A Phone For Anywhere
Four wheeling isn’t what it used to be. We’re not talking about the basic concept of driving or the terrain itself. We mean your carry-ons for a trip, and for this month’s column we mean phone technology. It used to be that a CB radio was the extent of the communications system people had in their 4x4. Then technology graduated to a second antenna joining the CB’s, signifying a giant cell phone bolted to the firewall. These days, pretty much everyone is packing a petite phone of some kind in the middle of nowhere: smartphone, dumbphone, xylophone…we think we even saw a rotary phone once.
Satellite phones are beginning to creep up the popularity chain. The main appeal is that you’ll have a backup phone for if—nay, when—your mobile phone can’t get service anymore while off the beaten path. The difference between the two types of phones? Your regular phone uses cell towers, while the satellite phone uses satellites and gateways. Satellite phones get service through low-Earth-orbiting (or LEO) satellites. Globalstar, the name behind the SPOT global phone, has an LEO constellation that’s 700 miles from Earth. That’s close; the closer, the better the sound quality. The calls via SPOT route through up to four different satellites in order to prevent the call from dropping if one satellite’s path is blocked. The gateway is essentially the ground destination, which then directs it to the call destination. Note: You might want to check Wikipedia to confirm all that rather than regurgitating global-phone-space-tech knowledge handed down from idiots. That’s probably why we shouldn’t talk cell towers and transmitters and receivers.
We had a chance to try the very new SPOT global phone, and we were immediately taken aback by how lightweight it was. Why was that our first impression? It might have been because the design was similar to early cell phones, which weighed a ton of bricks and a half. But SPOT weighs in at just 7 ounces and we’re calling its look vintage.
What makes SPOT handy is that in addition to it being a voice-themed phone (as in, you can make and receive calls and it has voicemail capability), it also is data-enabled, so you can send email and use the web as well as do file transfers. In addition, you can receive texts (they’re SMS texts sent via a special URL), but you can’t send texts yourself. And you will have a local phone number associated with your SPOT. The phone runs on a lithium-ion battery equaling about 4 hours of talking time and 36 standby hours.
The SPOT instructions note that its performance will be affected by things like buildings and trees, so the first thing we did was test it in the city near buildings and trees. For once, that wasn’t because we’re idiots. Our feeling was, if there’s an earthquake or other crisis and the cell towers are down, we wanted to know in advance exactly how screwed we’d be turning to a satellite phone during said crisis. Turns out, we wouldn’t be completely screwed. While it took a couple minutes to get service even with the antenna in the proper upright position, more often than not we were able to make a connection and even talk for a couple minutes before the call was dropped. We also took SPOT to the middle of a baseball field within a park that had some surrounding acreage; curiously, we got no service at all there. “Tall buildings and so on can interfere with signal reception, so it’s ideal to be in an open area,” explained a SPOT rep. We didn’t hit a home run on that one. See what we did there?
The next test involved hitting the trail, or what we testers call real-world terrain: hillclimbs, curvy roads around mountains, unavoidable pockets of trees, and flat, open areas with nothing around but a view. We had what seemed like hit or miss performance out in the middle of nowhere, similar to being in the city, but we quickly realized that if we simply waited out the “looking for service” message for a few minutes, the connection would indeed happen. It’s not necessarily a flaw with the phone or satellites, but rather in how we’re now programmed for instant gratification. “Signal strengths vary greatly and utilize different types of satellites and devices use the satellites differently as well,” explained the rep, who also reminded us that patience is needed with a global phone.
One other thing we noticed was the SPOT IDs itself to your caller as “private caller.” We wondered aloud to the rep whether it made more sense to have it display as “SOS” or “Help” since most people tend to ignore a call not properly ID’d, but we were told that not all calls are distress ones and that’s why it displays as it does. “Sometimes you call just to check base, and having caller ID that reads SOS probably isn’t the best idea.”
The phone has a plenty of features you’re used to from any phone these days, such as an internal address book, configurable ring tones, call history, and sound/display/alert options.
SPOT also has a minute alert, which is probably something you’ll want to keep vigilant track of, since calling plans for a global phone are higher than you might expect. For example, SPOT’s Orbit 10 plan is $24.99 per month and includes 10 standard minutes. That’s right, 10. Orbit Unlimited is $149.99 for unlimited. Meanwhile, the Galaxy 120 annual service plan has 120 minutes for $300, and plans go up from there. Other fees apply to both the monthly and annual plans.
For more info on SPOT and how a global phone works, head to www.findmespot.com.
At A Glance
SPOT Global Phone
Height: 5.3 in
Width: 2.2 in
Depth: 1.5 in
Weight: 7.1 oz