Expert Advice: How to Pick the Right GPS Tracker

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One of the most common questions I get is, “What makes one GPS tracker better than another?”. The answer is that one isn’t really better than the other, they are just better suited for different purposes. One person may need to closely track a single vehicle, while another may be trying to manage an entire fleet, and a third person may just want to know where a vehicle is during certain hours. While just about any of our trackers could be used for any of these purposes, one may be a better choice.

Before I start comparing devices and tracking platforms, I’d like to talk briefly about GPS devices in general. They are extremely sensitive pieces of high tech equipment that allow a user to do some things that were science fiction until only a few years ago. Though not infallible, they can allow someone to keep track of vehicles, people, or assets from a single computer. With best placement, these devices are accurate to within a few feet and, so long as they can receive a signal, a GPS tracker’s margin of error will usually be measured in yards.

That being said, many people have some misconceptions regarding GPS. Though the movies have shown us plenty of examples of trackers the size of a quarter or a grain of rice, they don’t exist… yet. The smallest tracker currently on the market, the Spark Nano, is a little bit bigger than a Zippo lighter, and most others are about the size of a cellular phone. The reason has little to do with the size of a GPS module. It has to do with how the unit is powered. While it would be possible to make a smaller tracker, battery technology has yet to make them usable.

Additionally, the vast majority of real-time trackers rely on a cellular network to report their location to a computer server so that a user can see where their device is. The process works like this: the tracker picks up signals from several satellites and uses the information to figure out its’ geographic location. It then reports to a computer server via a cellular network, with different platforms using different networks. The user can then log in through the Internet to view the location of their device. Though some devices report back via satellites, most that are designed for consumer use will report this way to mitigate costs to the end user. The moral is, before ordering your device, check cellular coverage in your area since it may effect your choice of platform.

Lightning GPS trackers use three platforms, each with a few different devices: the Bolt, the Livewire, and the Storm.

There are currently two devices available for use on the Bolt server, the Bolt AVL and the Spark Nano. The Spark Nano has an internal battery that will last about five days, with an optional extended battery available, while the Bolt AVL must be hardwired into a vehicle for power. Each device has a custom map tied to it, which makes viewing a device’s location as simple as clicking a link. Users can create reports on location history and mark areas of interest on their maps. Trackers on this platform report every five minutes whenever they’re active in the field.

Bolt server trackers require a service commitment of 3, 6, or 12 months, with monthly costs varying by the length of time you choose. With a 12-month service plan, the plan works out to $33.25 each month, making it the most cost-effective available. This is a great platform for people looking to track one or a few devices at a time, and ideal for situations like parents keeping track of what their kids are doing with the family car.

The second Lightning GPS platform is Livewire, which was designed with professionals and fleet tracking in mind. The current stable of devices includes:

  • the FastTrac, a battery-operated device that will last for about 12 hours of movement
  • the Livewire Unlimited, which must be wired to a vehicle’s power source and comes with a multitude of extras like remote engine cut-off
  • the ATX, which is another hardwired tracker, but without the Unlimited’s extras, making installation simpler
  • the NavGenius, which combines the capabilities of a turn-by-turn directional system and includes 2-way communication

With updates every 10 seconds while moving, the Livewire server gives a user the most up-to-date location possible at $39.95 per month with no contract (though there is an activation fee for battery-operated units, and reactivation fees apply if service is discontinued and restarted). Supporting an unlimited number of users on a single account with robust historical reports, this device is ideal for private investigators, those looking to manage a large number of devices, or anyone who isn’t sure that they want to commit to a tracker for more than a few months.

Finally, there’s the Storm platform, which works a bit differently from either of the others. Currently, there are two devices available for the Storm platform, the DeWalt MobileLock and the P-Trac Pro. The Storm platform offers, by far, the most customizable tracking, but instead of being unlimited, a user purchases bundles of locates each month. For example, 30 locates would be $29.95 and 3,000 locates would be $79.95.  The user chooses how often, and under what circumstances, the device will track, and each device on an account must be configured separately. This can mean that tracking similar to that performed by Bolt or Livewire devices can be quite a bit more costly. However, if a user wants to perform locates on demand, in the case of inventory protection for example, this might make more sense.

Storm devices have one advantage over the other two Lightning GPS platforms. When indoors without access to a satellite signal, they can use assisted GPS, or A-GPS, using cellular signals to triangulate their position. Though nowhere near as accurate as true GPS positioning, A-GPS will provide an approximate position for the tracker. This means that Storm devices can be used in certain situations when other trackers wouldn’t work, like being put into a heating/cooling unit.

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When choosing your tracker, keep in mind what information you want from it, how often you need it, where you expect it to be going, and how much you want to pay. More information is available on each individual tracker at http://www.brickhousesecurity.com, or you can contact a product specialist at 800-654-7966 or e-mail sales@brickhousesecurity.com to discuss what will best suit your needs.

(Image by Brendan Riley, licensed under Creative Commons)

About the author  ⁄ BrickHouse Security

BrickHouse Security is the industry's premier supplier of security and surveillance solutions. As a recognized authority in GPS tracking, hidden cameras, cell phone/PC monitoring, video surveillance and counter surveillance, we help our customers use technology to get the clarity they need. We proudly serve consumers, businesses of all sizes and the law enforcement community. When you need to know, BrickHouse has the answers.