IsatPhone Pro

GCN LAB REVIEW

Dead zones don't stop this phone

There are places out there in the world where you can’t make a call on a normal cell phone. We explored some of these dead zones earlier in the year in reviewing the Wilson Sleek, a device that helped cell phones eke out a signal in the hinterlands between major cities. But even with a booster device on your signal, there are places where cell phones just can’t go. For those locations, you need a satellite phone.

I’m not completely new to the world of satellite communications. Many years ago I reviewed a satellite phone from a company called Globalstar.

I took it out into the Mojave Desert on a four-wheeling trip to a place where there really wasn’t any signal at all and proceeded to make calls, to the amazement of both the off-road guides and my fellow travelers. The biggest problem was that, back then, satellite phones were huge, bigger than a brick and just about as heavy. I had to strap the Globalstar to my back, and carrying that extra bulk wasn’t too fun when the temperature reached 110 degrees later that day.


Inmarsat IsatPhone Pro

Pros: Works where other phones won’t; better form factor than previous units.
Cons: Must be outside for optimal coverage; signal breaks up more than a regular phone.
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: A
Features: A
Value: B
Price: $599

Related coverage: 

Satellite phone crosses the dead zone

On the range, and out of range


But much has changed in the satellite phone world in 10 years, and much has stayed the same. The IsatPhone Pro phone from Inmarsat we tested for this review minimizes the flaws of the previous generation, although they don’t completely go away.

Those of you who have experience with this type of device will notice the size of the IsatPhone Pro right away. It’s a lot sleeker than the phones of yesteryear, and a lot lighter too. But it’s still bigger than any standard cell phone by at least half, even though a lot of that goes into the length of the phone because of the need to act as a case for the antenna. My guess is that there is a lot of empty space inside the phone because of this.

The antenna telescopes and is about a foot long when fully extended. You will need to extend it each time you want to make a call, which is done by simply rotating it along an axis, which will cause it to lengthen itself.

Data interface

The phone is able to work anywhere in the world other than the extreme polar regions, because satellites don’t generally go to the farthest edges of the planet. Besides voice, it also can support a data interface up to 20 kilobytes/sec., so you can use it to surf the Internet or send mail with other devices wherever you happen to be traveling. It uses a single network to perform all these functions, so there is never any worry of going out of range, unless you happen to be leaving the planet for a few days.

There is a very helpful interface that tells you how strong a signal the phone is getting, and it can even help you to locate satellites in your area, which is helpful because it can tell you where to stand to get the best reception. That brings up the main problem of satellite communications: the need for line of sight to space.

Although it’s true these phones can help you make calls pretty much anywhere, you need to be outside to do it for the most part. Even a standard roof on a single-family home is normally enough to block the signal and prevent you from making a call. Office buildings with all their steel infrastructure make the phone unusable. Sitting near a window sometimes can help you find a satellite, but even then the call quality is likely going to be low.

To test the phone, I drove into the mountains to a known dead zone around Oakland, Md., which happens to be where  my father-in-law lives. It just so happens that the trip coincided with the year’s first snowstorm, which is not unusual in an area of the country that gets more snow than Chicago. But since I couldn’t get a signal inside, I had to venture out into the blizzard to conduct my testing. Calls went through fine, and it was apparent that I would freeze long before the phone did.

Battery life

The storm itself didn’t seem to have any effect on the signal because, the next day when things cleared up, it performed exactly the same. However, this did not mean the call quality was perfect. I called an answering machine several times and read passages into it for study later. The recordings are not as high quality as you would get from a normal cell phone. It sounded like I was speaking through a digital signal, yet not all the data was getting through. You could mostly understand what I was saying, but it was a bit choppy.

Now, we are talking about an area where cell phones don’t work at all. So when compared to the alternative, the IsatPhone worked much better than, say, smoke signals. Just don’t expect crystal-clear communications every time. There is also a little bit of a delay as your words go up into space and bounce back down to Earth. It’s noticeable, but the delay is much less than I expected, and much less than I experienced in the past.

Battery life with the IsatPhone is about the same as with a normal cell phone. It can last in standby mode for days or even weeks, and three hours of use only drained the battery by a little less than half. It also was able to charge about at the same rate as a regular phone, going from zero to a full charge in under an hour.

At $599, the IsatPhone is a good deal only if you really need it. If that is the case, it’s value is probably going to be somewhat close to priceless. If all you ever do is motor around Washington, D.C., or the metro areas of large cities, you can purchase a smart phone or even a tablet for that same price. But if you routinely travel to places where any service at all is questionable, much less where you can’t find any Wi-Fi hot spots, then the IsatPhone could very well save your life, or at least keep you connected to it.

The bottom line is that if you travel in areas with spotty cell phone coverage, or no cell phone coverage, you will need a device like the IsatPhone if you want to communicate with the outside world. It can provide a lifeline whether you are trying to brave a scorching desert or a freezing blizzard. And it can do it far better than the previous generation of satellite phones. The IsatPhone earns high marks in all areas and is a good value for those who need to get there and back again, wherever there might be.

Inmarsat, www.inmarsat.com

Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 30, 2011 Southeast US

For a "use anywhere [outside]" phone, the $599 is not bad if you regularly lose all cell phone signals where you habitually go. Wonder what the monthly service fees are, though?

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