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May 6, 2008

The Ultimate GPS Child Tracking Buyer's Guide

Winners: WorldTracker GPRS & Amber Alert GPS

GPSmagazine's Ultimate Child Tracker GPS Buyer's Guide

According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), 836,131 persons were reported missing in 2006. About 80% of those were juveniles (persons under 18 years of age), the overwhelming majority of which were girls. While most missing persons return home safely, that statistic shows that 2,290 times per day, parents or primary care givers felt the disappearance was serious enough to warrant calling law enforcement. Even more troubling, the number of missing persons reported to law enforcement has increased almost 500% in the past 20 years.

What if, instead of sitting at home in a terrified panic that harm has come to your child, you could instantly locate him or her on a map, pinpointing their exact whereabouts? That's the promise behind a new wave of GPS and RF (Radio Frequency) tracking devices aimed at helping parents keep electronic tabs on their children. I've spent the last few months testing a number of these products at length, sorting out the good from the bad.

The bottom line? Hollywood-style GPS tracking still eludes us, but there are some good products available that will indeed help parents keep track of AWOL kids. There's also some duds out there that either underperformed or simply don't work at all. Read on for the full review, including which products I recommend, and which ones you should avoid.

Table of Contents

  1. Loc8tor Plus
  2. Ion Kids Child Tracking System
  3. WorldTracker GPRS
  4. P-Trac Micro
  5. SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker
  6. Zoombak GPS Car & Family Locator
  7. GPS Snitch
  8. Amber Alert GPS
  9. WorldTracker PLD
  10. Conclusion

Tested Tracking Products

First, a quick primer on the different technologies involved: A-GPS, or Assisted GPS leverages both cellular and GPS technology. A-GPS devices determine their position using traditional GPS technology, but upload this information back to you via cellular technology. A-GPS devices are essentially GPS-enabled cellular devices, and therefore require a monthly service charge for the data. Monthly service fees range from around $20 - $50 per month, depending on the usage plan you choose.

RF tracking devices don't use GPS at all, and instead rely on Radio Frequencies to determine positioning information. RF devices are well suited to indoor tracking and are aimed at helping parents keep track of kids at the mall, playground, supermarket, or any other short distance.

GPS and RF devices serve slightly different functions; GPS is great for pinpointing your child's general position on the map, but it does little to help you find a child who's wandered off at the mall. Short range, indoor RF tracking systems like Loc8tor and Ion Kids' Child Monitoring System advertise the ability to zero-in on a homing beacon placed on your child's pocket.

1. Loc8tor Plus

Verdict: Not Recommended

Loc8tor Plus
Figure 1: Loc8tor Plus

Loc8tor Plus (reviewed in more detail HERE) is an indoor tracking system that sells for about $180, includes 4 mini homing tags (one of which has a panic button on it), and advertises an indoor range of up to 600 feet.

Loc8tor's homing tags are very small and lightweight, and the batteries can last for months. It's relatively easy to use loc8tor, and the Plus kit includes 4 homing tags for tracking up to 4 different children or pets (the tags are small and light enough to be worn by a pet). Unlike A-GPS solutions, Loc8tor doesn't require any monthly fee to use it.

However, Loc8tor didn't work well in public places and it was almost impossible to hone in on the homing tag. There's no direction indicator on the display, so you have to rely on a series of audible beeps to determine if you're getting "hotter" or "colder" as you move around in 360-degree circles, search for your child -- not very practical at all.

Loc8tor is better suited to hunting down frequently misplaced items at home, such as keys, wallets, and remote controls. I don't recommend Loc8tor for tracking children.

2. Ion Kids Child Tracking System

Verdict: Not Recommended

Ion Kids Child Tracking System
Figure 2: Ion Kids Child Tracking System

Like the Loc8tor system, Ion Kids Child Tracking System (read the in-depth review HERE) is an indoor, RF-based tracking solution that costs around $200, includes one tracking "Wristag", and requires no monthly fee.

Ion Kids' tracking device looks like a large digital watch, although it doesn't actually tell the time. A tamper-proof latch keeps anyone from removing the Wristag from your child, and a temper sensor on the inside alerts the base unit if it is removed from the wearer. Ion Kids has about a 200 foot range indoors, and the handheld base unit is capable of tracking up to four Wristags simultaneously. The Wristag is too small for adults, and too large for most children, so be prepared to disable the tamper sensor for all but the thickest adolescent wrists.

The system lets you specify how far the child (or children) are allowed to wander from the handheld base unit before sounding an alert on both the bracelet and the handheld unit. The handheld unit can then be used to locate the child, using a radar-like display that points the way to the AWOL child. Sounds great for busy parents at the mall, grocery store, or in crowded public places.

Unfortunately, Ion Kids' performance was poor in public places; like the Loc8tor system, Ion Kids was prone to interference, range was very limited inside shopping malls and supermarkets, and the direction indicator simply didn't work. Distance alerts (a loud beeping sounds on both the Wristag and the handheld when the child moves too far away from the handheld) worked most of the time, but that was of little help when there was no way to see which direction your child has wandered off to.

Operating Ion Kids was also more complex than other systems, and the LCD display was difficult to read. Most annoying, however, was the fact that the Wristag needed to be registered to the handheld unit each and every time the unit was powered on.

For all the reasons listed above (and in the more detailed review), I cannot recommend Ion Kids Child Tracking System.

3. WorldTracker GPRS

Verdict: Highly Recommended

WorldTracker GPRS
Figure 3: WorldTracker GPRS

Tracking The World's "WorldTracker GPRS" (read the full, in-depth review HERE) may not be the catchiest product name, but this is one powerful tracking device: small, lightweight, and an ultra high performance GPS receiver make the WorldTracker GPRS the most powerful tracking device in this roundup. This device worked reliably both indoors and out, and had some of the best web-based location reporting I've seen to date.

WorldTracker GPRS provides hollywood-like 3D tracking via Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth, and supports a host of alerting and reporting features. The device can also be configured to send location updates automatically, allowing you to see where the device has been and how fast it was moving. For serious real-time tracking needs, WorldTracker GPRS can send location updates as often as every 15 seconds.

Performance was also outstanding. WorldTracker GPRS was able to provide solid tracking inside movie theaters, office buildings, and basements (as long as cellular reception was available).

This is the "money is no object" device in this review; priced at around $600, monthly service costs $69/month, plus there's a one-time setup fee of $90. That's about $830 per year in service fees alone. The included lithium-ion battery only provides around 8 hours of real-time tracking between charges, so you'll likely want to spring for the extended battery, which will add another $100 to the cost.

It's not cheap, but WorldTracker GPRS' performance was unrivaled in this test.

4. P-Trac Micro

Verdict: More appropriate for law enforcement than parents

P-Trac Micro
Figure 4: P-Trac Micro

Brickhouse Security's P-Trac Micro (check out the full in-depth review) is an advanced GPS + AGPS tracking system what works indoors and outdoors, can last up to 21 days on a single battery charge, and provides a sophisticated suite of reporting and tracking features. The P-Trac Micro supports Geofencing, custom tracking schedules, vehicle and people tracking configurations, SMS or email alerting capabilities and more.

The device costs $450, and requires monthly service that ranges from $30 - $80, depending on the usage plan you choose. Most people will likely find the $45/month service plan sufficient.

P-Trac Micro trades battery life for GPS performance: indoor tracking was spotty, as was pinpointing the device's exact location on the map. It's 21-day battery life will appeal to private investigators and law enforcement more than parents.

P-Trac Micro supports a number of unique features not found on other tracking devices, such as the ability to configure custom tracking schedules based on the time of day and weekday, advanced geofencing options, and support for custom escalation lists of persons to notify in the event of an alert. For example, only the P-Trac Micro can setup geofence alerts around local airports, and begin notifying an escalation list of people if the child gets near an airport.

For the average parent, P-Trac Micro isn't sensitive enough or user-friendly enough to recommend. However, if you need some of the unique alerting capabilities that only this device provides, P-Trac Micro is a serious tracking device used by law enforcement agencies throughout the US, and can perform tasks other devices cannot.

5. SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker

Verdict: Only works outside. Good if your child is going camping.

SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker
Figure 5: SPOT Satellite Personal Tracker

SPOT (read the full review) is more of a Personal Locator Device than a real-time GPS tracking system. Priced at $169.99, SPOT requires a monthly service that costs $9/99 per month (or $100/year). Unlike other Assisted-GPS tracking devices, SPOT doesn't require cellular service to send location data, and can run for up to 1 year on a pair of AA batteries. The "911" button can be configured to send email or SMS alerts to friends and family that includes location data, and the "OK" button lets everyone know that all is well.

SPOT is also water- temperature- and shock-proof, and floats in water. The catch? You have to be standing still outside with a clear, unobstructed view of the sky to send messages. Even light tree cover will prevent the unit from reporting your location, and forget about using it in a car or from within a backpack.

6. Zoombak's GPS Car & Family Locator

Verdict: Relatively inexpensive, but better at tracking cars than people

Zoombak's GPS Car & Family Locator
Figure 6: Zoombak GPS Car & Family Locator

Priced at $249, Zoombak's GPS Car & Family Locator (read the full review) requires a monthly service that costs $15 per month. The company also sells a pet-friendly version for $199 that is identical, but lacks the vehicle installation kit.

Zoombak was easy to setup, and the web-based reporting site is easy to use. Battery life was admirable at around 5 days per charge. The rugged, water-resistant device easily fits in the palm of your hand, supports geofences, and can send email or SMS alerts that include speed information (so you can tell if your child is walking or moving in a vehicle).

Tracking worked very well outdoors, but indoor performance was less than reliable. If you're looking to track your child vehicle, Zoombak is a good option, but indoor performance wasn't good enough to recommend for tracking people.

7. GPS Snitch

Verdict: Like Zoombak, only more expensive

GPS Snitch
Figure 7: GPS Snitch

GPS Snitch (read the full review) is similar to Zoombak's tracker, but provides a few more tracking and reporting options, and costs about twice as much. The monthly service ranges from $15 to $26 per month, depending on usage.

Like Zoombak, GPS Snitch worked well outdoors, making it a good option for vehicle tracking purposes, but ill-suited to the task of tracking people indoors.

8. Amber Alert GPS

Verdict: Probably the most practical solution for parents

Amber Alert GPS
Figure 8: Amber Alert GPS

Utah-based Amber Alert GPS (read the full review) strikes an excellent balance between features and cost without sacrificing performance. Amber Alert GPS is a relatively inexpensive solution that can track indoors and out, has an SOS button to call for help, supports Geo-Fencing, and can send speed alerts (ie. send an alert if my kid is driving faster than 80 MPH) -- all for under $200. The monthly service costs between $19.99 to $49.99, depending on usage.

Amber Alert GPS uses the same high-performance GPS found in the much more expensive WorldTracker GPRS, and provided similarly excellent indoor tracking performance. Amber Alert GPS doesn't have all the bells and whistles of the more expensive devices, but it does provide parents with an easy way to quickly locate their child, indoors or out, without breaking the bank.

The SOS button is also a nice feature that lets kids send help messages to up to 5 people at once.

To get the most out of Amber Alert GPS you'll need an internet-enabled smartphone such as a Blackberry, iPhone, or Windows Mobile phone.

9. WorldTracker PLD

Verdict: Good if your kid is Agent Cody Banks

WorldTracker PLD
Figure 9: WorldTracker PLD

WorldTracker's $400 PLD (read the full review) is a quad mode GPS tracker capable of two weeks of continuous GPS tracking on a single battery charge. It works worldwide with both GPRS/SMS, can place phone calls to a single pre-programmed number using the hands-free speakerphone, and even has an eavesdropping mode that lets you listen in on what's going on around the device.

Indoor tracking wasn't as good as other units, but WorldTracker PLD does something no other tracker can: place and receive cell phone calls.

WorldTracker PLD is an excellent solution for outdoor adventure seekers, but is likely not the best fit for everyday use.

10. Conclusion

If money is no object, WorldTracker GPRS's performance and reporting capabilities were unmatched by any other product I tested. The high-performance device provided stunning 3D mapping reports and worked flawlessly indoors and out. WorldTracker's easy-to-use website lets you setup custom alerts and virtual boundaries, and view breadcrumb trails of where your child has been for the past several months. Vehicle mileage logs and details location reports can even be downloaded into Microsoft Excel, if desired.

A more practical, and much less expensive, solution is Amber Alert GPS. The sub-$200 device worked well indoors and out, but lacked the reporting features of the WorldTracker. For example, you can't configure Amber Alert GPS to automatically send location updates -- you have to call the device and wait for it to send your phone an SMS message with a link to view the location on Yahoo maps. Amber Alert GPS also doesn't have the 3D mapping capabilities or advanced geofencing features of the WorldTracker. Still, Amber Alert GPS is simple to use, and doesn't require a computer to find out where your child is. Provided you already have an internet-enabled smart phone, Amber Alert GPS is a great tool for parents and children alike.