It can be a heart-stopping question for parents: "Where is my child?" In parks, at beaches or in any public setting, your kid can wander out of view in an instant. But technology can provide some peace of mind in the form of a lightweight GPS tracker — sometimes a watch, sometimes a device that clips to a backpack — that can last a day or two on a charge, and offers frequent and reliable updates on your child's whereabouts.
Of the devices we've tested, we recommend Jiobi as the best GPS tracker for kids. It's a kid-proof tracker that can withstand the elements and pairs seamlessly with all of your child's caretakers' smartphones. If you prefer a watch, Lil Tracker is comfortable for kids to wear and affordable, though its app is pretty confusing and detracts from using the device.
Our expert review:
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Jiobit is small and light, about 2 x 1.5 x 0.5 inches and 0.6 ounces, with a loop that lets you attach it to a backpack, shoe, belt loop, keychain or necklace. After I tucked it inside an organizer pocket in my son's backpack, I had to fish it out only every five days or so to charge it in the USB charging dock.
With no screen, microphone or speaker, the Jiobit feels very durable. It's shock-resistant and waterproof with an IPX8 rating — I doubt my 6-year-old could destroy it without a dedicated, sustained effort. We threw it on the ground, stepped on it and left it on the driveway during a rain shower, and it kept working just fine.
The best part for parents is how the Jiobit app for iOS and Android lets you know not only where your child is but also who she's with. If your child has multiple caregivers and they all use the Jiobit app, the tracker and the caregiver's phone will connect with Bluetooth whenever they're in range. That way, you can see in the app that your son left school at 3 p.m., accompanied by his dad, or his stepmom, or his babysitter, or whoever was supposed to pick him up.
Even better, you aren't notified when your child arrives at or leaves a trusted place with you. After all, you don't need a push notification to tell you that you just picked up your kid from school. But you do want a notification if she leaves school alone or with someone else. Trusted Places are easy to set up in the app, and you can choose to be notified when the tracker enters, leaves or both.
You add other caregivers to your Care Team by phone number. They'll receive a link over SMS (text) to download the Jiobit app, and when they set up an account, they enter their own phone number. Care Team members can choose to be notified when the Jiobit enters and leaves the trusted places you've set up, and they can see the Jiobit on the map and which caregiver is in range. They just can't set up additional trusted places or change any of the Jiobit's settings.
With a combination of Bluetooth, GPS/GLONASS and Wi-Fi, the Jiobit got a good signal indoors and outdoors — the app always found it within a second or two of launching. Tapping the top of the smartphone screen lets you enter tracking mode, where the location updates on the map as the tracker moves, leaving a track between points. Live tracking for long periods will wear down the Jiobit's battery, so the app asks you after 2 minutes if you want to keep tracking or go back to the map, which still refreshes every few seconds if the tracker is moving, just without creating a trail.
Even though Jiobit's app looks great, it could have a few more features. There's no History to show where the tracker has been during the day. Nor does Jiobit have an SOS button your child can press if there's trouble. PocketFinder, another GPS tracker that's similar but slightly larger than the Jiobit, has an SOS button, and the dated-looking-but-functional app can replay its movements from any point in time. Plus, PocketFinder has a web app, which Jiobit also lacks.
If you're trying to locate the Jiobit, there's no augmented-reality view to guide you to its exact spot — a feature we appreciated on the Trax Play GPS Tracker. But when you're paired by Bluetooth, you'll notice a little bar in the app that connects your photo, representing your phone, to your child's photo, representing the Jiobit. That bar grows longer or shorter based on how close you are, which can help you home in on the device. Then, you can tap the little bell icon, and the Jiobit will make a noise and flash its LED, in case you've lost it under the bed, for example.
The Jiobit costs $149, with a service contract available for $14 a month. Sign up for two years of service and you lower the cost to $9 a month. (In either case, your first 30 days are free.) Additional Jiobit trackers can be added to either plan for $6 a month, with the same pricing for the device. The tracker uses AT&T's and T-Mobile's networks to send the GPS data.
The Jiobit is a great little tracker, with long battery life and an easy-to-use app that make this device easy to recommend. I love the way the Bluetooth pairing works, letting you know who your child is with and where they are.
2. Lil Tracker
Our expert review:
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The Lil Tracker is a full-featured GPS watch aimed at kids, but it may be a little too full-featured once you get a look at the app. You have to provide your own SIM card (more on that in a bit), but that enables GPS tracking, as well as two-way voice calls, texts and one-way calls in which you can just listen to what's going on at your child's location.
Weighing only 1.5 ounces, the watch is light, with a comfortable silicone band and a metal buckle. It has a 1.2-inch color touch screen with a friendly animated monkey that accompanies the time display. It's rugged and splash-proof, and there's also a completely waterproof version for $20 more. Battery life depends on how much you use the device, of course, but the Lil Tracker is designed to last 12 hours; I had to recharge it every night.
The Lil Tracker stands out from other trackers with its two- and one-way calling. For two-way calls, you call the watch from the app on your smartphone; the watch accepts calls only from numbers you've authorized in the app. Kids can call those approved contacts too, by swiping and tapping the touch screen. Holding down the SOS button on the side of the watch will call up to three preprogrammed numbers, in order, until someone answers.
Calls between the watch and the app connected quickly in my tests. The sound quality was only so-so, but it was good enough for a quick check-in. My 6-year-old son could understand me just fine over the watch's speaker, but I sometimes had a hard time telling what he was saying when he was outdoors. When he was indoors and speaking right into the watch, the call sounded a lot better.
One-way calls, called "Sound Guardian" in the app's menu, are kind of like the Drop In feature on Amazon Echo devices. Parents use the app to call the watch, and they can hear what's going on around it, but the watch doesn't ring or make any indication that someone is listening in. This worked well: My son's watch called me right away, and I could tell he was at school — but he didn't know I was calling, so he didn't say anything to me. The sound quality was only so-so and varied based on ambient noise.
The app (which, weirdly, is called SeTracker2, not Lil Tracker, on iOS and Android) has a lot of other features, too. Some are a lot more important than others. Useful features include the ability to set multiple geofences, track route histories and remove detection alerts (though mine went off when my son took off the watch because his wrist was getting sweaty). The watch can track steps taken and distance, estimate calories burned and count how many times your child turns over in her sleep. (But the watch is pretty bulky to keep on at night, and you need to charge it overnight.) You can send text chats to the watch, including emoji if your child isn't a reader yet. They can't text you back, though.
Unfortunately, the app is riddled with spelling errors and messages that make no sense. (An item called Make Friends brings up a message that reads: "Note: app delete function only for friends to pay a single friend devices; devices can cross multiple friends need to device the end delete." Huh?) Time zone selection is confusing, as you have to calculate how far away you are from Greenwich Mean Time. And the app's main screen has a decorative banner above the map that flips through five images that don't add anything to the app — they're just distracting. Worse, though, is that the app often displays an actual full-screen ad upon launching, even if you're launching it by tapping a push notification.
The watch runs on the 2G network, which means it's using GPRS in the U.S. because 2G networks are being shut down. (The company plans to release a 3G version of the watch soon.) For a SIM card, any GSM/GPRS network should work. Cheap SIM cards from US Mobile, Ting, or SpeedTalk are a good bet, but Lil Tracker leaves the research and purchase entirely up to you; the company doesn't offer a package that includes a SIM card or service. (However, our review unit came with a SIM installed and pre-activated.)
The bring-your-own-SIM model means you can shop around for cheap service. Your carrier may be able to add a SIM for this to your family plan, so check with them first. And keep in mind that Ting offers SIM cards where you pay only for the data you use each month, with plans as low as $9.
The Lil Tracker watch is passable — and affordable — but the app is disappointing and hampers the experience. It's too bad, because with an all-new app, the Lil Tracker would be a contender. The one-way calling, which lets you listen in on what's happening around your child, is a compelling feature for parents who want to know more than the kid's location.
Our expert review:
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
The PocketFinder+ device looks basic, a simple, black key-chain fob with a single silver SOS button. It pairs with a smartphone app that looks like it was designed five years ago, but it still packs a decent amount of functionality. The setup isn't pretty, but it works for the most part.
PocketFinder+ measures 3 x 1.6 x 0.6 inches and weighs 1.7 ounces. With the attached keychain, you can hook the finder to a bag or belt loop. It's a little larger than the Jiobit, but the PocketFinder+ also has an SOS button on the front, which the Jiobit lacks. Press and hold that button to send an SOS alert to email addresses and SMS phone numbers specified in the app. You can add as many contacts as you'd like.
PocketFinder's battery life varies widely based on how often the device pings the server with its location, a frequency you can set. By default, when the tracker is moving, it sends its location every 10 seconds for 3 minutes straight, then takes a 10-minute break. When it's not moving, PocketFinder goes to sleep.
When I stashed the PocketFinder+ in my son's backpack, which stays put in his cubby while he's at school, the battery lasted nearly two full days. But when he kept the finder in his pants pocket instead, we had to charge it each night. You can customize when you want the tracker to remind you to charge it, to avoid sending your kid off with a tracker battery that won't last all day.
Even if the tracker is asleep, you can always press Track Mode in the app's Power Management menu to wake and start locating the tracker within 2 minutes. You can also save battery life by having the tracker take 20-minute breaks between "locates." Or you can locate more frequently, including every 4 minutes or even constantly, which is a nice option to have in an emergency.
The worst part about the PocketFinder is its smartphone app. The interface looks very dated, with an iOS 6-era design and a letterboxed layout. Menus display features that aren't available yet, like one that will alert you when the PocketFinder exceeds a certain speed limit. Other tools are buried; for instance, you set up SOS Alerts in the Power Management section but add the contact details for those alerts in the Account section. The iOS app also crashed every time I tried to add an email address or a phone number from my device's built-in contacts, forcing me to type those in manually.
The app's main screen, however, does pack in a ton of information. It shows the tracker on a map, as well as how far away it is from you, which direction it's moving (if it is moving), its signal strength and battery life, and what address it's closest to, which you can tap to copy or open in your phone's default mapping app.
You can tap the Instant Zone button on the map to add a zone around the tracker's current location, so you'll get a notification when the tracker arrives or leaves. Or you can tap Zones in the menu below the map to see the zones you already have and add new ones anywhere in the world. The app supports unlimited zones, and they're very accurate, thanks to PocketFinder's use of GPS, assisted GPS, 3G tower ID and Wi-Fi locating to track indoors and out. I was getting "out of zone" notifications when the tracker was just at a far end of my house, until I made the zone a little bigger.
The History feature lets you specify an exact period of time and see all the tracker's locations during that time plotted on a map. This same feature works in the web app, where you can also download the history as a PDF or CSV file. The web app can also be used to locate the tracker, set up zones, view alerts and create Access User accounts that are limited to locating the tracker only — everything the smartphone app can do. This is a great feature in case you happen to misplace your phone along with the tracker.
PocketFinder+ requires a service plan of $12.95 per month, purchased through the company, and the tracker costs $159. That's more than the similar Jiobit tracker. But PocketFinder has some extra features that Jiobit lacks, like the SOS button, web app and History feature.
PocketFinder+ has every feature you'd want in a pocket-size tracker, but the experience is marred by the clunky smartphone app.
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