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April 6, 2010

GPSmagazine's 2010 Child Tracking GPS Buyer's Guide

GPSmagazine's 2010 Child Tracking GPS Buyer's Guide

According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), 814,957 persons were reported missing in 2007. 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 over 2,000 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?

GPS tracking technology continues to improve, and for the first time in years, I can enthusiastically recommend several devices as viable solutions that will help parents keep their children safe.

I thoroughly tested 12 different tracking devices in various real-world scenarios. Prices range from the inexpensive to the extravagant. Interestingly, price doesn't always equate to better performance.

Here they are, ranked in order from the best to the worst:

  1. LiveViewGPS PT-10
  2. Best Buy Little Buddy GPS Child Tracker
  3. WorldTracker Enduro
  4. LiveViewGPS PT-8200
  5. WorldTracker GPRS
  6. Amber Alert 2G
  7. P-Trac Micro
  8. WorldTracker PLD
  9. Zoombak GPS Car & Family Locator
  10. SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger
  11. Brickhouse Child Locator With Wander Alerts
  12. Lok8u Nu-M8

Winner: LiveViewGPS PT-10 ($399 + $39.95/month)

Verdict: The Most Accurate, Easy To Use GPS Tracker Available

LiveViewGPS PT-10 Portable GPS Tracking Device
LiveViewGPS PT-10 Bird's Eye Map View Extended Battery Kit

This year's overall best real-time GPS tracking device is LiveViewGPS' outstanding PT-10.

This GPS tracker is easy to use and highly accurate. Operating on ATT's 3G/Edge network, the PT-10 is about the size of a deck of cards, and reports its location every 20 feet, or 10 seconds when traveling over 10 MPH. Capable of operating from -22 degrees F to 158 degrees F, this tracker is well suited to a variety of applications.

LiveViewGPS charges $399 for the PT-10 GPS tracker, and $39.99 per month for unlimited use. A well designed web portal displays the PT-10's current and historical location data, and provides a host of handy reporting options, including aggressive driving, speeding, and Geo-Fence alerts.

The internal battery provides tracking for up to 8 hours of continuous motion (an internal motion sensor conserves battery power when the tracker isn't moving), and an optional $195 "Professional Extended Runtime Battery Kit" extends the battery life to approximately 60 hours of continuous movement.

If the PT-10 enters an area with no AT&T cellular coverage, the device stores location data, and automatically uploads the missing data when it re-enters cellular coverage.

The PT-10 is the most accurate tracking GPS I've tested to date. That accuracy, combined with 10 second updates, means you can literally watch the device move on the map in real-time. For example, when placed inside a car, you can launch any web browser and watch the trip in real time, complete with speed information.

The PT-10 makes it easy to see not only where the device is currently located, but also where it's been over the past 90 days. Historical reporting lets you replay any day's activity over the past 90 days.

My full, in-depth review can be read HERE.

Second Place: Best Buy (Insignia) Little Buddy GPS Child Tracker ($49 + $0-$15/month)

Verdict: The best all-around option for parents looking for a basic GPS tracking solution with no monthly service fees

Best Buy Insignia Little Buddy GPS Child Tracker
Little Buddy GPS Child Tracker Map Screen Safety Zone

Little Buddy is sold exclusively through Best Buy, and is the only real-time GPS tracking device in the round-up that allows you to choose a $0 per month data plan, and instead pay $0.99 per locate request. Or you can pay $14.95 per month for unlimited use.

The device itself is relatively cheap at $49. GPS performance and cellular coverage are very good, and it offers some sophisticated features like Geo-Fences and tracking schedules based on day of the week or time of day. The device is relatively small, and the internal rechargeable battery lasts for days. You can track the device via a web browser, smartphone, or via SMS text message.

If you're just looking for something to locate your kids in an emergency, this is an ideal solution since you pay $0 per month if you don't end up using it.

You can read my full, in-depth review of Best Buy's Little Buddy GPS tracker HERE

Third Place: WorldTracker Enduro/Spark Nano ($199 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Fantastically Small, Accurate, and Power Efficient

WorldTracker Enduro Review
WorldTracker Enduro, Held in Hand WorldTracker Enduro, 3D Map Location Report WorldTracker Enduro, 2D Map Location Report

Second place this year goes to the WorldTracker Enduro.

This is one of the smallest real-time GPS tracking devices available. Waterproof, highly sensitive, 5-10 day battery life, and able to operate in extreme temperatures, this A-GPS locator is GPRS/GSM compatible, and comes equipped with a panic button, and GeoFencing features.

Slightly larger than a matchbox car and weighing just 76 grams, Enduro is easily carried in a coat pocket, backpack, handbag, inside a stuffed animal, or just about anywhere you can think of. Accurate to within about 15 feet, WorldTracker Enduro uses Assisted-GPS, or A-GPS, to report its location on a user-definable schedule (i.e. every 15 minutes).

Throughout my testing period, Enduro routinely achieved 5-7 days of continuous tracking between charges (set to 15 minute update intervals). This can be stretched significantly by increasing the time interval between location updates, or by adding an optional battery pack that lasts up to 6 months between charges.

Location reports are accessed via a webpage, and position information is spectacularly displayed using Google's or Microsoft's 3D maps. Date, time, speed, heading, and street address information is displayed on the map, and breadcrumb trails show the path the WorldTracker has taken. Customers can choose to view the device's location either on a Google map, Microsoft's Virtual Earth, or a special webpage that's optimized for viewing on a PDA or smartphone (costs an additional $60 per year).

An on-screen calendar makes it easy to view historical tracking data by clicking on the desired date (any dates with tracking data available are clickable). Various driving-specific reports are only available, including daily and monthly mileage, time spent driving, and maximum speed reached for each trip.

Geofences, or virtual boundaries, can be drawn on the map and WorldTracker Enduro will alert you via email or text message if the virtual boundary is crossed. For example, you might setup a Geofence around your home address and receive notification whenever the device enters or leaves home.

WorldTracker Enduro's small size, light weight, long battery life, and relatively good accuracy make the Enduro a very powerful tracker for those looking for high performance GPS tracking in a small package. Though slightly less accurate than some larger GPS trackers, Enduro gives up relatively little in terms of performance, and is unmatched in its size and concealability.

Enduro costs $299 for the device, and $49.95 per month for unlimited tracking service (there's also a one-time setup charge of $69.95). Access to the PDA/Cell-phone friendly tracking viewer is an additional $59.95 per year (this feature isn't required, but might be useful if you ever plan using your cell phone to see where the Enduro is). TrackingTheWorld throws in a free month's service if you pre-pay for a whole year (12/months of service for $549.45). Enduro can be purchased directly from TrackingTheWorld's website.

Note that Brickhouse Security also sells the same device under the name "Spark Nano GPS Tracker".

You can read my full, in-depth review of the Enduro HERE.

#4: LiveView GPS PT-8200 ($759 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Expensive, but it works in underground basements, movie theaters, any other places regular GPS trackers can't.

LiveViewGPS Covert GPS Tracker PT8200 Review
PT-8200, Compared to Matchbox Car PT-8200, Historical Tracking Data PT-8200, Location Report

Third place this year goes to LiveViewGPS's PT-8200. The most expensive device in this year's round-up, this unit can do something most other small GPS tracking device can't: work inside a parking garage, an elevator, movie theater, basement, or just about any other place where regular GPS devices won't work.

Merging GPS, A-GPS, and nearby cell towers, the PT8200 can automatically switch into triangulation mode, combining last known GPS location data with cell tower position fixes to triangulate its location on the map.

Combined with a high capacity battery that lasts up to 30 days on a single charge, and an advanced set of features and reporting options, the PT8200 is a powerful GPS tracker that keeps on working when other trackers give up.

When set to report its location every 5 minutes, that same battery lasts 21 days on a single charge.

Though the onboard GPS receiver is not quite as good as the LiveViewGPS PT-10 or WorldTracker Enduro, the PT-8200 can make use of fragmented position data, and fill in the missing GPS data using information stored on LiveViewGPS' server, or cell tower data. For example, if the device is receiving GPS signals right up to the moment when it enters a building and loses GPS reception, the PT-8200 will be able to figure out that it's inside the building using Assisted-GPS.

When no GPS signals at all are present, the PT-8200 automatically switches to triangulation mode, and gets its position fix via nearby cell towers. Accuracy is reduced, but at lease you can get an approximate position fix.

All that functionality comes at a cost, however. LiveViewGPS sells the PT-8200 for $799. Monthly service plans range from $29.95 per month for 30 locates, to $99.95 per month for 3000 locates, and several plans in between. The web portal allows you to adjust the frequency of location updates based on the time of day and day of the week. For example, you might lower the frequency at night, or on weekends. Still, even using the $49.95 monthly plan that allows up to 750 locates, the cost of ownership in year 1 would be $1,377.40. Total cost in year 2 would be $599.40. That's considerably more expensive than some other GPS tracking devices, making the PT-8200 a product best suited to those with serious security concerns looking for a professional grade tracker.

You can read my full, in-depth review of the PT-8200 HERE.

#5: WorldTracker GPRS / W-Trac GPRS ($399 + $49.95/month)

Verdict: Great performance. Short battery life.

WorldTracker GPRS
WorldTracker GPRS, Held in Hand WorldTracker GPRS, SOS Button WorldTracker GPRS, Location Report

Fourth place goes to a very good GPS tracker that would have likely been the top tracker in the roundup if battery life had been better.

The WorldTracker GPRS (also sold under the name W-Trac GPRS) is a small, Assisted-GPS tracking device that sends real-time position reports every 15 seconds.

This tracker has a programmable SOS button, 2D/3D maps from Google and Microsoft, a highly sensitive SiRF StarIII GPS chipset, geofence options, and can produce accurate driving reports. International users can also use their own SIM card from a local GPS provider in the country the device will be used in.

The standard battery gets about 8 hours of use (when set to update every 15 seconds). An optional extended battery pack is available that doubles the battery life.

The WorldTracker GPRS can be purchased at BrickHouseSecurity or TrackingTheWorld.

You can read my full in-depth review HERE.

#6: Amber Alert GPS 2G (~$175 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Achieves A Good Balance Between Size, Performance, And Cost

Amber Alert GPS Review
Amber Alert GPS, Held In Hand Amber Alert GPS, Ankle Bracelet Amber Alert GPS, Keychain

Small enough to cary in a coat pocket, hang from a zipper, or even wear on an ankle or wrist, the Amber Alert GPS 2G finally achieves the small size parents have been longing for in a GPS tracking system.

Amber Alert GPS 2G is the company's second generation child tracking device. Compared to the original device, the newer 2G version is smaller, easier to use, and offers more features. However, the smaller size seems to have come at a cost, and GPS sensitivity is not quite as solid as the original Amber Alert GPS.

For the most part, I was impressed with this little tracking device. It's easy to use, and small enough for your child to realistically carry. However, I did find myself wishing that the device could be programmed to upload its location at regular intervals throughout the day. That way, if the GPS was unable to obtain a signal fix, I'd at least know where the device approximately was right before it lost signal.

Compared with more expensive trackers, the Amber Alert GPS 2G lacks the ability to triangulate its position based on nearby cellular tower information -- an important capability that makes it possible to locate a device even if it's deep inside a building, basement, or movie theater.

Battery life ranges from 8-24 hours per charge, depending on how many locate requests are sent to the device. During testing, I found that moderate usage results in an average 12-18 hours battery life. The company says that all new units are shipping with an updated antenna that improves battery life.

The voice monitoring option costs an additional $9.99 per month, and is only available for the Premium and Unlimited plans. Available in Black , Blue , Pink , and Silver via Amazon, or AmberAlertGPS.com directly.

You can read my full, in-depth review of the Amber Alert GPS 2G HERE.

#7: P-Trac Micro ($450 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Small, and highly customizable

P-Trac Micro GPS
P-Trac Micro GPS P-Trac Micro GPS P-Trac Micro GPS Web Portal

Whether you're a concerned parent, private investigator, law enforcement officer, or fleet operator, the P-Trac Micro is a powerful tracking device that offers solid performance indoors and outdoors with loads of customizable options.

Unlike traditional GPS tracking devices that require line-of-sight to the sky, the P-Trac Micro leverages Assisted-GPS (via Sprint's cellular network) to provide real-time tracking from any location with cellular coverage. That means the P-Trac Micro can be located inside a movie theater, basement, the trunk of a moving vehicle, inside office buildings, or just about anywhere where a cell phone would work.

Throughout my testing I found the unit worked very well and was reliable, even in areas of marginal cellular reception. I also appreciated the ability to configure geofence boundaries and receive email/SMS alerts if those Geofences were crossed. You can even setup escalation lists of people you want to notify in an alert situation.

Also useful was the ability to define different tracking schedules for different times of day. For example, you might configure more frequent location updates while a child is out with a nanny, and then adjust for less frequent updates overnight when the child is asleep.

Battery life was generally excellent: I consistently got about 6 to 7 days battery life tracking 24 hours a day at 10-minute intervals. Bumping the tracking interval to 30-minutes extended the battery life to about 10 days. Battery life fluctuated somewhat based on cellular coverage, as the P-Trac automatically boosts power in poor coverage areas and lowers power consumption in areas with good cellular coverage.

BrickHouseSecurity sells the device for $450. Monthly service plans range from $49.95 to $99.95.

You can read my full, in-depth review HERE.

#8. WorldTracker PLD

Verdict: Like a rugged cell phone with GPS tracking

WorldTracker PLD (Personal Locator Device) GPS Tracking Device
WorldTracker PLD WorldTracker PLD WorldTracker PLD Web Portal

Capable of up to 2 weeks continuous tracking between battery charges, WorldTracker PLD provides sophisticated GPS location reporting, indoors and out.

One of the most unique features of the WorldTracker PLD is the integrated ability to receive and place phone calls from the device. Once configured, the PTC (Push To Call) button can be used to place a cellular call to a pre-determined phone number, such as a family member or emergency services (note that this features requires the SIM card to have voice services enabled). The device can also be set to silently answer calls, allowing you to monitor the surrounding area (microphone sensitivity can also be adjusted accordingly). Quad band ensures WorldTracker PLD can function worldwide.

GPS reception isn't as sensitive as some of the other units tested, and the PLD's overall form factor is on the large side. Still, battery life is outstanding, and if 2-way voice capabilities are a priority for you, it's tough to beat the WorldTracker PLD.

WorldTracker PLD Retails for $394, and monthly service ranges from $20 to $65, depending on the service plan. More detailed information is available at trackingtheworld.com.

You can read my full, in-depth review of the WorldTracker PLD HERE.

#9. Zoombak GPS Car & Family Locator ($149.99 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Good, basic vehicle location capabilities at a relatively low cost. Not suited to indoor tracking

Zoombak's Advanced GPS Car & Family Locator
Zoombak Car & Family Locator, Held in Hand Zoombak, Installed in Vehicle Zoombak Locator Web Portal

Zoombak's Advanced GPS Car & Family Locator Is a cost effective solution for tracking vehicles, but it not sensitive enough for use indoors.

Users can locate the device via Zoombak's website, or by calling Zoombak's 24-hour customer support line.

The $150 device also has one of the lowest monthly service fees of just $14.95 per month. The trade-off? You can't have the Zoombak automatically send it's location on a set schedule. Instead, you have to manually initiate a location request (you can setup continuous tracking for up to 60 minutes at a time, but after 60 minutes have passed, the unit will stop sending location data unless the user initiates another request).

Zoombak GPS Car & Family Locator isn't well suited to tracking people, but it does provide a relatively inexpensive vehicle tracking solution with low monthly fees.

You can read my full, in-depth review of Zoombak's GPS Car & Family Locator HERE.

#10. SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger ($99.99 + $9.99/month)

Verdict: Inexpensive outdoor Personal Locator Device (PLD)

Spot Satellite Personal Tracker

SPOT's Satellite GPS Messenger isn't up to the task of tracking people or vehicles through city streets or inside buildings, but it does provide outdoor adventurers with a cost effective personal locator device.

Unlike most GPS tracking devices, SPOT doesn't rely on cellular network coverage. The device is able to report its location even in areas without cellular or wireless coverage. SPOT can send an "I'm OK", or "Send Help" message from just about any place on the globe with a clear, onubstructed path to the sky.

Priced at $99.99 (plus $9.99/month service fee, or $99.99/year), SPOT's Satellite Messenger boasts up to 1 year battery life (using 2 AA lithium batteries), global coverage, the ability to track your position using Google Maps, and 9-1-1 alerting for life-threatening emergencies. The bright orange handheld device is water- temperature -and shock-proof, and has the ability to send pre-defined "I'm OK" emails or SMS alerts. Oh, and it floats too.

You can read my full, in-depth review of SPOT's Satellite Messenger HERE.

#11: Brickhouse Child Locator With Wander Alerts ($129.95)

Verdict: Doesn't really work for people or pets, but might help you find your keys or wallet

Using the Loc8tor is like playing an electronic game of Marco Polo. Audible beeping sounds let you know whether you're getting hotter or colder, as you move about trying to zero in on the missing Tag. There's no direction indicator on the handheld, so you'll have to go through a process of elimination, turning in circles and moving in various directions until the signal strength increases and the beeping noise speeds up.

The Loc8tor handheld unit feels cheaply made -- one good drop and the lightweight plastic will almost certainly shatter. Worse, there's no labels on any of the buttons to let you know what function each button performs. I did appreciate the ultra-small size of Loc8tor's homing tags, as well as the longer-than-average battery life (2-9 months, depending on usage).

It can be somewhat frustrating (and time consuming) hunting down a tag, but it does work eventually for stationary objects such as keys, wallets, etc. However, the Loc8tor Plus system isn't accurate enough for use on people or pets, as it takes too much time to hone in on a missing tag while you search room to room and listen for the faster/slower beeping tone.

Tracking down a stationary object is difficult, but possible with Loc8tor. Tracking down a moving target is mission impossible -- especially without the benefit of an arrow or some other indicator pointing you in the right direction.

You definitely wouldn't want to use Loc8tor to find a missing child at a supermarket or shopping mall. But if you're always misplacing your keys or wallet (or anything else that will remain stationary while you look for it) at home, and don't mind a slow, sonar-like room to room search, Loc8tor will help you track it down. For tracking pets and people, you're better off looking elsewhere.

You can purchase the Brickhouse Security Child Locator from Brickhouse's website for $129.95. No monthly service fee.

You can read my full, in-depth review of the Brickhouse Child Locator with Wander Alerts HERE.

12. Lok8u's Nu-m8 (pronounced "New Mate") ($179.99 + Monthly Service)

Verdict: Not Recommended

Lok8u NUM8, Worn on Child's Wrist
LOK8U NUM8 Charging Cradle LOK8U NUM8 On Wrist LOK8U NUM8 Unlock/reset Tool

Lok8u's Nu-M8 is plagued with a number of problems, the most serious being that the device simply doesn't work around 90% of the time.

On the rare occasions when the watch does manage to get a GPS signal, location requests do not include speed information, making it impossible for parents to know if the child is walking or moving in a vehicle.

Battery life is exceptionally poor. I was only able to get about 3 hours of use when set to 5 minute updates. Battery life improved to about 8 hours if I only sent a few locate requests.

The embedded GPS receiver is also underpowered. Even when the device was operating within a T-Mobile coverage area, Nu-m8 could not get a GPS position fix unless it was placed outside with a clear, unobstructed view of the sky for 10-15 minutes. About 90% of the time the device simply reported the nearest cell tower location, with an accuracy of about 1500 feet.

During my testing, the Nu-m8 simply didn't work about 95% of the time. And on those rare occasions when the device actually did work, performance was poor. About half of the time, the watch displayed the incorrect time, despite being set to the correct time zone. There is no manual way to set the time -- it is obtained via the cellular network. The web portal also always reported a low battery warning, even when the watch was fully charged.

In a real-life emergency, Lok8's NUM8 would likely be of no help in finding a missing child, and could possibly waste precious time making parents look for children in the wrong place.