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Spot Global Phone review: Works almost everywhere, and most of the time

It's expensive and you can't expect perfect performance, but the Spot Global Phone can help you keep in touch when you're miles away from civilization.

Kent German

Kent German

Senior Managing Editor / Features

Kent is a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and has worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog, or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).

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The Spot Global Phone, which debuted earlier this year at CTIA, may be just the gadget for those times when you can't, or don't what to be, away from at all. It doesn't snap photos, it won't run apps, and it doesn't play music, but it will let you stay in touch when you're outside cellular range by connecting to satellites spinning around Earth. Style isn't its strong point, but I suspect that anyone looking for a satellite phone won't be concerned with its big, bulky frame.


Spot Global Phone

The Good

The <b>Spot Global Phone</b> lets you make calls where you can't get a cellular connection. The interface is easy to use and the simple keypad and controls are well-designed.

The Bad

The Spot Global's service plans are expensive and its call quality varies wildly. The handset can't receive texts, and its large battery charger is cumbersome.

The Bottom Line

The satellite-powered Spot Global Phone lets you go far off the grid, just as long as you keep your cost and performance expectations in check.

What's more, that person also can't be fazed by the Spot Global's high cost. Though it's far cheaper than the $1,600 "="">Terrestar Genus that I reviewed two years ago, it will run you a healthy $499. Sure, that's less than an unlocked iPhone 5 (and you really can't put a price on all-time accessibility if you're lost in the woods), but you'll have to afford the hefty service plans, as well. And even though it's designed to work in the wild, call quality and reception are all over the map (pun intended).

Spot Global Phone keeps you connected in the wild (pictures)

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Design and features
The Spot Global brick shape will take you back to 2002 and the era of Nokia's big candy bar phones. Measuring 5.3 inches long by 2.2 inches wide by 1.5 inches deep and weighing 7.1 ounces, it won't fit in your average pocket, but it isn't uncomfortable to use or carry in a backpack. Indeed, it had a welcome solid in my hand, even if it's not waterproof or exceptionally rugged. The plastic casing is far from flimsy, but I doubt that it would survive a tumble when you're rock climbing. On the other hand, it will withstand temperatures as low as -4 Fahrenheit (-20 Celsius) and as high as 131 Fahrenheit (55 Celsius).

Like I said, the Spot Global Phone is pretty big. Josh Miller/CNET

The single display, which shows the battery life, signal strength, and the phone's status, is no bigger than a postage stamp. Normally, I'd complain about such a small display, but I can't fault the Spot Global for going minimal. The simple menu interface has nine items arranged in numerical order; you scroll through it using the rubber volume rocker on the left side. Just above the rocker is a 2.5mm headset jack. Unfortunately, that means that you'll need an adapter if you want to use a standard wired headset.

Down below are two soft keys, a central Clear button, and the Talk and End/power keys. Below them is the standard alphanumeric keypad. All of the controls are raised and easy to use by feel. The star and pound keys also double as arrow controls for scrolling through the menu.

The display is small, but the keypad and controls are easy to use. Josh Miller/CNET

Turn the Spot Global around and you'll see the thick antenna. As the display will instruct you, you must rotate the antenna up 180 degrees and extend it to its full length (8.5 inches) before you can get a signal. Once it's up, you may have to rotate the antenna slightly to keep your connection, but the whole mechanism is smooth and easy to use. In its closed position, the antenna rests next to the bulbous battery compartment.

Though I accept the phone's heft, I can't abide the bulky and cumbersome charger. It fits a standard outlet (because there's always one of those around when you're backpacking) or you can buy an optional car adapter (ditto). The plug then connects to an AC adapter and on to a proprietary port on the phone's bottom end. So not only is the whole thing a pain to carry around, it's also inconvenient. Why Spot Global couldn't give us a standard Micro-USB charger really has me scratching my head.

I didn't like the bulky, cumbersome charger. Josh Miller/CNET

Cost and Coverage
As I mentioned, after you get past the initial cost of the Spot Global, you'll have to fork over more than a few pennies for the service plan. Now don't get me wrong, I don't expect satellite calls to come cheap, but it is important to understand what you're in for. And again, the cost of using the phone will most likely be worth it that one time you really, really need it.

Depending on your expected use, you can go with either monthly or annual service plans. Monthly plans start at $24.99 per month for 10 (yes, I said 10) anytime minutes. Extra minutes are $1.99 each and voice mail is an additional $4.99 monthly fee. If you need more time to chat, there are four additional plans with each level giving you more anytime minutes for a higher monthly fee. The cost for additional minutes decreases as you go up until you get to the top-tier unlimited plan for $149.99 per month. Voice mail is free for the three most expensive plans, but there's a $50 activation fee no matter which plan you choose.

Annual plans range from $300 120 minutes to $1,800 for as long as you want to talk. The cost for extra minutes varies here, as well, and voice mail is a $60 annual fee for the two cheapest plans. Though unused airtime will not be rolled over to the next billing cycle, there are no additional roaming or long distance fees so the planet, or at least some of it, is yours.

As you can from the below map, coverage for the Spot Global Phone isn't universal. The Primary Service Area covers most of North and South America, Europe and the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic Ocean, Australia and New Zealand, central Asia and Russia, Korea, Japan, and northeastern China. The Extended Service Area (where Spot says that you "may experience a weaker signal") borders the primary area while the Fringe Service Area (where customers should expect "the weakest signal") extends over the Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans. Coverage areas to come in the near future include east Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. India and much of Africa is not covered.

Coverage area for the Spot Global Phone Spot

Using the Spot Global
Over the past few months, I used the Spot Global Phone in San Francisco, rural Sonoma County in California, Olympic National Park in Washington state, and on the island of Crete in Greece. Except for the time that it takes to connect to a satellite, making a call is no different than using a regular phone. Just dial the number and press the talk button. After you're done, hang up using the End button.

In my experience, it took no more than 30 seconds to connect. Of course, you'll need to be away from any obstructive buildings or terrain. A clear shot to the sky may be hard to come by in the mountains, but such is the price we pay for satellite communication.

Once I connected, call quality was passable, but hardly admirable. On most occasions, I could connect and hold a conversation without dropping it. Voices sounded relatively natural and there was enough volume, but the phone picks some wind and background noise so I had to repeat myself on a few occasion. Also, on more than a few calls, the audio cut out for a couple of seconds every now and then. On their end, callers reported many of the same problems, though they didn't always guess that it was a satellite phone.

Rotate the antenna up to make a call. Josh Miller/CNET

On at least three calls, the phone would disconnect while we were talking, forcing me to call again. Annoying and inconvenient, to be sure, and when you add in the 30-second time in takes to call back, potentially dangerous, as well. I'm not expecting miracles here -- I mean, it is a satellite phone -- but just keep your expectations in check. Though I haven't tested enough satellite device to really compare the Spot Global's performance with any rival devices, I concede that not even a normal cell phone can deliver guaranteed connectivity.

Spot Global Phone call quality sample

Listen now:

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One odd thing that I noticed was that even though the Spot Global has a US number with a real area code, your call will show up as "unknown" on a caller ID. Yes, your call still is going through, but I suspect that some people would be less likely to answer a call from an unknown number.

The Global Phone also can send, but not receive text messages. That one-sided communication is disappointing, given that it would be another way to seek assistance. You also can use the handset as a modem for your laptop. That requires a data cable accessory, which connects to another proprietary port on the handset's bottom end. Also, depending on your service plan, data service may require an extra fee.

Battery life is rated at 4 hours of talk time and 36 hours of standby. Sure, that's less juice than some standard phones, but this isn't a device that you'll be using for hours on end.

Satellite phones are far from your everyday gadget purchase. But for the times when you're off the grid and need to stay in touch, the Spot Global Phone can be a reliable option. I say "can," because your success with the product will depend on a few factors. You'll need to be one of the optimal coverage areas, you'll need a clear path to the sky, and you'll need to able to afford it. Those aren't easy boxes to check, but you'll need to complete them if you want the Spot Global Phone to be worth the investment. I just want a smaller charger and the ability to receive texts.

Just keep in mind that even once you manage to connect, The Spot Global's performance won't be stellar. The audio will be patchy, you have to speak up, and you will drop some calls. If this were a normal cell phone, I'd be slamming the Spot Global Phone for delivering such a poor experience. But given that this device connects to satellites, I'm willing to cut it some slack. Besides, if it works well that one time when you really need it to, then it's doing its job.


Spot Global Phone

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 7
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