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TerreStar Genus (AT&T) review: TerreStar Genus (AT&T)

TerreStar Genus (AT&T)

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and 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).
Kent German
7 min read


TerreStar Genus (AT&T)

The Good

The TerreStar Genus can access both traditional cellular and satellite networks. The controls are easy to use and the handset has a fair number of features.

The Bad

The TerreStar Genus' display is small and some parts of its body feel cheap. Photo quality is average and the call volume is low.

The Bottom Line

The TerreStar Genus wouldn't be our first choice for a standard smartphone, but the addition of satellite calling will be attractive to some users.

Satellite phones have been around for a long time, but their expense (usually several hundred dollars to buy) and the broad availability of regular cell phones have kept them out of the hands of most consumers. But even as wireless networks continue to grow, the need for something different hasn't gone away completely. Though cell phone carriers don't like to admit it, their networks don't reach everywhere. And those rural locations are often the place where you need a phone most.

To help reduce that coverage gap, TerreStar's Genus is a dual-mode cellular-satellite smartphone. In civilization it uses AT&T's standard cellular network, but when off the map you can connect to a satellite. You should get coverage in just about any corner of America, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. The feature set isn't bad, either, with Windows Media Player, Bluetooth, 3G, and Wi-Fi, and the design is relatively straightforward. On the downside, you will have to use Windows Mobile 6.5.3, but we suppose you can suffer through it for more connectivity.

Unfortunately, the Genus' jaw-dropping price remains a barrier. The starting MSRP is $799, though it can go as high as $1,069, and that comes before the high cost of satellite calls. But if you can afford it, the Genus will serve you well.

The Genus reminded us immediately of a cross between a BlackBerry and a Samsung BlackJack. With its chunky, rectangular body and black color, this is a no-nonsense handset. Style, however, isn't meant to be part of the equation, so we're willing to stick to the basics if it means we can make calls in more places. Our only real complaint about the design is that some elements, particularly the plastic skin around the display and the chrome border on the phone's rim, feel a bit cheap. We're not worried that it would break, but we don't want to take the chance. And considering that this is a device you'll take into the wild, we expect it to take some abuse.

The Genus includes a stylus.

The touch screen measures 2.6 inches. That's smaller than we'd prefer, but the resolution (320x240 pixels; 16 million colors) is easy on the eyes. There's no accelerometer, but the display has an ambient light sensor. As mentioned, the Genus runs Windows Mobile 6.5.3 Professional. It's not a terrible OS by any means, but it's far from being our favorite. It will take a lot of acclimation if you're switching from Android, iOS, or even Windows Phone 7. The touch interface is responsive, and you get a stylus for poking at small items.

Immediately below are the navigation controls. You'll find a circular toggle with a central select button, two soft keys, an OK control, shortcuts for the camera and the satellite calling feature, and the Talk and End/Power key. The keypad buttons sit further down. There are three rows, so numbers and letters share space. That's not our ideal scenario, and the keys are rather small, but we appreciate that they're raised above the surface of the phone. Also, there are a fair number of shortcuts, and the spacebar is large enough even if it's set slightly off-center.

The keypad is large, and the controls are raised.

On the left side are a screen lock key and the microSD card slot. There you'll also find the Micro-USB charger port (good) and the 2.5mm headset jack (bad). Over on the right side are the volume rocker and a mute key. The camera lens sits on the rear side between the speaker grille and a port for attaching the extra antenna.

The Genus isn't the most powerful smartphone around, but it offers enough features to keep you busy when not making calls. Each contact in the phone book holds multiple entry fields. Other essentials include a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator, a notepad, a task list, a task manager, and a file manager. You'll also find Bluetooth, PC syncing, USB mass storage, text and multimedia messaging, Wi-Fi, and a dedicated app for searching files stored on the phone.

As a Windows Mobile device, the Genus has all the productivity apps you'd expect. You can use instant messaging and sync the Genus with Outlook and POP3 e-mail accounts like Yahoo. And of course, you can sync the handset with your Outlook calendar. You'll also find an Internet Explorer Mobile browser, Microsoft ActiveSync, and Microsoft Office Mobile for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF documents.

The Genus' camera lens sits on its rear face.

When you're not working, you can catch some tunes on the integrated Windows Mobile Media Player. For photos, the Genus has a 2-megapixel camera that takes images in six resolutions. Other options include a brightness meter, a digital zoom, white balance, a self-timer and a multishot mode. Camcorder options are about the same; you can shoot for just 15 seconds or record for as long as the available memory permits.

Photo quality on the Genus is nothing special.

Photo quality is just average. Though there was little image noise, colors were dull, and smaller objects were a bit blurry. In fact, you had to hold the phone very still to get a clear image. We also noticed that white under fluorescent lighting looked had a reddish tint. The Genus records at 15fps, but you can view videos at 30fps. Unfortunately, clips recorded on the phone were only barely watchable.

The Genus also comes with a handful of apps like Solitaire, Windows Live, MSN Weather, MSN Money, and Microsoft My Phone. More apps are available through the Windows Marketplace.

Satellite calls
If you thought the phone was expensive enough, you'd be correct. But that's only the start, as satellite calls will put a further crimp in your wallet. Basic satellite service is $24.99 per month, which is on top of your normal cellular plan. Then, each satellite call is 65 cents per minute regardless of the time of day. Texting is a bit cheaper at 40 cents for each sent and received message, though the Genus can't send multimedia messages when connected to the satellite. Data is a hefty $5 per megabyte (billed in kilobyte increments), so be sure to track your usage carefully.

Making a satellite call is an easy process. You can't make the switch while on a call or using data and you need to be conscious of the direction you're facing. To allow for maximum coverage of the country, the TerreStar satellite sits in a geosynchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the equator at 111.0 degrees west longitude (that's a spot west of Ecuador and south of the tip of Baja California). To reach that satellite, you'll need to face south from most of the country. When in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Alaska, however, you should face the general direction of Arizona. Make sure as well that you have a clear view of the sky; buildings, foliage, and terrain will obstruct your satellite connection.

The Genus' satellite coverage extends only to the U.S., so you'll need to use AT&T's roaming network when abroad (it is locked to AT&T, so you can't use another carrier's SIM card). And, when in the country, a secondary detachable antenna is required for Alaska and recommended for Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Keep in mind that satellite coverage doesn't extend to the northern third of Alaska or the Aleutian Islands.

Once we initiated a satellite connection, the process usually took about 10 to 15 seconds. Establishing the call after you dial a number takes more time--our longest wait was about 30 seconds--but a series of beeps alerts you that the network is trying to connect. Fortunately, Genus includes a handy tutorial for using the satellite service in the printed user guide and on the phone.

For cellular calls we tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1,800/1,900) TerreStar Genus world phone in the San Francisco Bay Area using AT&T service. Call quality was mostly good. We rarely had a problem getting a signal and we didn't encounter any static or interference. The volume was a little lower than we'd like, but we didn't have a problem hearing. We noticed, however, that the audio was a little hollow on our end. Our friends' voices sounded natural, but almost as if they were talking through a screen.

On their end callers said we sounded fine. A few people reported a moderate amount of background noise, but by and large we didn't hear many complaints. Most people could tell that we were using a cell phone, which isn't unusual. Distortion was at a minimum during speakerphone calls, but the external speaker was much too soft. Callers could hear us relatively well, including automated systems, but we had to be very close to the phone if we wanted to hear. And if we were in a noisy place, it was pretty much unusable.

During our testing period we didn't have the opportunity to get far out of an urban area--the back country of the Sierra Nevada would have been ideal--but we did travel to some places on the Peninsula where AT&T coverage is spotty. In any case, satellite calls also had decent quality. Aside from the aforementioned wait for a connection, we didn't notice a distinct difference in the audio quality. Yet, on two occasions we were unable to place a call even though we connected to the satellite. Even odder is that we received an audio message telling us the numbers we dialed "weren't valid" (rest assured, they were). We're contacting TerreStar for an explanation and will let you know the result.

The Terrestar Genus has a tested talk time of 5 hours and 20 minutes. The Genus has a digital SAR of 0.536 watt per kilogram.


TerreStar Genus (AT&T)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 7