Talk Abroad is far more expensive than some other services. If you have a smartphone, calls with the Skype application typically cost a few cents per minute for landlines and about 25 cents per minute when made to mobile phones. Prepaid GSM SIM cards also will charge you local rates.
The Talk Abroad service does a couple of other things differently than your typical cell phone. First, it asks you to choose from global, U.S., or Italian roaming settings each time you turn on the phone (in previous models, this was buried in a submenu.) Second, you'll need to dial the country code before you place a call, regardless of which country you're in, then press the pound key before you press Send. Instead of dialing directly, your phone requests call-back, then dials you back before dialing the recipient. This is typical for services that route international calls through other servers. According to TalkAbroad, the SIM dials a U.K. server, which calls both your U.K. inbound number and your recipient's number to connect you, so calls take a couple of seconds longer to connect than you may be used to. Talk Abroad provides 24-hour, seven-days-a-week toll-free customer support for Xplorer customers.
Inside, the Xplorer is a simple phone intended for placing calls and texts. It holds up to 1,000 address book entries, with an additional 100 you can store on the SIM card. Each entry has room for multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address, and a note. You can also add more fields. There's support for calling groups, a caller ID, and one of 20 default ringtones, plus silent mode. You can also assign sound clips you create and FM radio clips as personalized ringtones.
Basic tools include a calendar, a calculator, a unit converter, a to-do list, a notepad, and a world clock. There are also alarms, a timer, a stopwatch, a voice recorder, and an image editor that you can use to touch up the Xplorer's camera shots. The Xplorer has Bluetooth support as well.
While calls and texts are the Xplorer's communication bread and butter, there is also a Web browser on board, which wasn't always available in previous models. Since you're charged by the kilobyte, data costs quickly stack up. Unless your Facebook status updates are truly golden, we'd caution you to use the browser only in a pinch. The same principle applies to POP and IMAP e-mail. Setup is a little cumbersome since the input screen isn't built for typing secure and complex passwords, especially in predictive mode. You can attach multimedia content like images, but you must have enabled data in the browser settings to send them. Otherwise, your network will show as unavailable.
An FM radio and MP3 player are welcome surprises on this phone, but their presence makes the lack of a standard headphone plug all the more frustrating. Podcasts and playlists are a go with the Xplorer, as long as you have a memory card installed.
The 1.3-megapixel camera produced decent, clear photos with relatively sharp edges. Outdoor shots dealt better with the light, but brilliant colors still looked duller and flatter through the lens. Still, we were able to snap some usable shots of our friends and of nature.
There are multiple shooting modes and resolutions (six), a self-timer, effects, frames, white-balance settings, and various viewfinder modes. There's also digital zoom.
Settings are similar for the camcorder mode, although the highest resolution in this case is 176x144 pixels, and like most other cell phones the Xplorer limits video clips for multimedia text messages to about 30 seconds. While colors were grayed out in video as they were in stills, the video quality was fairly smooth, not jerky and choppy. You can share photos and videos via Bluetooth, text message, or e-mail. Photos can be additionally set as wallpapers or caller IDs and edited in the image editor. The Xplorer's screen is too small to accurately examine and edit images on, but this is a feature we wish every cell phone and smartphone had.
The Xplorer comes preloaded with seven Java-based games, including Canonball and Tetris Mania, plus there's a store for downloading more games.
We tested the National Geographic Xplorer in San Francisco and New York on T-Mobile's roaming network. Call quality was variable on our end. Volume was fine, but clarity suffered. We once heard an echo and sometimes heard white noise. Voices sounded fuzzy to our ears, although still recognizable, and we were able to carry on an intelligible conversation. On their end, callers said we sounded loud but hollow, and unnatural enough that we sounded like we had a cold. Callers also reported "sputter."
Speakerphone volume started out loudly on our end, but then suddenly dropped by almost half. It remained loud during subsequent calls. Voices sounded a little hollow, with the typical speakerphone echo. On our callers' end, volume dropped, and they heard a screeching click several times per minute, although there was no background noise. However, our listeners often couldn't understand us and we had to turn off speakerphone for their benefit.
National Geographic Xplorer call quality sample
Keep in mind that the Xplorer isn't intended for use within the U.S., although it will work, as we discovered when testing this phone, and when calling the international cell phones of friends visiting the U.S. The Xplorer has a very impressive talk time of close to 9 hours.
As a rugged travel phone, the National Geographic Xplorer will appeal to certain CDMA phone owners, provided they plan to use the cell phone sparingly or don't mind parting with their cash for expensive calls. Convenience is the service's main advantage, as well as peace of mind from knowing that there's a 24-hour help service if problems arise, and that travelers should almost always be reachable. The Xplorer is best suited for globe-trotters taking one-off worldwide trips, and for students and tourists, especially adventurers who may need a more durable device. Regular business travelers and GSM phone owners should seek other options, like obtaining a local SIM upon arrival, looking into other prepaid calling services, or renting a phone for a travel period.