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The best satellite phones: Plus other communication gadgets

Need a phone that will work where your smartphone won't? You need a satellite phone! And there are a few options available.
adrian-kingsley-hughes.jpg
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Contributor on

Do you travel a lot and find yourself regularly "off the grid," or you are the sort of person who likes to go on adventures but still needs to stay in touch? Forget the smartphone. 

You need a satellite phone. 

OK, it might seem a little James Bond -- calling it a "sat phone" adds to the secret agent vibe -- but they are more widespread and accessible than you might think, and there are several options available.

Keep in mind a subscription is required to access a satellite network, and prices vary depending on the network you use, what kind of service you need, and how long of a subscription you are taking. Also, note that prices are far higher than for cellular networks and can reach eye-watering proportions.

Thuraya XT-LITE

Convenience of satellite and GSM

Thuraya XT-LITE Satellite Phone
Amazon

Is it a satellite phone? Is it a regular GSM phone? The Thuraya XT-LITE is both, all using a single SIM card. And better still, it automatically switches from satellite to GSM without any hassles... so no forgotten calls because you're out of coverage.

A decent, rugged, no-frills sat phone. 

Note that the Thuraya satellite network does not offer coverage in the US, so this is a sat hone for when you're in other territories.

Pros:

  • Satellite and GSM
  • Rugged

Cons:

  • Doesn't offer global coverage.
  • Battery life isn't great

Tech specs:

  • Dimensions: 128 × 53 × 27 mm
  • Weight: 186g
  • Services: Satellite calls and satellite SMS
  • Network frequency: L-Band
  • Satellite antenna: Omni-directional (walk-and-talk functionality)
  • Battery life – talk time: Up to 6 hours
  • Battery life – standby time: Up to 80 hours
  • Network features: Call barring, Call diverting, Conference calls, Call waiting, Closed User Group, Voicemail
  • Organizer: Alarms, Calendar, Calculator, Stopwatch, World time
  • External interface: UDC data cable with USB connector, earphone jack (2.5 mm), DC power

Garmin inReach

Built-in satellite receiver that lets you send and receive SMS

Garmin inReach
Amazon

A handheld GPS receiver with a built-in satellite receiver that allows you to send and receive SMS messages via the Iridium network. 

Garmin actually makes many devices, from the simple Garmin inReach Mini to the Garmin inReach Explorer+, which combines the Iridium features with a handheld GPS receiver loaded with topo maps.

Pros:

  • Cheaper than a dedicated sat phone
  • More features

Cons:

  • Not a true sat phone

Tech specs:

  • Dimensions: 6.8 x 16.4 x 3.8 cm
  • Weight: 213g
  • Battery life -- Up to 100 hours at 10-minute tracking mode (default)
    Up to 75 hours at 10-minute tracking with 1-second logging
    Up to 30 days at the 30-minute interval power save mode
    Up to 3 years when powered off
  • Waterproof: IPX7
  • Memory: 2GB
  • Interface: MicroUSB

Iridium GO!

Mobile satellite router

Iridium GO!
Amazon

Now we move from a phone to a mobile satellite router -- the Iridium GO

And it's easy to use. 

Just fire it up, it connects to the Iridium satellite constellation, and you get enough data bandwidth to check emails, use Twitter, pull up weather forecasts, and limited web browsing. You can connect up to five devices to the Iridium GO! hotspot.

It's priced at $670 but bear in mind that there are additional activation fees, and a subscription plan to the Iridium network is required (and this can be quite expensive).

The Iridium GO! offers up to 15.5 hours of standby battery life and up to 5.5 hours of talk time.

For those who truly want to go off-grid, there's also a special package that includes not only the Iridium GO! base station and AC travel charger with an international adapter but also comes with a solar charger, two batteries additional, and a desktop charger. 

Pros:

  • Acts as a satellite hotspot so that multiple devices can connect to it
  • Good battery life
  • Good selection of accessories

Cons:

  • Expensive

Tech specs:

  • Dimensions: 114 x 82 x 32 mm
  • Weight: 305g
  • Services: Satellite calls and satellite SMS
  • Battery life -- talk time: 5.5 hr
  • Battery life -- standby time: 15.5 hr
  • Operating temperatures: 10 to 50 ℃
  • Durability: MIL-STD 810F
  • Ingress protection: IP65

SPOT X

Two-way device that looks like an old Blackberry

SPOT X
Amazon

Another company that offers satellite trackers and messengers is SPOT. 

There's the SPOT X, which is a two-way device that looks a lot like an old Blackberry, the SPOT Gen3 Messenger, which allows the user to send check-in and SOS messages, and the SPOT Tracker, which allows tracking of things like cars and suitcases.

Pros:

  • SOS feature
  • Low-cost solution
  • Physical keyboard

Cons:

  • Limited features
  • Physical keyboard is a bit small

Tech specs:

  • Dimensions: 166 × 38 × 24 mm
  • Weight: 198g
  • Services: Satellite SMS, automatic positioning, and SOS
  • Battery life -- 240 hours
  • Operating temp: -20 °C to 60 °C
  • Durability: MIL-STD-810G for shock
  • Ingress protection: IP67

BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1

Looks and acts like a phone

BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1
Amazon

Now we move onto something that looks and acts like a phone. The BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2.1 offers the ability to make and receive voice calls, SMS, track your position with GPS from anywhere on the globe. (Well, mostly, satellite coverage at the north and south poles is poor. Outside of those areas, people will get excellent coverage.) 

The built-in lithium-ion battery offers 8 hours of talk time and 160 hours standby, and the entire package is IP65 rated for dust- and waterproofing. The price starts at $569 for the phone, charger, and SIM with no airtime.

Pros:

  • Fully-featured sat phone
  • Robust
  • Near global coverage
  • Good battery life

Cons:

  • Big and bulky
  • Expensive

Tech specs:

  • Size: 16.9 x 7.65 x 2.9 cm
  • Weight: 318 g
  • Ingress protection rating: IP65
  • Impact protection rating: IK04
  • Scratch resistant color screen
  • Micro-USB interface
  • View/send GPS location as text or email
  • Bluetooth for hands-free calling
  • Programmable emergency assistance button
  • Incoming call alerts when antenna is stowed
  • Supports text-to-text: 160 characters
  • Supports text-to-email: 160 characters
  • Free web message-to-Isatphone 2
  • 1 year manufacturer's warranty + Free 6-month extended warranty by BlueCosmo

FAQ

Can a sat phone replace a smartphone?

Not really. They're big, bulky, expensive, and the data rates are awful compared to even 3G. They are mostly for emergencies and situations where a regular phone won't work.

Which satellite network is the best?

It's less about which is best, and more about what bits of the planet you want coverage on.

Can you get a satellite phone that doubles as a regular phone?

Yes, for example, the Thuraya XT-LITE (bare in mind this does not offer global coverage).

How reliable are SOS devices such as the SPOT X of Garmin inReach?

In my experience, these devices are very reliable and are a great insurance policy for those heading out into the great unknown.

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