International travel can be daunting, especially when it comes to telecommunications. GSM phones give you the option of swapping in a SIM card for a network abroad, or jumping to expensive roaming. But North American owners of CDMA phones have fewer options in GSM-dominated locales. The rugged National Geographic Xplorer, aka the Samsung B2100, provides a ready-made solution with its Travel Abroad SIM, an unlocked GSM card that takes incoming calls on both a U.K. and a U.S. number, so family and friends can reach you at little cost wherever you are. However, you will pay the bill for outgoing calls and for incoming calls to the U.S. number from your prepaid balance. At a price of $179, the Xplorer comes with $29 of credit, roughly 30 minutes of calling. While it's not for everyone, the prepaid model certainly is convenient for some people.
U.S., Canadian, and Mexican customers can buy the Xplorer through Amazon.com, Buy.com, and National Geographic's online store.
The National Geographic Xplorer, sold globally as the Samsung B2100 Xtreme Edition, is a ruggedized candy-bar handset that strives for a modicum of style to complement its thick, grippy skin. A small face peers out from a dusty black body lit up with cherry-red accents. The Xplorer stands 4.4 inches tall by 1.8 inches wide by 0.7 inch thick. Thanks to a rubberized coating, it feels thick and substantial with the right amount of heft at 3.6 ounces. It's also comfortable on the ear. While ridges, dimples, and bumps bulk up the Xplorer's armor, we were able to slip it into pockets without incident, though it felt a bit bulky there. The Xplorer is built to withstand shock and resist water. We're confident it can take a knocking, but as we learned from a run-in with another tough phone, even hardy handsets have their Achilles' heel, so don't try too hard to test its limits.
The 1.8-inch TFT display supports 262,000 colors and has a very low 160x128-pixel resolution, about a quarter of the QVGA standard for basic cell phones. The screen flashes the date and time, battery life, and signal, and is easy to navigate. You can choose from three themes or customize your own, and can adjust brightness, keypad lighting, and backlight time, and even choose what hour the backlighting will kick in at night. You can also customize font position, style, size, and color. The colors and brightness were appropriate for the low screen resolution, though everything could have popped more. The Xplorer's screen, like most screens, fades in direct sunlight, although we found the dark theme held up better to bright sunshine than the light theme.
Beneath the screen are your two typical soft keys, the Talk and End buttons, and a rectangular four-directional navigation pad with a central Select button. The alphanumeric dial pad sits directly below. All the dialing and navigation buttons feel spacious enough; they're fully separated and rise above the surface, so it is possible to dial by feel. That rubber coating makes them feel ever so slightly scratchy to the touch and less responsive than other dial pads we have known, requiring a firmer press. Still, we had no problems dialing or composing text messages with predictive text.
As part of its rough-and-tumble ruggedness, the Xplorer has some interesting design elements, like raised mounds for the volume rocker and the flashlight button on the left spine, the aforementioned flashlight up top, and a swooping loop for tethering the Xplorer to your belt or pack. On the right spine there's a more pedestrian (and disappointing) shared port for the charger and a headphone. It's bad enough there's no standard 3.5mm headphone jack, but Samsung has added insult to injury by making this port proprietary rather than Micro-USB. While the packaging does include an adapter plug with some earbuds, upgrading to new headphones would be a hassle. The shared port also makes it impossible to play music or speak through a wired headset while charging the phone.
Another slight disappointment is the lack of a hardware camera shutter to complement the 1.3-megapixel camera on the phone's back.
There is a microSD card slot for up to 8 MB of extra storage, hidden behind a screwed-on back cover to help protect it from the elements. A small coin should be sufficient to gain access. Locking the card behind the battery would ordinarily be a design mistake since swapping it requires turning off the phone, but the device's rugged philosophy makes the inconvenience understandable.
In addition to earbuds, the Xplorer comes with various globe-trotting charging adapters in the box.
Talk Abroad service
Although its ruggedness is an asset, particularly for more adventurous types, the Xplorer's Talk Abroad SIM card is its real raison d'etre. The SIM card outfits you with one U.S. and one U.K. phone number that your contacts can call at any time. Talk Abroad has partnerships with GSM carriers worldwide, and gets coverage in about 200 countries. Incoming calls to the U.K. phone number are free to you in 70 countries, but calls routed through the U.S. phone number will deduct 25 cents per minute from your prepaid cache.
Costs can quickly mount this way, depending on the zone you're calling to. Most metropolitan areas will levy a 90 cent-per-minute fee for landlines, while calls to mobile phones will cost about $1.15 per minute. Prices shoot up in more remote areas. You can top up your minutes online or by texting a short code.
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 Listen now:
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.