Telespial Systems makes some big claims in advertising for its Trackstick Mini, a passive tracking device that was introduced to the market last year. Among them, the southern California company boasts that the compact GPS unit has seven times better sensitivity than any of its other tracking systems and that it’s the longest-running vehicle tracker on the market.
In fact, the Trackstick Mini represents a complete overhaul over Telespial’s three other passive devices – the Trackstick II, the Trackstick Pro and the Super Trackstick. Set beside its predecessor, the Super Trackstick, this new device is certainly different in size, shape and color. Putting appearance aside, the other features of the Trackstick Mini begged for a road test.
1. Passive GPS Technology Overview:
Those new to GPS tracking technology quickly learn that there are two types of GPS vehicle tracking devices: passive and active. Both acquire GPS signal in the same manner. The difference is in how that data is handled and viewed/read.
All GPS systems are receivers. They capture signals from satellites and calculate the unit’s location with a mathematical formula called triangulation.
If the user wants to see that location information immediately (real time), a method must be used to transmit it “live” to a computer server. A modem and cellular data technology are usually the solution. This system involves additional monthly fees.
Passive vehicle tracking systems have no additional fees, because the location data is stored in the device’s internal memory. The user later retrieves the device and downloads the data onto a PC for viewing.
Most consumers initially prefer a real-time solution. But the monthly fees – and often an annual contract – could be financially burdensome. Passive devices work equally well and are cost-effective. They also can store significantly more data than real-time units.
2. Manufacturer Claims and Model Specs:
Two important qualities in GPS tracking devices are always debated: power and signal acquisition. Usually, to get a consistently good signal, GPS devices need a clear shot at the sky. That is the case with GPS navigation devices.
Passive devices like the Trackstick Mini must prove themselves worthy in less-than-ideal conditions. Covert installation is sometimes necessary. The Telespial pitchman addresses this on the company website. The Trackstick Mini has a 360° internal antenna, so, the company says; it doesn’t need to have its face to the sky.
The Trackstick Mini operates on an internal lithium?ion battery that is recharged through a computer’s USB port. The thin design of the unit and the black color are appropriate for covert placement. As an added layer of environmental protection, the Trackstick Mini includes a soft rubber sleeve that surrounds the recording device. The magnetic clip permits quick mounting on metal components. Another improvement includes a significant gain in sensitivity as identified by the manufacturer. The Trackstick Mini is supported by Trackstick Manager software. The same is being used on the company’s other passive models.
- 5-second sampling rate
- Motion sensor/vibration detector
- On/off switch
- Built?in USB port
- Magnetic mounting surface
New features include:
- Sleek, water?resistant housing
- Soft rubber boot surrounding the enclosure as added protection from the elements
- Significant gain in sensitivity (Seven times, according to the manufacturer’s website)
- Lithium?ion rechargeable battery
3. The Test
The Trackstick Mini was fully charged and then placed deep under the driver’s seat of an ordinary four-door sedan. Our test involved moving it every two days to a new location in the vehicle until the unit ran out of power, all the while checking for proper signal acquisition. The accuracy and consistency of readings would be analyzed upon data download.
The placement rotation was as follows: Under the seat, under the vehicle on the frame, inside the glove compartment, in the trunk near the rear window and inside the rear bumper.
It is important to note that, when the Trackstick Mini’s battery is depleted, it simply stops operating. No data already in memory is lost (non-volatile).
Figure 1 below shows the location of the LED light on the Trackstick Mini.
Insert image of Trackstick Mini here with the arrow pointing to green light (it’s the image on the right of the page).
The Telespial Trackstick Mini uses the same LED, located on the lower right corner of the device, for battery and GPS status. The flashing GPS status is also an indication of each recorded position. There is no way to identify the battery status of the Trackstick Mini when not plugged into a PC. The LED will flash green once every 5 seconds when locked onto a GPS signal. When the battery expires, the unit simply shuts down.
The test car was driven about 40 miles per day, for about two hours daily of wheels-in-motion recording time. After two days, the device was moved to the next position in the cycle. In every placement position, the Trackstick Mini light indicated that it had a good, continuous GPS lock. That meant it was performing well in not-the-best-of circumstances.
Eleven days after the test started, the Trackstick Mini stopped tracking due to a lack of power. Roughly calculated, our test resulted in about 25, perhaps 30 hours of driving/recording on a battery charge, which is far less than the 80 hours the manufacturer advertises.
It was time to download the data and find out how well the Trackstick Mini worked.
4. Download and Review of Data:
The Telespial Trackstick Manager is a menu-driven software program that is used to extract and display the GPS tracking data on a PC. Interface is via the USB port. It is important to point out once again that the Trackstick Mini recharges its lithium-ion battery while downloading data at the USB port.
Place Figure 2 here showing software and numbers
The Trackstick Manager software is user-friendly. Once the data is downloaded, the user can select from the dates recorded as shown in Figure 2, item 1. The end date for our test period was the date the Trackstick Mini’s battery expired. Viewing the graphic portion of the data is accomplished by creating a Google Earth® file, also known as a KMZ, Figure 2, item 2. The recorded latitude/longitude positions are recreated and displayed onto the Google Earth® map with a path connected between each of these positions. The stops on Google Earth® are identified with red dots, but they are not identified individually. However, you can place the mouse over these dots and the details will appear for the corresponding stop. Figure 2, item 3 shows the sequential positions recorded throughout the recording period. Each of these positions includes a link to Google Maps® allowing the user to identify a graphic reference to each recorded point (geo-tagging). At the bottom of the list is a breakdown of the number of positions recorded, hours traveled, and miles traveled. The user can isolate dates and times to modify the breakdown and make it the subject of a daily summary report.
The Trackstick Mini’s data display was adequate without being misleading. But the travel replay on Google Earth® was at times choppy and wavered from designated roads. We have seen similar GPS tracking products on the market that have more mapping and viewing options in their software.
Insert Figure 5 here; use the photo/screenshot on the LEFT only
- Battery Life: In our experiment, the test car was driven about two hours a day (39 miles), and the Trackstick Mini gave us 11 days of recording on a single charge of its lithium-ion battery. The user is the ultimate judge, but 11 days hardly seems enough to give the unit the title “the longest-running vehicle tracker on the market.” The lithium-ion battery seems to be a convenience, but that is lost when the need arises for a hot?swap solution. A drained battery in the Trackstick Mini means that the entire device must be charged for an hour or two prior to returning to service. The system doesn’t have a secondary power option. We feel this would be a major drawback for law enforcement and/or private detectives that require rapid turnaround. The Trackstick Mini has a motion sensor/vibration detector to conserve battery life. That seemed to have performed very well in our test.
- Signal Acquisition: A quality GPS tracking device quickly acquires a GPS signal, even when it is located in a compromising position on the vehicle. In this test, the Trackstick Mini performed better than its own company predecessors, so it does have a more powerful receiver and the 360° antenna apparently does work. On a larger scale, acquisition could be considered average and not as good as we’ve seen from other products in the market. The sampling rate of five seconds is also adequate, but it could be more frequent for a smoother trip flow.
- Accuracy : The accuracy of the Trackstick Mini’s readings was acceptable, but we’ve seen other products on the market that performed much better. With the Trackstick Mini, many times the graphic replay of travel activities showed the vehicle drifting off the road (Figure 5). That’s usually the result of poor signal acquisition, poor placement of the device in the vehicle, and data interpretation.
- Software: The software package performed quite well. It is menu-driven and user-friendly. But its viewing options are limited. There are other products currently being sold that have more of a variety in trip recaps.
- Device Design: The Trackstick Mini’s physical design is quite attractive and functional. It’s unobtrusive and easily portable. The USB connection has a protective cap. The magnetic mount is adequate. The rubber case or boot is a good idea, because it would provide an extra level of protection from weather and being knocked around. The dual purpose GPS signal/battery indicator light is not practical. A second, low-battery light would have been helpful.
If looking for a passive vehicle tracking device that can be easily and cleverly hidden, the Trackstick Mini is a good contender. The software and the hardware itself are easy to operate. Due to an improved receiver and antenna, this product does seem to perform better in both GPS signal acquisition and data accuracy than predecessors from Telespial Systems. But competitors in the field have a better track record. Superior power is advertised, but in our test, the product did not deliver to that high level.
- Improved signal acquisition
- User-friendly software
- Weatherproof rubber boot
- No low battery light
- Battery requires at least 2 hours to recharge
- Limited data viewing options
- Data often shows vehicle drifting off road
Ratings based on a 5-point scale for each feature.
Battery Life: 3
Acquisition Time: 4
Device Design: 4
Overall Rating, Trackstick Mini:
3.5 of a possible 5 stars