Talk Abroad service
The most unique thing about the phone is the service it's attached to. Talk Abroad's SIM card -- which you can buy separately, without buying a phone -- outfits the phone with two numbers: one for the U.S. and one for the U.K. You'll be able to accept incoming calls to either number (but you generate calls from the U.K. number.) As part of the service, your phone rides on a local GSM network -- here in San Francisco, it was T-Mobile.
You pay per-$29 increments for the service, and then deduct a certain amount for each call or text you originate. Most outgoing calls cost 69 cents per minute, and calls to voice mail are $0.45 per minute. Outgoing texts generally cost $0.60 each, but incoming texts are free. Calls made to your UK number are free, but you'll pay $0.30 per minute for each call you receive at the U.S. number. Your eventual total credit spend is going to depend on how you use the service, and over how long a period. I'd advise you not to make any calls while physically in the U.S.; the $0.30-per-minute-cost will pile up quickly.
The service's 24-hour, 7-day-a-week toll-free help line is one of Talk Abroad's most useful features.
Talk Abroad is technically a callback service, which means that you don't place calls directly. Instead, you submit the call to the network, and receive a call that connects you in the middle. Not only does this mean that it takes a little longer for calls to connect, it also means that the dialing process is a bit more involved. Since dialing a number isn't straightforward, I seriously suggest reading the manual before you begin.
There are some recurring annoyances that made familiarizing myself with the phone a tad irksome. You're asked to select the country of origin each time you boot the phone. Since the Talk Abroad Lite is a dual-SIM device that's being used by one SIM, I assume that the note to "Insert SIM" refers to the empty SIM slot. The Travel Abroad SIM gets cellular service in over 230 countries, and receives free incoming calls from 70 countries, excluding some popular ones like Japan and South Korea.
I tested the quad-band (GSM 900/1800/850/1900 MHz) National Geographic Talk Abroad Lite phone in San Francisco using T-Mobile's network. Keep in mind that I tested the phone in an unintended scenario, and that call quality will vary based on the network strength of your location. Although you technically can make calls originating in the US, the typical use case is to make and receive calls from international borders.
Call quality on my end was a little distant, hollow, and quiet, but overall it sounded fairly clear. I was once again reminded how disconcerting it is not to be able to adjust sound with a volume controller. On their end, callers said I sounded loud and a tad distorted. Audio was good overall, they said, but not excellent. There was no speakerphone to test.
National Geographic Talk Abroad Lite call quality sample
Another oddity was that I'd fish out the Talk Abroad Lite phone from my bag to find that it sometimes powered off on its own, despite a robust reading on the battery meter after it booted up. The nature of the beast also means that every time you turn on the phone, it cycles through a SIM reboot. This is time-consuming and a little wearying.
During our battery drain test, the device lasted 7.13 hours. Standby time ranges from 6.7 days to 8.3 days on the phone's 600mAh lithium battery. The Talk Abroad Lite has a digital SAR of 0.67 watt per kilogram.
I have mixed feelings about the Talk Abroad cellular service in general, but it's clear that the Nat. Geo-branded SIM is the Blu-made phone's only saving grace. The phone itself is a construction disaster that seems almost purpose-built to be this side of junk. At the same time, the inexpensive build quality also keeps down the cost, and that could be enough for someone whose primary concern is budget over beauty, brawn, and brain. Heck, in college, I'd find that the only acceptable price out of the Talk Abroad batch. Still, if you're sold on the service and can afford a bit more, I'd splash out into a higher-caliber phone. If it's something you're going to use often enough to actually buy, you'd be better off with a handset that has more solid features and staying power.
As for the service itself, if you've got the patience to weather the ringback service and the longer bootup times, there are some real conveniences designed to give a traveler some communication permanence and personal security.