When I moved to a new house, I brought my rescue dog with me. I was worried he’d try to escape and, given this was a new area, I’d have even more trouble chasing him down. Now, I’d heard about GPS pet trackers – devices you locked onto their collar which would return their location – and thought I should look into them.
However, he seemed to actually settle in at the new house. There were no escape attempts, and I could actually leave the front gate open while I worked on the bushes outside the fence, and he’d just watch and bring me the ball. So thoughts of spending money on such a gadget faded.
Then, three months in I got a call asking if I was missing a dog. After finding where he’d got out, and doing my best to dog proof that part of the yard, he got out again two days later. Whether through boredom, a need to explore, or even the fact that he enjoyed meeting new people, he was escaping again. So, I ordered what seemed to be the best GPS tracker, the Pod Tracker, and set about doing some major escape-proofing.So far, the escape-proofing has been a success, but I still had the Pod, which arrived three days after the last bout of using tools against innocent fences. At first, I had some issues, as I hinted at in my last entry, but it looks like they were just user issues.
The Pod itself is a neat little thing, being a cylinder about 5 cm long, and about 1 1/2 cm in diameter. It comes with two straps for fixing the Pod to your pet’s collar (one plus a spare), and a USB battery charger with spare battery. The documentation is all online which makes sense, since the point of this is to be able to track your pet from online.
The instructions say to charge at least one battery before using the Pod, but I found that both batteries were already fully charged.
I’ll ignore my initial attempts with it and just move smoothly on to how you get started with it. There’s an iOS App, an (currently in Beta) Android App, and a Web App. I started with the Web App, but I’m now playing with the Android one.
The first thing to do on opening the App is go create a new account. Once that’s done, you associate the ‘POD ID’ (essentially the IMEI of the mobile device inside it) with your pet, and you’re ready to go.
Once the device had a mobile signal (almost instant) and GPS lock (a few minutes wait), I could pinpoint my location to within a few meters. As with all GPS devices, the accuracy can depend on how much clutter is around and above it.
The Pod has three modes: each corresponds to frequency of locating itself with GPS, and consequently how much battery is used.
Standby doesn’t send reports or keep the GPS lock. However you can query the Pod to ask it to get its location from GPS and return that. Once it has a lock it can send a few responses for location over a minute, giving a rough idea if your personal Houdini is on the move or not. This is the lowest power mode. This will apparently give you 3-4 days of battery life – which is about what I’ve found in testing.
Perimeter (zone alerts) determines the location every 5 minutes and if it’s outside a zone you set on the map, sends you an alert to tell you that your pet is now a-wandering. They say the battery will last 1-1.5 days in this mode which, again is what I’ve seen in testing.
Track (adventures) is for when you what to find out what your pet has been up to with high details. Every 10 seconds in stores position, speed and heading. A full battery will last about 6-8 hours in this mode is their estimate. I haven’t much played with this as the needed Bluetooth support (to load the data into the app) isn’t available in Android yet.
Querying and requested locations all appear to use SMS to do the job, which I guess is the easiest thing to use rather than holding open a data channel all the time. Everything else, such as changing modes, and alerts, seem to use the 2G data. This, however, is just a guess based on what I’ve seen.
There are three lights on the pod. On ‘boot up’ (the first 5 minutes after you turn it on) all of the lights come on, then settle into ten second status reports, allowing you to see if it’s got mobile signal and GPS lock. After that five minutes you can press a button to get the current status of the Pod.
So that’s all the technical stuff. How is it to use?
Using the Pod in Practice
Let’s start with your precious pet first. The straps that attach it to the collar are quite strong. In fact they recommend you use a pair of pliers to help pull them through as much as possible as the fit is very tight. I have very little worry that it will fall off. The tapered ends allow them to start feeding through the Pod well, but after a while you will need some serious effort to tighten them. I didn’t really need the pliers until the last few millimeters, but they were needed then.
My Terror is a small Jack Russel, and I think he’s probably the smallest animal I’d recommend this for. The main problem is that with his smaller collar, the Pod is heavier than the D-ring and tags. Since they suggest you put the Pod on the back of the pet’s neck, this just means the whole collar rotates until the device is, in fact, at the side or lower. I can’t really imagine this on a smaller animal. This does seem to be the smallest and lightest GPS pet tracker out there, but even that isn’t quite small enough for some pets.
And don’t even think about putting this on your budgie.
So, once I had it on, and got used to how it worked, I settled into a routine. When I’m at home, I usually set it to ‘Locate’ mode. If I’m going out, I’ll set it to ‘Perimeter’ mode. I’ve had two alarms of him escaping so far, however both of those were simply because I’d set the zone too tightly around my yard, and the vagaries of GPS means that he was outside the fence as far as the device was concerned. Since I’ve taken that into account the only alert I’ve had was when I took him out, and forgot to change the mode. I deserved that one.
Speaking of the ‘vagaries of GPS’, it’s probably important to realise the limitations of the GPS system. As mentioned above, too much clutter around, or above the unit can cause it to either lose GPS lock, or for the location to be less accurate. I have a lot of trees with large canopies in and around my yard, with only one clear spot. A spot the Terror never sits in, of course.
There is also his kennel, which is hard up against the house, under the eaves. Whenever he’s in there, his determined location can vary quite wildly: from being in the front yard, to being in our neighbor’s house. In my case I had to set the zone around the house a lot ‘looser’ than I’d have liked because of those factors. On the other hand, when he gets out, he goes for a nice long wander, so even if I doubled the size of the zone, it would still trigger if he got out.
It does seem that the GPS is far less accurate than (say) the one in my Samsung Galaxy S5, but given their respective prices, and the fact that the Pod tries to not burn through the battery long before you can get home, I can see why it has the accuracy it does. Really, I think they’ve found a good compromise for balancing power usage, price, ruggedness and accuracy.
I also wouldn’t want to hang my S5 from the Terror’s collar.
I mentioned that the Android app is currently in beta, and of course that means there’s a few niggles there until the next release.
For a start, instead of leaving a service in the background when you hit the ‘back’ key to exit the client, it actually logs you out. If you remember to manually push it into the background, then it will log you out due to ‘inactivity’ if you’re not checking it every couple of hours.
Other than a few minor display glitches (that I can’t reproduce reliably), the only other thing that I’d like is the bluetooth upload of tracking data. I’m told that’s also in the next version.
A Special Note On The Battery
I should also mention changing the batteries. The first time I tried to remove one battery to put on the other one, I couldn’t get the first one off, even after reading the hints on the website.
You turn the battery from the ‘lock’ to the ‘unlock’ position and then they say you try to ‘snap’ the battery and pod apart, as if you were snapping a pencil. They really mean this, and if your battery is as tight as mine was you will need a lot of force the first few times. As long as you definitely have it in the unlock position, then just keep trying to snap it until it comes apart.
The Mobile Network
The Pod uses Vodafone‘s 2G network, and Pod Trackers have a deal with Vodafone worldwide as best I can tell. So if your country has a Vodafone network, you’re probably in a good place for this to work.
As an Australian I was more than a little nervous about this using the Vodafone network; their reputation hasn’t been that stellar over the last few years – even spawning the name ‘Vodafail’. If you have this worry, don’t. They’ve done some kind of deal with Optus to help pick up coverage where their own network isn’t as strong, and I’ve had good mobile signal, even in slightly ‘grey spots’ (they aren’t dead enough to be called ‘black spots’).
When I first got my Pod, they’d only just started sending them out from the first production runs. Since this meant a whole lot of people got their devices all at once, it meant that Support was swamped (as you’d expect for any new device).
A few weeks later they hired a new Support Genie (Hi Tim!) and since then, the support is much quicker and smoother. I actually got a call from Tim to discuss the issues I was having (shut up; it’s not my fault I have to make everything too complicated), and I’ve received followup emails since, to make sure that things are still OK.
So, if you’re having issues, you should now have them addressed in a reasonable time, with great, friendly service.
I’m now really happy with the Pod, and feel much better about leaving my Terror alone during the day. Once the small issues with the Android app are sorted, it should make it even easier to use, and I should go from ‘really happy’ to ‘ecstatic’. Yes, I am that kind of geek.