If you're someone who does a lot of traveling, you might agree with me that having a phone is a safety and convenience essential. There's no shortage of options for acquiring one: buying a short-term international plan for your home phone, renting one here or abroad, or swapping out a SIM if you have a GSM phone. For years, Cellular Abroad has teamed up with the National Geographic brand to offer another way that puts a phone in your hands before you even leave the country. The National Geographic Talk Abroad Lite is one such phone: feather-light, dead simple, and much less expensive than in years past.
While the toylike handset itself would never past muster as a day-to-day phone (it's so basic it even lacks volume controls), I make certain exceptions for special cases like travel, which doesn't necessarily require the same standards. While I'd nudge you in the direction of a better (albeit pricier) option on the same service, this phone's one advantage is its price. The Talk Abroad service isn't for everyone, but for students, say, (or their parents), it's an affordable way to acquire peace of mind through a dedicated number that will work in most countries. Round-the-clock English-language customer service doesn't hurt, either.
Neither Cellular Abroad (the service) nor National Geographic (the marketing label) make their own phones. Rather, they convert pre-existing handsets. This "Lite" phone is in fact the Blu Deejay Lite, a handset and Miami-based manufacturer that predominantly distributes in South American countries (like Brazil.) The handset itself is as basic as they come. It's very small, 4.1 inches tall by 1.75 inches wide by 0.6-inch deep, and tucks into the palm of your hand. It's mostly black with a silvery dial pad, and at 2.2 ounces, it's so light, it feels like a toy. Given the pipsqueak dimensions, it's no surprise that the Talk Abroad Lite has a tiny 1.8-inch screen and a cramped navigation toggle. The dialpad buttons sound hollow when you press them, but they're raised from the surface and nice and tactile.
I'd have a much harder time forgiving the latter flaws for an everyday phone, but the inexpensive build also keeps costs down for travel situations where the physical design structure is less crucial than the ability to communicate from foreign soil.
Navigating around the phone is pretty standard, and adding contacts is straightforward, even overly simple. There's not even a volume rocker. There are personal organizer tools, and a few extras that add some real practical value, including the small flashlight up top that you can use for reading in addition to illuminating darkened doorways, and a music player with an FM radio. You should be aware that there's no camera on the phone, so if that's a personal requirement for you, move on.
Snap off the back cover (this may take some effort) and you'll also see a dual-SIM carriage. The Talk Abroad SIM fits into one, but nothing's stopping you from adding another local GSM SIM if you like. After all, Blu designed the phone for users to track two identities (one work, one play) on a single device. Beneath the battery is a microSD card slot where you can load music and video.
There's also a universal Micro-USB charging port. Inside the box, you get a charger, a set of basic earbuds, and three international charger adapters.
This is one of the only phones I can think of where the descriptor "lite" is an understatement. You can save a contact's phone number and name to the SIM card or to the phone, but there's no room for multiple numbers, any e-mail addresses or contact groups, and you can forget about photo ID and ringtones. You will get speed dial, though. You're also limited to 100 contacts for the phone and for each SIM, for a total of 300 if you include both SIMs.
Thankfully there's a fuller complement of personal organizer tools than there are contact options: a stopwatch, a calendar, a to-do list, an alarm clock, a world clock, and a calculator. Oddly enough, you can also play the radio, record sounds, and play video and audio on bare-bones players. There's also a car-racing game preloaded.
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 Listen now:
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.