The Spot Global Phone, which debuted earlier this year at CTIA, may be just the gadget for those times when you can't, or don't what to be, away from at all. It doesn't snap photos, it won't run apps, and it doesn't play music, but it will let you stay in touch when you're outside cellular range by connecting to satellites spinning around Earth. Style isn't its strong point, but I suspect that anyone looking for a satellite phone won't be concerned with its big, bulky frame.
What's more, that person also can't be fazed by the Spot Global's high cost. Though it's far cheaper than the $1,600 Terrestar Genus that I reviewed two years ago, it will run you a healthy $499. Sure, that's less than an unlocked iPhone 5 (and you really can't put a price on all-time accessibility if you're lost in the woods), but you'll have to afford the hefty service plans, as well. And even though it's designed to work in the wild, call quality and reception are all over the map (pun intended).
Design and features
The Spot Global brick shape will take you back to 2002 and the era of Nokia's big candy bar phones. Measuring 5.3 inches long by 2.2 inches wide by 1.5 inches deep and weighing 7.1 ounces, it won't fit in your average pocket, but it isn't uncomfortable to use or carry in a backpack. Indeed, it had a welcome solid in my hand, even if it's not waterproof or exceptionally rugged. The plastic casing is far from flimsy, but I doubt that it would survive a tumble when you're rock climbing. On the other hand, it will withstand temperatures as low as -4 Fahrenheit (-20 Celsius) and as high as 131 Fahrenheit (55 Celsius).
The single display, which shows the battery life, signal strength, and the phone's status, is no bigger than a postage stamp. Normally, I'd complain about such a small display, but I can't fault the Spot Global for going minimal. The simple menu interface has nine items arranged in numerical order; you scroll through it using the rubber volume rocker on the left side. Just above the rocker is a 2.5mm headset jack. Unfortunately, that means that you'll need an adapter if you want to use a standard wired headset.
Down below are two soft keys, a central Clear button, and the Talk and End/power keys. Below them is the standard alphanumeric keypad. All of the controls are raised and easy to use by feel. The star and pound keys also double as arrow controls for scrolling through the menu.
Turn the Spot Global around and you'll see the thick antenna. As the display will instruct you, you must rotate the antenna up 180 degrees and extend it to its full length (8.5 inches) before you can get a signal. Once it's up, you may have to rotate the antenna slightly to keep your connection, but the whole mechanism is smooth and easy to use. In its closed position, the antenna rests next to the bulbous battery compartment.
Though I accept the phone's heft, I can't abide the bulky and cumbersome charger. It fits a standard outlet (because there's always one of those around when you're backpacking) or you can buy an optional car adapter (ditto). The plug then connects to an AC adapter and on to a proprietary port on the phone's bottom end. So not only is the whole thing a pain to carry around, it's also inconvenient. Why Spot Global couldn't give us a standard Micro-USB charger really has me scratching my head.
Cost and Coverage
As I mentioned, after you get past the initial cost of the Spot Global, you'll have to fork over more than a few pennies for the service plan. Now don't get me wrong, I don't expect satellite calls to come cheap, but it is important to understand what you're in for. And again, the cost of using the phone will most likely be worth it that one time you really, really need it.
Depending on your expected use, you can go with either monthly or annual service plans. Monthly plans start at $24.99 per month for 10 (yes, I said 10) anytime minutes. Extra minutes are $1.99 each and voice mail is an additional $4.99 monthly fee. If you need more time to chat, there are four additional plans with each level giving you more anytime minutes for a higher monthly fee. The cost for additional minutes decreases as you go up until you get to the top-tier unlimited plan for $149.99 per month. Voice mail is free for the three most expensive plans, but there's a $50 activation fee no matter which plan you choose.
Annual plans range from $300 120 minutes to $1,800 for as long as you want to talk. The cost for extra minutes varies here, as well, and voice mail is a $60 annual fee for the two cheapest plans. Though unused airtime will not be rolled over to the next billing cycle, there are no additional roaming or long distance fees so the planet, or at least some of it, is yours.
As you can from the below map, coverage for the Spot Global Phone isn't universal. The Primary Service Area covers most of North and South America, Europe and the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic Ocean, Australia and New Zealand, central Asia and Russia, Korea, Japan, and northeastern China. The Extended Service Area (where Spot says that you "may experience a weaker signal") borders the primary area while the Fringe Service Area (where customers should expect "the weakest signal") extends over the Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans. Coverage areas to come in the near future include east Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. India and much of Africa is not covered.
Using the Spot Global
Over the past few months, I used the Spot Global Phone in San Francisco, rural Sonoma County in California, Olympic National Park in Washington state, and on the island of Crete in Greece. Except for the time that it takes to connect to a satellite, making a call is no different than using a regular phone. Just dial the number and press the talk button. After you're done, hang up using the End button.
In my experience, it took no more than 30 seconds to connect. Of course, you'll need to be away from any obstructive buildings or terrain. A clear shot to the sky may be hard to come by in the mountains, but such is the price we pay for satellite communication.