GPS Tracker Review
How Can a GPS Tracker Help You?
The top performers in our review are Amber Alert GPS, the Gold Award winner; BrickHouse Security Spark Nano 5.0, the Silver Award winner; and Trackimo, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a GPS tracker to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
GPS trackers are transmitters that allow you to keep track of your children, amongst other things. They come with dedicated mobile apps or desktop software that allows you to see the location of the tracker on a map at any time. They’re small and come in several forms, such as watches and tag-like plastic discs.
GPS tracking devices are small and tough with two main parts: a built-in GPS receiver and a cellular radio transmitter. They pinpoint their positions from the GPS satellite system then transmit location data to a server using a cellular provider’s network. This means that they require a SIM card and cellular service in order to work.
GPS technology is integrated into many different devices nowadays, including car GPS units. GPS receivers are also present in most smartphones, but of course, using your smartphone for navigation decreases your battery life and ups your data usage.
While some GPS trackers have the cost of service as part of their initial price, the overwhelming majority require a service plan from a cellular carrier like T-Mobile, AT&T or Verizon. Monthly subscriptions typically cost between $5 and $25 per month, and the GPS trackers we reviewed range in price from $40 to $160 for the device. Some options have no monthly subscription but require you to buy another inexpensive tag each year you continue to use it, as it wears out; while this may be a bit of a hassle, it is often the least expensive option overall. For further reading, check out our supplementary articles about GPS trackers.
What About Smartphones?
All modern smartphones have GPS receivers built into them, and you can purchase apps that track the location of your smartphone. However, there are good reasons to buy a dedicated GPS tracker over using a third-party app on a smartphone. For one, smartphones and their accompanying data plans are pricier than even the most expensive GPS tracker data plan, especially for young children. So, if you want to track your child who isn't yet old enough for a smartphone, then GPS trackers are a more affordable way to do it. While many GPS trackers also require a monthly subscription, they are much cheaper than smartphones data plans.
Second, they typically have better battery life than smartphones. Where most smartphones need to be charged daily, GPS trackers can last over two weeks, with a couple of options lasting over six months. This means that in an emergency you can be confident the tracker has plenty of battery power.
Third, they are more discreet than smartphones. In a worst-case abduction situation, a GPS tracker is far more likely to go unnoticed than a smartphone. Some look like a simple, kid-friendly rubber watch, and others can be worn as a necklace under a shirt or sit inside of a backpack.
Why Use a GPS Tracker for Your Kids?
Your kids are a part of you; you love them and want them to be happy and safe, wherever they are. While you can’t necessarily accompany them at school, music lessons, sports practice or to their friends' houses, using a GPS tracker for your kids helps reassure you that they’re where they should be. In the unfortunate circumstance that your child goes missing, a tracker can help reveal where your child currently is as well as their recent travel history. Most trackers have a panic button your child can press in emergencies, and premium units even allow for two-way calls and texting.
How Else Can a GPS Tracker Be Used?
These tracking devices can help you monitor more than your children. If you worry about your aging parents, senior citizen trackers can let you view where they are and even if they’ve fallen down. If you have adventurous pets, pet trackers easily attach to their collars and let you see their current location and their travel history. You can also keep tabs on your valuable possessions – like cars and recreational vehicles.
GPS Tracking Sources: Which Ones Work Best
Each GPS tracker manufacturer uses its own blend of sources to provide you with a signal to track your loved ones. Nearly all of the trackers in our review use GPS. However, most companies rely on at least one additional signal source – such as GSM, CDMA, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – to provide more powerful and accurate tracking. Bluetooth is a short-range wireless connection and will only provide connection for devices within a few feet of it. If the device is Wi-Fi compatible, it allows the tracker to connect to open wireless internet connections, providing a boost to the tracker’s reception if it’s indoors. GSM, short for Global System for Mobiles, is a widespread international radio system of cellular networks used by providers like T-Mobile and AT&T. CDMA, short for Code Division Multiple Access, the system used by Verizon and Sprint, is generally less available, especially internationally.
What Else Is Important in Selecting a GPS Tracker?
Voice-to-Voice Calling & Panic Buttons
Some GPS trackers include two-way voice-to-voice calling. This enables the carrier to call one or more preset numbers by pressing a button on the device. Other trackers have panic buttons that trigger a text message or email alert to be sent to a predetermined number or email address. These features are especially useful if the person with the tracker does not have a cell phone or can't access their phone.
We assigned a hardware quality score that takes into account the quality of the materials used and the projected ability to withstand everyday use, as well as portability, versatility of the form factor, ease of use, button quality, charging port quality and port cover quality.
Assigning a hardware quality score helps quantify small things. For example, watches are less versatile than a small box, so the two watches we reviewed received a small demerit for that. It was also rather easy to tell which products were made more solidly and with higher-quality materials. Another thing we looked at was charging ports and chargers. Devices that came with micro USB port charging cords scored slightly higher than those with mini USB ports since micro USB ports are more commonplace, making them easier to charge in a variety of places. The best GPS units also come with their own power blocks that can plug into a wall socket, giving you more options for charging.
A tracking device’s most important function is making sure that you don’t lose track of a loved one, and one of the easiest places for that to happen is in an unfamiliar country. One of the best trackers that we reviewed, the Spy Tec STI_GL300, allows for international use, so it’s an optimal choice if you know you’ll be travelling frequently with your kids.
GPS Trackers: What We Tested, What We Found
Tracking: Set Zones and Get Updates
All of these GPS tracking devices rely on GPS for location updates. However, a few also use cellular networks for more precise tracking and to boost coverage when your child is indoors. A few units even support Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. We found that devices with multiple connection options are more powerful and precise, giving you a more accurate location update, especially if the child is indoors.
Update intervals are another critical factor to consider when buying a GPS tracker for your children. Each device on our lineup has a different minimum and maximum update interval, so consider how frequently or infrequently you’ll want location updates. Some trackers can notify you as often as every five seconds, while others can be set to update once every six hours. Most of the units let you customize the minimum and maximum intervals whenever you want. Only about half of the units we featured can give you an on-demand location update. This can be an extremely helpful feature, but it may not suit everyone’s needs.
One of the best features of a kid GPS tracker is the ability to set up a geofence, which is a digital perimeter you can set up around specific zones, such as home, school or an approved friend’s house. Typically, once you set up a geofence, the app can then alert you whenever your child enters or exits the area.
One of these trackers – the Amber Alert GPS – gives you the ability to call your child directly, or have them call you or a couple of pre-approved contacts. This feature does require a cellular provider plan. You can send and receive text messages on the device as well. Few trackers on the market offer this premium, convenient feature that helps you keep in touch with your kids without investing in a costly cell phone for them.
Monitoring: Access and Alert Options
You can monitor your child’s whereabouts either by logging into a user portal on the device manufacturer’s website or by downloading a free companion app onto your Android or iOS smartphone. Some products offer both options. The best apps let you view your child’s current location as well as a recent history of where they’ve been. You can also set up one or more geofences and receive notifications whenever your child enters or exits a zone. Each app has alerts you can opt to receive, such as a speed limit alert or low battery alert.
Battery life differs for each tracker and is dependent upon several variables. The figures in our side-by-side comparison reflect the optimal battery life expectancy for trackers used on the least-frequent update interval, with minimum usage, without making calls or using other functions. Some units must be recharged every 2-5 days, which can become a hassle if you have a busy schedule, while others can last up to two weeks, making them a bit easier to manage. If you know you’re the forgetful type, consider My Buddy Tag, which lasts for a year – you simply have to replace the tracker tag once a year for a low cost, and it’s hands-off from there.
Design: Durable and Easy to Use
Because these trackers are meant to be used by kids, it’s important to choose a model that is simple enough for them to understand how to use. All of these devices can easily be used by teenagers, but units with too many buttons or a confusing interface may quickly overwhelm younger kids. The best devices feature only a few buttons – including a clearly labeled panic button – and if they have a digital display, they have a limited set of functions labeled in a legible font.
The devices are generally flexible in how they can be worn or stored. Some of the ones we tested can be worn as a watch and have adjustable bands that grow as your children do. One comes with a lanyard and can be worn like a necklace. The others are small devices, fitting in the palm of your hand, and can easily be stored in a backpack or in the pocket of your child’s jacket or pants – whichever you prefer.
Most of the trackers we tested are capable of surviving everyday wear and tear. One device, the Spot Gen3, has a high-quality and rugged design that is water resistant and capable of surviving drops, making it a good option if you have active or athletic kids. Few devices are fully waterproof, but being water resistant allows for the occasional splash without frying their circuits. Good devices have rubber seals over all charging ports, ensuring that water can’t get in and protecting them from damage. The best devices in our lineup felt well-made and sturdy, not cheap.
Beyond checking to see if these devices are well-made and easy enough for young kids to use, we also checked the ease of use of the accompanying app or online portal. This is where the person monitoring the child logs in to get location updates, adjust settings and view alerts. Apps that scored the highest in our tests were those with a simple, intuitive layout, with every option being clearly labeled and easy to find. It also gives you full control over all settings and lets you customize a myriad of alerts.
Support & Costs: Coverage, Customer Service and Low Costs
Since a GPS tracker could be the only lifeline between you and your child in an emergency, it's important to buy a quality product backed by capable customer service from the manufacturer. By choosing a unit that comes with a lengthy warranty and multiple customer support resources, you give yourself the best chance of keeping your GPS tracker up and running.
Look for manufacturers that offer at least one direct contact method, such as live chat, phone or email. Also, manufacturers that host a wealth of informational resources on their website – such as tutorials, manuals, a FAQs section, a knowledgebase or a community user forum – make it easy to stay up to date with the product or troubleshoot an issue without talking to a customer support representative. All of the products in our lineup come with at least a one-year manufacturer warranty, though one has a two-year warranty and another has a lifetime warranty.
All but one of the devices in our lineup require a monthly service subscription in order to work; thankfully, most cost $10 or less, though some cost as much as $25 per month. Consider the initial purchase cost of a GPS tracker as well as the monthly subscription cost alongside its features before making a purchase. For some units, part of this monthly charge is to connect the device to a compatible cellular network provider. All devices use GPS satellites for tracking but many also rely on cellular networks for indoor tracking. If you and your children travel frequently, be sure to choose a device works internationally, like the Yepzon One.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with the product. For our tests on GPS trackers, we purchased the devices just as a consumer would. The manufacturers have no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings are not shared with them prior to publication.
GPS Trackers: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Three products in our review rose up above the rest – Amber Alert GPS, BrickHouse Security Spark Nano 5.0 and Trackimo. They have a child-friendly interface as well as powerful abilities to track and monitor your child. The best GPS tracker in our comparison is the Amber Alert GPS: It is full of features, is made well and is easy to use. The BrickHouse Security Spark Nano 5.0 not only has plenty of features but also comes with a low monthly subscription fee and lengthy battery life so you won’t have to worry about charging it every day. Lastly, the Trackimo offers a flexible range of update intervals and one of the lowest monthly subscriptions.
Even if you keep a tight budget, with inexpensive options like My Buddy Tag, you can enjoy basic features and functionality similar to more expensive brands. My Buddy Tag costs just under $40 and has no monthly subscription plan. With a battery that lasts an entire year, the only extra cost you’ll have is replacing the main tracking component annually. However, the one caveat to this device is that it has less functionality, and relies on Bluetooth over GPS.
With a GPS tracker, your family can have peace of mind. You can check in on your child at any time to ensure they are where they’re supposed to be, and they can hit a panic button if anything goes wrong. Though no parent would ever want to deal with their child being kidnapped, or simply wondering where they are, having a child GPS tracker helps alleviate some of that stress.