Trying out Inmarsat's compact IsatPhone Pro

There's something exciting about being in remote places and pulling out a satellite phone. Inmarsat's newest device is small and light and offers simple data capabilities like text messaging and e-mail.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
The new IsatPhone Pro from Inmarsat offers satellite phone service along with simple data functionality. Inmarsat

There's something exciting about using a satellite phone.

Because of the widespread nature of normal communications infrastructure, being on a sat phone almost certainly means you're in a remote, faraway place and doing some kind of urgent work. Why else would you have and be using such expensive telecommunications device?

Earlier this year, Inmarsat released its IsatPhone Pro, a fairly compact little gadget--for a sat phone--and in recent weeks, issued an update that added a set of data capabilities, all in the same form factor. I got my hands on one of the newer models, and not long ago, took the phone out into the wilds of the Nevada desert, and the streets of San Francisco, looking to see how it performed.

I've used sat phones before, most notably on two of my summer CNET Road Trip projects, and always out in the barren wastelands of the American Southwest. So I'm familiar with the quality of a sat phone call. Quality can be a deceptive word in this context. The real point of using one of these devices is to successfully complete a crucial phone call. Whether it's crystal clear may well be beside the point.

With the IsatPhone Pro, that dynamic is no different. You pull out the device, you raise the antenna, you point it at the southern sky, and you try your call. This time around, I struggled at first to get a network connection, despite a wide open southern sky, but eventually, the device was ready. I punched the appropriate buttons, and lo and behold, the person I was trying to reach answered.

The first call was difficult. Though we could hear each other, much of the conversation was garbled. I eventually gave up. A few minutes later, in a different location, I tried calling someone else, and this time, I had a much better experience. While the call wasn't landline quality, we could both hear each other fine, though there was a bit of a tinny quality to the call, and perhaps a small bit of delay. However, Inmarsat touts the "clear voice quality" of its network, so perhaps if I'd tried a few more times, or been in a different location, I might have had an even better call.

In this, the experience was more or less like what I've experienced with these phones before. At 9.8 ounces and 6.7 inches by 2.1 inches by 1.5 inches, the IsatPhone Pro is a bit smaller and lighter than the models I've tried previously, so that was good. And it did the job. Despite taking more than a minute to locate connectivity in the vast expanse of southern sky it was looking at, it completed the calls I needed to make, and that's really all I felt like I could ask of the phone.

Then it was on to the data functions. Though Inmarsat sells what is known as BGAN technology--essentially satellite broadband routers that let you get your computer online in remote locations--the IsatPhone Pro offers users only the ability to send SMS and e-mail messages.

But that's fine. If you're somewhere loud and just need to get a quick point across, that's all you need. So, I tried the service, sent myself a quick text, and seconds later, it popped up on my iPhone. Success.

If you're the kind of person who finds yourself in extremely remote places and needs to stay dependably in touch, a sat phone may well be your only option. They can be expensive, but it appears prices (for the handsets) are falling. A quick look online suggests you can get your hands on one for just over $600. But that's not counting minutes, which can be pricey.

The IsatPhone Pro syncs with Windows computers but isn't compatible with Macs, so that limited what I could do with it. But it offers Windows users the ability to sync contacts with Outlook, so that could be useful for someone wanting to be able to send and receive e-mails from an existing contact list.

Ultimately, this is a phone that comes with a nice set of features, and that's impressively compact and light. If I was off to cover something in the desert, I'd be happy to take it with me. Then again, I work in San Francisco and rely on AT&T for my iPhone's mobile service, so perhaps I should carry the IsatPhone Pro with me as a backup.