BoatingLAB: Personal Locator Beacons Comparison

Important data on the best PLB, the device that can save your life.

ACR ResQLink+
$250; The one-way standard for emergency personal locator beacons, this product has launched many rescues initiated by someone activating the device. It communicates with high-orbit satellites, transmitting the distress signal. Without a GPS on board, general rescue locale is determined mathematically by the satellites and reported directly to government rescue operators. Once they’re in the vicinity, the PLB is tracked by its locator beacon for final position and rescue. Self-Test: Receive an email and/or SMS text message confirming receipt of your beacon self-test using the optional subscription service at Rescue Networks: Cospas-Sarsat, FCC, Canada, R&TTE, Australia, New Zealand Coverage: Worldwide Cool Because: The self-test function lets you know the PLB is hooked up and running. A rescue strobe aids night location during rescue. Also, it connects directly to international Cospas-Sarsat rescue authorities. Pros: It gave the fastest "OK" transmit time in our test and offers free replacement if it saves your bacon. Communications subscription at also gives low battery notification. Cons: It's able to send only one preprogrammed message. Bests: Communicates with oldest, most prestigious ­emergency rescue response teams in the world GPS: 66 channels Buoyant: Yes Waterproof: 16.4 feet/floats Weight: 5.4 ounces Battery Type: Nonhazmat lithium Battery Life: 30 hours Warranty: Five years Rescue Communications: Cospas-Sarsat Activation Process: Register at beaconregistration.noaa​.gov/rgdb. Subscribe to communications services at Activation Cost/Year: Cospas-Sarsat free; from $40 annually for confirmation emails, SMS and low-battery notice Time for Satellite Connection: One minute
DeLorme inReach Explorer
$380; This device is essentially a handheld GPS, PLB and two-way satellite communicator all rolled into one. Save and store waypoints and navigate back to them while tracking progress on a color-coded map. An internal digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer improve utility. Connect iOS or Android devices loaded with the free DeLorme Earthmate app via Bluetooth, and you can download maps, track your progress on the Web, and create and manage routes and navigate to them. The device becomes an operating partner with inReach. Self-Test: You can send and receive text messages worldwide using the Iridium system. Send 160-character text messages to five established contacts. Link it with the Earthmate (iOS or Android) app to easily send, receive and share your position. Rescue Networks: The international GEOS rescue coordination center receives SOS 24/7 and arranges local rescue assets. Coverage: Worldwide Cool Because: With the inReach service you can plan trips, routes and messaging online and execute them with the device. Pelagic anglers use the device in partnership with ROFFS sea temperature service to update custom fishing plans. Pros: Two-way communications are fun and reassuring. Cons: The small screen makes navigation awkward. Bests: Most versatile adventure tool GPS: 32 channels Buoyant: No, but a floating sleeve is available. Waterproof: 3.3 feet Weight: 6.7 ounces Battery Type: Lithium Battery Life: 100 hours Warranty: One year Rescue Communications: Iridium satellite network, ­two-way informaton Activation Process: Register online, select communications service, and designate contacts. Activation Cost/Year: From $144 (from $12 monthly) Time for Satellite Connection: Eight minutes (one minute for a reply)
Spot Gen3
$150; Spot was the first to use the Globalstar constellation for PLB functions combined with communications. Using Globalstar, the Gen3 can send ­messages you preprogram online before departure and send them via SMS or email to recipients you specify plus Twitter or ­Facebook ­accounts. Running late? The Gen3 offers improved tracking and allows friends to view it online. Self-Test: LEDs indicate satellite coverage and GPS hookup. LEDs confirm when a message is sent, whether it's an "OK" ­prearranged text message or an SOS. Rescue Networks: The Spot Gen3 uses the international GEOS rescue coordination center to receive SOS notifications 24/7 and arrange for local rescue assets to arrive at the GPS ­location transmitted with each SOS ping. Coverage: Worldwide Cool Because: A messaging button connects to nonemergency services like predesignated towing services, should your emergency be non-life-threatening. It will send your position to predesignated recipients and allow them to track your trip online. There's a direct USB power cord for when power is available. Pros: Its inexpensive purchase price and low-cost communications service provide more everyday value plus emergency rescue. Cons: There's no message feedback to acknowledge receipt of signal or estimated time of arrival for rescue. Bests: Best rescue plus communications device value GPS: 16 channels Buoyant: No Waterproof: Water-resistant IPX-7 Weight: Four ounces Battery Type: Four lithium or rechargeable AAAs Battery Life: 80 hours of SOS Warranty: One year Rescue Communications: Globalstar satellite network, one-way information Activation Process: Register online, select communications service, and designate contacts. Activation Cost/Year: $10 monthly to $150 per year for unlimited messaging Time for Satellite Connection: 10 minutes
Spot Global Phone
$500; Dial this light, water-resistant satellite phone just like a mobile phone to reach out and touch someone. As with all of these devices, you’ll need clear access to the sky to reach the Globalstar satellite constellation. A color LED screen gives access to contacts and other functions. Directly dialing 911 makes emergency calls easy. A handheld GPS is needed to provide rescue coordinates. Self-Test: A satellite phone is its own self-test, thanks to the immediate feedback from two-way communications. Rescue Networks: The Global Phone's 911 call function automatically connects to the GEOS rescue coordination center to communicate and arrange for local rescue personnel. Coverage: Worldwide Cool Because: Self-testing is redundant on satphones — you speak directly with the 24/7 GEOS service, which arranges rescue and updates you on progress. The phone allows more detailed communications, which is often helpful in transmitting advice for first aid and personal calls to notify or reassure associates. It can also be used to transfer email online. Pros: Two-way emergency communication is reassuring and allows access to first aid instruction. This device was as clear as a land line in our test calls. Cons: Location information must be manually provided; change in position due to drift or other activity is not automatic. Bests: Best and lowest cost communications device GPS: None Buoyant: No Waterproof: No Weight: 7.1 ounces Battery Type: Lithium Battery Life: Four hours talk/36 hours standby Warranty: One year Rescue Communications: Globalstar satellite network, two-way information Activation Process: Activate online. Activation Cost/Year: $25 monthly to $1,800 per year for unlimited minutes Time for Satellite Connection: Four minutes
Breitling Emergency
Among mariners, the argument against buying and using a PLB is, well, that you don't really use it at all. Only if the ship goes to hell in a handbasket is everybody really grateful to have one. Otherwise, most crew may not even know its onboard — and too many too-casual skippers may forget to keep the device handy and maintained as well. The U.S. Coast Guard wants you to have a PLB, because using one could easily save enough money, skipping the tedious "search" exercise and going directly to the rescue stage, to fund a small country — or at least to purchase this cool status symbol of a watch, with PLB. Clearly multipurpose text-messaging beacons like those on the previous pages are just the first, and soon to be most modest, step in making emergency communications equipment desirable for everyday use. Breitling’s Emergency is the first luxury watch that also carries a dual-frequency PLB on board. It talks to Cospas-Sarsat in the case when the last thing between you and the sea is on your wrist. Certainly, in everyday life, nothing could make a more macho statement of means than a rugged titanium case and bracelet, a sapphire crystal and the most well-equipped chronometer with SuperQuartz movement (10 times more accurate than standard quartz movement, says the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute) — and it’s all nonmagnetic so it won’t skew the ship’s compass, possibly making necessary its emergency deployment. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this dandy watch, so well-named “Emergency,” also has an amazingly well-engineered PLB. It communicates at 406 MHz with the ­Cospas-Sarsat system to communicate your peril and general location just like the ACR PLB. It also emits a 121.5 MHz homing beacon to bring the rescue team in for the final few hundred feet. In rough seas, that could mean saving precious minutes and life. An integrated antenna and an onboard battery will keep it in constant touch with the satellite system and rescue personnel for 18 hours. For a Viking in the North Sea, Valhalla will come much sooner than that, so the 18-hour charge should be more than sufficient for his needs. Certainly I want one, but at an expected price tag of $15,825 when it’s available at year’s end (just in time for Christmas, ladies), media samples won’t be available, I am told. This season, I’ll be using one of those PLBs on the previous pages. Next season too, I think.

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) save lives. By comparison with the cost of unguided search-and-rescue efforts, their cost is inconsequential. I could make an argument that it is just plain irresponsible to head offshore without one, and it would be a fair argument. EPIRBs, vessel-dedicated emergency position-indicating radio beacons, are required on commercial boats for these reasons. The U.S. Coast Guard would like you to consider at least carrying one PLB on your recreational outing.

At one time, personal locator beacons served only to send a one-way message via satellite to rescue personnel. The wait for rescue is always painful, but more so when you don't know if anybody knows you need it if an emergency occurs out of range of a VHF radio or mobile phone.

Even so, in the past, the cost of $300 PLBs has been a key factor in resisting their purchase. Today, however, the benefits of PLBs have risen astronomically because they can also use satellites for other communications, such as texts, family tracking and, for some devices, the ability to summon nonemergency towing assistance. Some can even receive a message, such as “help is on the way” or “help will be there in one hour.” With all these benefits, there is no good reason to leave one of these devices out of your gear bag. And now, costs are even lower, making the security they provide above that of normal VHF communications very valuable.

We haven’t tested every PLB, by far, and in truth you can’t really test any SOS device — that’s illegal. We have analyzed their features, benefits and costs here in this tight, concise rundown. And in the case of those with the capability of sending civilian messages via their satellite network, we also tested that. We even noted the time it took for each one to communicate.

How We Tested
Efficient connection to appropriate satellite constellations is key to timely rescue and a function of comprehensive satellite coverage plus the efficacy of GPS receivers. We cold-started each device and immediately initiated a test message to see how long it took to link to its satellite constellation and receive the message via Gmail. We assume that this process should approximate the time needed to send and receive an SOS.