Review: SPOT Global Phone
After developing a few generations of satellite trackers, SPOT has stepped it up a notch with a satellite phone. At $500, the SPOT Global Phone competes with the lowest pricing available for new sat phones. Service runs from $25 to $150 a month and is available on the Globalstar Network. Refurbished phones can be found for around $250, and service plans run the gamut.
Calls from covered far-flung locales sound as clear and delay-free as typical cell connections. Compact, lightweight design with adjustable headset volume sets it apart from clunky competitors.
Limited coverage limits your globetrotting — or at least your ability to call and brag about it. No way to lock keys so the power button doesn’t get pressed inadvertently. Slow data rates limit email and photo sharing.
Right away the clarity of calls with the SPOT Global Phone impressed me, offering better quality than many cell phone connections. And there was none of the delay I recall from previous sat phone connections or even transatlantic wired calls in the days of yore. That said, I could only test the phone on trips to Yosemite National Park in California and a remote corner of Utah because the Globalstar Network didn’t cover recent trips to Chile and Namibia (more on this later). Others I spoke to report that calls to the U.S. from Europe and the Middle East on the SPOT Phone were fast and clear.
The phone is 5.3 inches (13.5 cm) tall, 2.2 inches (5.6 cm) wide and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) thick. At 7.1 oz (201 g), it’s relatively lightweight. And unlike some sat phones, it’s comfortable to hold while making calls, easily fitting into the palm of your hand. It’s not waterproof, but it’s been ruggedized enough to handle a splash or two, or some light rain. The antenna folds neatly into the profile of the handset for easy packing and rotates and extends to the active position for left- or right-handed use, or if you need to set it on its side for data connections. The built-in ear speaker has an adjustable volume so you can use the phone against the naked ear or through a cold-weather cap and/or in loud environments. There’s also a hands-free jack to plug in an external headset — but no Bluetooth to connect wireless headsets.
As usual with satellite technology, you need a good clear view of the equatorial sky to connect, which rules out calling from canyons, dense tree cover, or indoors.
My biggest beef with the SPOT Global Phone is
coverage. Although the Globalstar Network coverage map shows most of South America within the “primary” coverage area, you have to read the fine print underneath that notes, “Roaming is unavailable to SPOT customers when traveling to the following countries and the surrounding ocean areas: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.” Having missed that before heading south, I soon realized trying to test it in Chile that it couldn’t connect there. And although I initially hoped to try it in Namibia, southern Africa is not covered. So as long as your adventures are limited to the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, this is the phone (and network) for you.
In addition to coverage limitations, I have one “key” quibble with the phone’s design. The long-press power button on the keypad is placed in such a way as to make inadvertent activation much too easy. There is no way to lock the keypad to avoid unintentionally powering it up or inadvertently making a call. You’ll need to keep the phone in a loosely packed bag or a small Pelican case.
Data geeks won’t find a lot to love here, either. Since it maxes out at 28k, data transfer is a slow process. Uploading photos, especially. If you’re trying to save air time, you’ll need to do like we did back in the day and make the photos super small. If you can afford the air time, then you can start sending your photos and let it rip — overnight possibly, if the images are large.
And if you expect to use this phone for email, set yourself up with a text-only email platform and avoid using in-browser online applications. This way you can download and send your messages in a batch instead of having to hover over your computer while it transmits. To save data and time, I recommend disabling downloading images and limiting the size of incoming emails. Although it offers one of the fastest portable satellite data connections, it still maxes out at 28k. (The data cable is sold separately for $20.)
The SPOT Global Phone comes with a wall charger, and a 12v cigarette lighter plug accessory is available separately. For extended periods away from power, consider bringing along the Goal Zero Sherpa 50 Solar recharging Kit ($360) to keep your phone and computer juiced.
If you’re an infrequent far-flung adventurer and need some sat phone piece of mind, consider renting. Depending on the length of your trip and how often you make calls, you could save a few bucks.
Cameron Martindell suffers through the throngs of gear-testing while exploring the world so you can explore the world suffering-free. Follow him on Twitter (@offyonder) and read about his exploits at offyonder.com.