Satellite phones have been around for a long time, but their expense (usually several hundred dollars to buy) and the broad availability of regular cell phones have kept them out of the hands of most consumers. But even as wireless networks continue to grow, the need for something different hasn't gone away completely. Though cell phone carriers don't like to admit it, their networks don't reach everywhere. And those rural locations are often the place where you need a phone most.
To help reduce that coverage gap, TerreStar's Genus is a dual-mode cellular-satellite smartphone. In civilization it uses AT&T's standard cellular network, but when off the map you can connect to a satellite. You should get coverage in just about any corner of America, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. The feature set isn't bad, either, with Windows Media Player, Bluetooth, 3G, and Wi-Fi, and the design is relatively straightforward. On the downside, you will have to use Windows Mobile 6.5.3, but we suppose you can suffer through it for more connectivity.
Unfortunately, the Genus' jaw-dropping price remains a barrier. The starting MSRP is $799, though it can go as high as $1,069, and that comes before the high cost of satellite calls. But if you can afford it, the Genus will serve you well.
The Genus reminded us immediately of a cross between a BlackBerry and a Samsung BlackJack. With its chunky, rectangular body and black color, this is a no-nonsense handset. Style, however, isn't meant to be part of the equation, so we're willing to stick to the basics if it means we can make calls in more places. Our only real complaint about the design is that some elements, particularly the plastic skin around the display and the chrome border on the phone's rim, feel a bit cheap. We're not worried that it would break, but we don't want to take the chance. And considering that this is a device you'll take into the wild, we expect it to take some abuse.
The touch screen measures 2.6 inches. That's smaller than we'd prefer, but the resolution (320x240 pixels; 16 million colors) is easy on the eyes. There's no accelerometer, but the display has an ambient light sensor. As mentioned, the Genus runs Windows Mobile 6.5.3 Professional. It's not a terrible OS by any means, but it's far from being our favorite. It will take a lot of acclimation if you're switching from Android, iOS, or even Windows Phone 7. The touch interface is responsive, and you get a stylus for poking at small items.
Immediately below are the navigation controls. You'll find a circular toggle with a central select button, two soft keys, an OK control, shortcuts for the camera and the satellite calling feature, and the Talk and End/Power key. The keypad buttons sit further down. There are three rows, so numbers and letters share space. That's not our ideal scenario, and the keys are rather small, but we appreciate that they're raised above the surface of the phone. Also, there are a fair number of shortcuts, and the spacebar is large enough even if it's set slightly off-center.
On the left side are a screen lock key and the microSD card slot. There you'll also find the Micro-USB charger port (good) and the 2.5mm headset jack (bad). Over on the right side are the volume rocker and a mute key. The camera lens sits on the rear side between the speaker grille and a port for attaching the extra antenna.
The Genus isn't the most powerful smartphone around, but it offers enough features to keep you busy when not making calls. Each contact in the phone book holds multiple entry fields. Other essentials include a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a notepad, a task list, a task manager, and a file manager. You'll also find Bluetooth, PC syncing, USB mass storage, text and multimedia messaging, Wi-Fi, and a dedicated app for searching files stored on the phone.
As a Windows Mobile device, the Genus has all the productivity apps you'd expect. You can use instant messaging and sync the Genus with Outlook and POP3 e-mail accounts like Yahoo. And of course, you can sync the handset with your Outlook calendar. You'll also find an Internet Explorer Mobile browser, Microsoft ActiveSync, and Microsoft Office Mobile for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF documents.