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

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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.

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