I live in a very dangerous part of Croatia, one that is prone to crime by Gypsies. One of their specialities is kidnapping and mutilating people's dogs. Add to that the fact that my dog, Rita, is a beagle - an escape artist breed with zero sense of danger - and you realize that the likelihood of her disappearing one day is actually quite high.
Why not Bluetooth trackers?
Bluetooth trackers like the Lapa (which I also own and have attached to Rita) are fine for short range tracking and finding out where last contact was, but are utterly useless for when the dog is completely out of range (which is around 60m line of sight). With no GPS and no actual ability to upload data to a server or my phone, I am in the dark and looking for a needle in a haystack, while blind.
Sure, most BT trackers like Lapa have a "community" feature built-in so that others with the same tracker can alert the system if they come in range with yours, so if your dog runs past someone with an active Lapa app it will get signalled, but a) I am probably the only person in Croatia with a Lapa and b) if my dog was stolen, it sure as hell won't be near people with Lapas (or any other tracker for that matter).
That, and my tendency to travel, is why I've decided to use a GPS and mobile-data enabled tracker which, while requiring a monthly subscription, works in any country and uploads data regardless of whether or not you have a local SIM card or money on it.
A Pod is a beautifully designed cylinder, with a rubber matte feel. It looks and feels like something out of Apple's design catalogue from 2012/2013 when they were at the top of their game.
It comes with two batteries and an incredibly sexy charger, and they get attached and detached with a simple, smooth twist motion. It was pure pleasure playing with it.
Unfortunately, that is where the good stuff ends.
Design for Dogs vs. Design for Humans
Design-wise, the pod is brilliant for humans. For dogs? Not so much. The round shape of the device pretty much guarantees the dog (if under 20kg) will feel it in any sleeping position, and the rubber of the attachment strap is guaranteed to rub against the pet's hair as the collar turns. They recommend attaching it to a harness if you use it on a dog, which is fine advice, but we don't so that just wasn't an option.
Battery Life and Hot Swap
Battery life, while being touted by the company in days and 6-8 hours in adventure mode (high precision mode which reports the location more frequently) proved to be a complete lie - adventure mode never made it past 3 hours for me, and the batteries rarely lasted over a day. You can see in the images below that synchronizing with a single 32 minute adventure cut down battery charge from 90+ to 50%.
What's more, when changing batteries the pod always died and required manual reactivation - three seconds of holding the power button. This gets annoying fast when you have to do it so often, particularly when your dog is already so bothered by this bulky device. Any device which needs battery swapping so often needs hot swap - a small internal battery that keeps state until the new battery is plugged in. 10 seconds of charge would be enough until the new battery is in place, and no reboot would be necessary, making everyone's life easier. Hot swapping is a technology that has existed since the 90s in laptops and mobile phones.
Additionally, the batteries have completely died after the first month. They report being fully charged within 10-20 minutes after being plugged into the charger, and are back at 0% after 20 minutes or so.
There is an option to order more, but I'd rather not walk around with an ammo belt of batteries.
GPS Accuracy and WiFi Woes
The app looks for the tracker by following a set of services in a predefined order. When you decide to locate a pet, the app will first look for a Bluetooth connection to the pod. In an initial version of the app, this never worked. Bluetooth was always attempted, but wasn't successful even one single time. A future version of the app fixed that, but brought other problems with it - more on that later.
Next, the app looks for the pod via WiFi. Pods have WiFi support (well, not technically, they just remember an SSID you set up and if they see it in range, they think they are around the router), and let you know when they are near a known "home" network. Finally, a Pod looks for a GPS signal.
The problem, in my case at least, is that my yard (where I often leave Rita) is not right next to the house - it's some 40m away. The garden has its own SSID, which is different from the one in the house, and the pod allows you to only set one home WiFi. What's worse, I've got a pretty powerful router, so each SSID is just barely visible from the other location - meaning if I set home as the one in the house, Rita was often reported as being in the house because the signal reached the garden, if only for a second or two, and vice versa.
This wouldn't be so bad if:
- GPS didn't take 5 minutes or more to load
safe zone mode (where you define a zone a for which you want to get an alert if the pet leaves it) didn't fire alerts all the time due to WiFi jumps:
There is no way to turn of useless location attempts (i.e. I don't want it to even try BT when she's in the garden because I know she is out of range, and I don't want to rely on WiFi at all because, well, it's wildly inaccurate with my setup), so every time I wanted to find Rita and check if she was still there, I not only had to wait a total of 10 minutes for the GPS to kick in after the first two location services failed, but also drained the battery that much faster.
So what about GPS? Did it really take that long to load? Not only that, but it also sometimes completely spazzed out the whole app:
Podtrackers' FAQ and support docs say that GPS signal is bothered by everything from clouds to trees, and even the pet's body which, in my opinion, completely defeats the purpose of a pet tracker.
Their claim doesn't make sense, however. I know at least 3 GPS satellites are needed for a successful triangulation, but my father has a GPS running watch which connects instantly, and my phone does this as well (even though it's assisted by WiFi, but there's that keyword - assisted).
The aforementioned Adventure mode also only sporadically worked. Some times it started recording a minute or two into the walk, sometimes it missed 40 minutes of a 90 minute walk or run. We're not talking walking through tunnels or Faraday cages here, but through open city streets, full of WiFi points for assistance and open enough for GPS signal. After around 30 or so attempts at tracking adventures, only 2 were somewhat fully tracked.
So, with unreliable Safe Zone detection, rubbish Adventure mode tracking, bad location most of the time, and the inability to locate Rita on even the most open of plains, I really hoped a new version of the app would fix things. I was wrong.
On the picture below, we were standing on a large open meadow, not a tree in sight, on a clear sunny day, and it took 5 minutes to show her 100 meters away, even though she was right next to me. This happened often.
The Podtrackers App
The app updated to V3 eventually, but all that really changed was the design.
Unfortunately, the trend of making a web app and then just porting it to a mobile browser wrapper so it looks "native" is still strong, and is what Podtrackers did as well. These non-native-native apps have many, many bugs by default - bugs that cannot be avoided even if you have the best team. It's just the way the platform is. For example, it required a re-login, in spite of being "the same" app:
The app supports a "GPS trail" option which shows the pet's location over time - where she moved. Geo points connected by a line, indicating the pattern of movement over those points in time when the pod reported the location. This trail was sometimes there, and sometimes not, despite being "on" all the time.
The web app version of the application (which can be shared with other people, so that's good) frequently lagged behind the mobile app version with data (they were not in sync), so the people you shared the account with did not have up to date information, and could not see anything useful. Neither could you, as the owner, if you lost your phone or the battery died, and you needed to find the pet via the web app.
The app also provides absolutely no way of importing or exporting GPS data, so the missing adventure tracks couldn't be manually fixed, and they couldn't be exported into data for tracking in other run/walk tracking applications.
Last but not least, the app froze and crashed on certain screens at random. Some features got stuck in "on" mode, especially between battery switches (because there was no hot swap - see above), so I found myself "tracking" 6 hour adventures in the garden very often (3 hours per battery - the mode did not shut off even after I manually turned it off in the app). At times, I was also unable to turn off Safe Zone for hours or days - it just got stuck because the pod and app went so much out of sync. In the following screenshot, notice how I deactivated safe zone detection, and then still got an alert:
In short, nothing in the app - either version - worked as it should have. Sometimes, it even thought it didn't have coverage on the same device where it was communicating with the servers via said coverage.
Now, I should mention that I have contacted support on several occasions about all of the above issues. They were always professional, extremely quick to respond (either in the app of via email), and very courteous. Five stars for a good support staff.
But good support staff can do very little when the product is bad. They don't have the power to suddenly make it work as intended, and try as they might, after a while their explanations stopped making sense.
Conclusion and Refund
While Podtrackers do offer a refund if the item is returned within a month, this was not an option for me partly because sending it back from Croatia would cost almost 50% of the price I bought it for, and partly because I wanted to test it longer to give it a fair chance.
I'm not too bothered by this, though - I'd rather hack it and turn it into a proper always-on tracker with a battery pack and play around with that than return it and be left without 50% of the money.
In conclusion, there is absolutely no way for me to recommend anyone ever buy a Podtrackers device. It has proven to be completely unreliable and dysfunctional. In its current state, I wouldn't offer it to someone for free.
Score: 1/5 - stay away
In the next post, I'll review the alternative: Tractive GPS 2.