions. Many of these people are not found in time. Now there's a way to make sure that they are: the SPOT messenger is the first an only product that combines GPS technology with Satellite-based communication..."

Response: Outright FALSE! Such technology has been available for many years: SARSAT-based 406 MHz EPIRBs / ELTs / PLBs.

Claim: "Whether you are snowmobiling, hiking or sailing, it is your personal connection to loved ones and emergency authorities, with the simple push of a button, from virtually anywhere, worldwide..."

Response: Not always true. You CANNOT depend on it! We here at the Rescue Coordination Center in Seattle had a case in September where a boater's loved ones hadn't received their scheduled "I'm OK" update from the vessel as expected. Suddenly we had an overdue boater on our hands. Turns out the boater had hit the button on the device, but the message was not transmitted. We called SPOT and learned that they were having difficulty receiving transmissions from multiple vessels. Of course neither the sender nor their recipients was notified of this. We had units from Seattle to California involved in this case. Something similar could happen inland.

Claim: "Over 50% of the US does not have cell phone coverage. With SPOT you're covered..."

Response: Um, not always (see above). Also, with any 406 MHz beacon, you're covered, as well. Without the yearly fee and extra fees for bells and whistles.

Claim: "Today, SPOT is saving lives all over the world." (Provides several anecdotes.)

Response: Certainly it has played an important role in certain cases. But show me one where SPOT worked and a 406 MHz EPIRB / ELT / PLB would not have.

Claim: (Case study - the Bertsches) So the wife receives an email stating plainly "This is an emergency. Please send help." Followed by a lat/long.

Response: So this is not to be confused with the message sent when you hit the "HELP" button, which reads: "This is an HELP message. Please find my location in this message below and send for help ASAP." Confusing?

Claim: The wife then says she received a SPOT message saying "I am OK." and was very relieved.

Response: What if she had been away from her computer this whole time? Had she seriously not yet been contacted by authorities? In the case of a 406 MHz alert, the Rescue Coordination Center that receives the alert puts a live person on the phone with the family member / emergency contact as part of prosecuting the case.

Claim: "If your loved one is going into the outdoors, you need SPOT..."

Response: No you don't. It's a false sense of security.

While SPOT's a neat tekkie tool for tracking someone's location in the wilderness or at sea, it should NOT replace a 406 EPIRB / ELT / PLB for emergencies.

It also lacks the 121.5 MHz homing signal that all 406s have, with homing equipment already installed on all Coast Guard aircraft. Cg boats, civilian air and ground SAR and civil air patrol assets also have this equipment.

SPOT's business model is clearly based on the continued profits generated by its subscription services, and is aligned with the GEOS company, which is in this business for profit (nothing wrong with that).

SARSAT (406 MHz) beacons exist to execute the federal mission of inland and maritime SAR. While beacon manufacturers like ACR and McMurdo look to make a profit, they have to adhere to strict federal (and international) standards to market their devices as SARSAT EPIRBS / ELTs / PLBs. The government (NASA / NOAA) funds and maintains the satellites, and the Air Force and Coast Guard executes all SAR in the US and our territorial waters (and often beyond).

Another aside about the video on SPOT's site: it uses footage of Coast Guard assets that were retired before SPOT was even on the market (44' motor lifeboat / CG HH-65A helicopter [illustrating a case off of AUSTRALIA, and the CG now uses C models with a different paint job]).

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