It may have crossed your mind at some point while hiking in the middle of seemingly nowhere that without a functional cellular device, danger could quickly become, well, more dangerous. With improving coverage throughout cities, suburban and even rural regions for traditional cell phones over the years, it’s easy to forget that heading a little too far out into no-man’s land can disconnect you from your closest ones. That’s normally not a problem if you still have roaming coverage, but even that can blank out completely through the most dead-wilderness patches of long interstate stretches and back roads that Google Maps unassumingly pointed you on.
It’s essential to settle on the right satphone because not all of them will support exactly the same features. Some are ruggedized to prevent water- and dust-related damage; others provide massive batteries. Certain phones support planetary reception while others are locked to a specific region. Bear in mind that you’ll need a satellite reception plan in order to make the most of your satellite phone, and these plans are relatively expensive compared to traditional service provision. However, you can typically add credit to your airtime service account on the fly, granting some flexibility over how much you end up paying for it.
We’re going to look over seven best satellite phones and determine what makes or breaks them in certain situations. We’ll also be looking over the pluses and minuses of each carrier’s network, so sit back while we muse on some totally futuristic handheld communication tech.
|Product||BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2||Iridium 9575 Extreme||Iridium 9555||Globalstar GSP-1700||Globalstar GSP-1600||Thuraya XT Pro||Thuraya XT-LITE|
|Battery Life||8hr talk / 160hrs standby||4hr talk / 30hrs standby||3hr talk / 30hrs standby||4hr talk / 36hrs standby||3.75hr talk / 19hrs standby||9hr talk / 100hrs standby||6hr talk / 80hrs standby|
|Coverage||Global (Except Poles)||Global||Global||Regional *||Regional *||Regional (Don't cover USA)**||Regional (Don't cover USA)**|
|Display||Color||Monochrome||Monochrome||Color||Monochrome||Color. Gorilla Glass||Monochrome|
|Operational Temperature||-4°F to +131°F||+14°F to +131°F||n/a||-4°F to +131°F||-4°F to +131°F||+14°F to +151°F||+14°F to +151°F|
Best in Category
BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 — Best Satellite Phone for Marine Use
Out of two phones on our list that features water resistance, this is the more affordable and well-rounded handset. It brings IP65 certification to the table, which means you can soak it without worry.
However, we don’t recommend deliberately dunking it since water-resistant seals can only hold up against so much, and IP65 is far from the most resilient certification out there.
Iridium 9575 Extreme — Best Satellite Phone for Backpacking
Aside from being the most feature-rich phone on this list, the military-grade durability is the real MVP when considering all the benefits of using this phone over the others on this list.
Thuraya XT Pro — Best Satellite Phone for Emergency
Including an SOS button on a device that uses Thuraya’s renown satellite service is a perfect combo that will more reliably save a life than any other offering on our list.
Simply hold the SOS button for three seconds, and even if the phone is off, it’ll attempt to contact a preprogrammed number for emergency assistance.
BlueCosmo Inmarsat IsatPhone 2 — Best Satellite Phone for Hiking
The biggest deciding factor here was the battery life, which is easily the best of any device that we reviewed. When it comes to hiking, your safety is probably less at risk than the simple issue of running out of juice.
If we’re wrong about that and you’re an avid hiker of epic proportions, we’ll point you to the pricey Iridium 9575 Extreme for that extra durability, but frankly, BlueCosmo’s handset is quite rugged in its own right and will serve you well on that front.
Best Satellite Phone Reviews
BlueCosmo has some interesting promotional imagery for their IsatPhone 2, what with the funky old man in the unassuming overshirt wincing in what must be excellence.
Jokes aside, this is a highly acclaimed device that tries to keep the price relatively low while sticking to the basic tenets of a good satellite phone. It’s reliable, rocks SMS and calling like nobody’s business, and apparently makes 40-something folks smile like they need a double-dose of Beano. Okay, okay — we’ll stop now.
BlueCosmo supports both prepaid and monthly subscriptions with their handset, and your coverage area is quite simply the entire planet. There aren’t any roaming charges, and the device itself is equipped to that extent with its water-, dust- and shock-resistance. You’re getting IK04 certification paired with IP65 — not the finest credentials to grace a phone, but they’ll keep it safe from limited doses of water and general abuse. This all comes backed with a one-year guarantee just in case the rugged chassis doesn’t hold up against the elements.
You’re getting several accessories right out of the box:
- International AC wall charger with proper plugs for anywhere you go
- Vehicle charger
- Hands-free earpiece
- Holster with a clip
- USB cable for data transfer
- And even a USB flash drive complete with device documentation
There’s very little to say in the negative sense here. Some complain that the battery only lasts two or three days on standby, and that is maybe a little disappointing, but the majority find that BlueCosmo’s offering is a well-rounded and reasonably affordable satellite solution on the fly with stupendous battery life. You may find that while BlueCosmo’s service is quite good, they have a funny way of double-charging users’ accounts on occasion, so if you pick up the IsatPhone 2, keep an eye on your balance.
We’ll start by saying that this handset is anything but cheap, and when you glance at the stats for the battery life, it immediately feels unjustified.
Don’t get us wrong: It’s got the whole kit and kaboodle going for it in terms of communication and ruggedness, but the “Extreme” label feels incredibly underwhelming with this offering if you’re looking at what it basically offers. At least it brings an illuminated keypad, which is a major plus for those dark environments, and shockingly enough, not all satphones actually have this built in. Still, that kind of technology has been around forever, so we’re not justifying a grand-plus with it.
However, don’t expect to be using the 9575 too often with its four-hour talk time and 30-hour standby rating, which is mediocre and probably has more to do with how the connection is maintained than the actual battery itself.
There are limits to the operable temperature range in this device, which may seem like an odd specification to consider until you realize that many of the same people who need a satellite-capable device might be off in the arctic blizzards in the far north. Those limits are -10 to 55 degrees Celsius, and keep in mind that these are temperature figures for the device itself, not the environment that you’re using it in. For most, these limitations shouldn’t be a problem.
Now, let’s discuss what’s not so great here. The way Iridium’s network is laid out entails one serious caveat: on-the-spot activation. The device itself usually acquires a satellite connection fast; make no mistake. However, you have to “activate” your minutes immediately before you’re able to use the device for communication, which renders it useless for fast-response situations, particularly of the emergent sort. Can we be honest? This device is mighty fine in its own right, but the price could use a slash to bring it level with other, similarly performing handsets with better service.
The antenna on this satellite phone is comparatively tiny when you look at the other handsets that we’re reviewing today. Just look at this thing: It’s a little too reminiscent of those 90’s cellular antennas like the kind you’d see on a Nokia brick phone.
We think it’s a great throwback, but hey, most satellite phones will take you a few decades back in terms of style and software. Iridium’s 9555 is like the others, featuring a monochrome display and a physical keypad on the front.
The 9555 comes straight out of the box with a SIM chip, which tucks right inside the industrial-rated chassis. You should be able to drop, dunk or even run over this thing with a vehicle and find that it still works as intended, which is an essential staple of any satellite handset, so we’ll give the usual high marks for that area. Like most such devices, you have SMS and email capabilities, so you’re not stuck talking to your great aunt Betsy when you have a flat in the middle of yeehaw Nowhere Land.
Finally, the tiny form factor of this handset makes it easy to carry around in your pocket if you’re one of those folks who doesn’t like to use clip-on attachments. We have to admit that there’s something that feels nice about the relatively organic experience of pocketing your phone instead of strapping it to a belt. It makes you feel more at home — well, we think it might.
Hoo boy, talk about inexpensive. Globalstar’s ultra-compact satellite communicator as almost everything you could want from an old-style handset, including two antennas, voicemail, up to 99 contacts, a call log and all those great features we expected of a stalwart flagship phone from the Tamagotchi decade.
Powered by Qualcomm, the same company that arms your smartphone with epically powerful and 4K-compatible ARM chips, the GSP-1600 is a sleek little machine with its own stylistic punch that we’re in no place to criticize. Actually, from the back, it looks pretty cool.
Functioning in super-cold or -hot environments and featuring a reasonably durable chassis, you’re not getting the IP- or MIL-certified goodness that other handsets offer, but that’s why you’re paying half as much for this one. Oh, about this: The battery complements the chassis design with a feeble four hours of talk time and less than a full day of standby. That’s pretty weak, so plan to keep it on a charger at all times.
If you can get around these shortcomings, you’re looking at a satellite phone that does a lot with a little and goes easy on your wallet too.
We now present to you the tiniest satellite phone to ever grace the kingdom of satellite phones: The GSP-1700.
Sliding in on the smallest price tag of any device on our review list today, this will be a pick on your list if your wallet is looking a bit thin, but don’t let that determine your entire purchase as there are some issues we need to talk about.
However, let’s get something out of the way here: It’s a good device, it works decently well, and while it’s not the most durable little beastie with the biggest battery in town, it does bring a color LCD screen to the table.
What, that doesn’t sell you? We hardly blame you for that. After all, the screen is probably a good inch and a half total, which explains how it can be color and not, you know, suck down battery like a little satellite-powered vacuum cleaner. We’re not sure how to feel about the micro-sized form factor here for the one and only reason that the antenna itself is bigger than the device. Yes, you can telescope it down and fold it into the back to save space, but when you’re actively using it, it must feel strange to know that you’re gripping the lower 40 percent of the device profile. Maybe it’s just us.
We’ll grant that Globalstar is a good company with seven ounces of stylish design here, but we need to exchange some words about service consistency and some of the internal features. For one, Globalstar churns out good hardware, yes; what they fall flat on at times is the service, which can register little or nothing even when you have a clear view of the sky. However, the phone itself is a marvel for tracking a GPS signal if there’s one to be found. Still, the device has difficulties receiving voicemails, and the battery has an issue with holding a charge while the phone is turned completely off.
Now, price considered, this isn’t a bad little toy to pick up and use from time to time. Make sure you keep it charged and don’t ding it up too bad. We have little to say about what can be done for Globalstar’s service, but it’s not always bad. In general, satellite reception is a dodgy matter with all carriers, so don’t let that hold you all the way back.
Thuraya is a straightforward provider of utile satellite devices on a robust network that gets the message to and from with little resistance or question.
The only catch is that Thuraya’s satellites don’t cover the US for some strange reason, but if you’re practically anywhere else in the world, you’re good to go. While there’s not much to say for durability, you do have a strong battery that’ll keep you going for days, and you can charge it via USB despite the manufacturer never mentioning this in the device manual.
There’s one issue that you’ll need to pay attention to, and we’re hardly calling this a serious problem because the price tag does entail a patent lack of engineering genius here, but some folks find that the battery doesn’t last very long. It’s a spotty issue that doesn’t affect everyone, but those who encounter it are recommended to purchase a spare battery to be safe.
It’s pretty well established at this point that any product title with “Pro” in it is going to knock the socks off someone who isn’t wearing any.
So, let’s assess what makes it so great: Gorilla Glass screen, a nine-hour talk time spec, an easy-to-use SOS button in emergent situations, and a slim profile even with the antenna extended. The price is a little up there, but for a quality handset, that’s what you can expect with this package.
We should go ahead and point out that Thuraya has an excellent reputation for its satellite service, but be wary of the limitations. It’s not technically global; while it does work in nearly all countries around the world, you won’t be able to use it in the US. The airtime payments lock you inside a region of service, so wherever you devote your payments, make sure that’s the region that you want to be covered in. With all that said, it’s a tight system that works out if you exercise it, and the XT Pro is no slouch in its own right.
Best Satellite Phone Buyer’s Guide
Satellite: Satellite is a form of transmission that depends on orbital devices — satellites — to send and receive information with a satellite phone. Satellite phones are usually old-fashioned in style, donning a physical number pad on the front with call and end keys, a power button and volume rocker. Their screens are small and low-power, the chassis is thick and rugged, and there are no apps to install on these devices. They’re capable of internet access, SMS and calling, but satellite transmission is often slow and unreliable compared to cellular.
Cellular: Cellular phones don’t use satellites to transmit data. These devices utilize cell towers with considerably less range and coverage than satellite transmission, but they offer far greater transmission bandwidth, which allows for rapid internet speeds and quick connection through calls and SMS. Cell phones can occur as smartphones or “dumbphones”.
Coverage: Coverage describes the regional area inside which a user can obtain a signal that’s capable of reliably transmitting information whether it’s via call, text (SMS) or internet. Cell phone towers cover radii that are measured in a few miles while satellite coverage spans thousands of miles if not the entire planet.
Durability, Ruggedness: A phone that has Gorilla Glass over the display and ruggedness certification — MIL, IP and K standards for example — are ideal, especially with a solid, semi-rubberized chassis that can withstand sharp and blunt impacts while keeping scratches and punctures at bay. These factors are especially important in a satellite phone since the regions where one would be useful are typically fraught with hostile conditions and little or no contact with other people who can assist if you’re injured.
Battery: An essential metric of a good satellite phone is one that can stick through highly rural conditions with a long-lasting battery paired with an efficient operating environment and hardware combination. It’s complicated to try and estimate just how long a battery will last simply by looking at the technical bits, so your best bet is to look at the battery capacity (mAh) and rated time spans for talk and standby times.
Carrier: There are various carriers that provide cellular and satellite reception to a phone. Cellular carriers such as T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon normally don’t support satellite phones; for that, you’ll need to check out Iridium, BlueCosmo, Globalstar and Thuraya. These companies sell their own satellite phones with SIM cards out of the box.
Prepaid: Rather than walk into a store to pay for your satellite phone service, you’ll make airtime payments online through the carrier’s website. All satellite phones are prepaid services; there are no contracts.
SIM Card: A SIM (subscriber identity module) card is a microSD-sized chip that, when inserted into your cellular or satellite phone, allows the device to receive the phone service that you paid for. When you receive your new phone out of the box, the SIM card usually won’t be installed in the device; you must find the SIM port and install it yourself. It’s a simple process with instructions included.
SMS: SMS (short message service) is another term for texting.
Best Satellite Phone FAQ
Are satellite phones a viable replacement for cell phones?
Assuming you’re an average person with an average budget, no: Satellite phones are not a suitable alternative to standard cell phones unless you spend most of your time in regions where cellular reception is minimal or nonexistent. These devices can be used anywhere, but their performance is a far cry from their cellular variants, and you probably won’t find unlimited plans for calling, texting or internet access. Satellite phones are mainly a niche utility and wouldn’t be seen in use where cellular access is possible.
How do you set up and use a satellite phone?
They mostly work like cell phones. You plug in a pinkie-sized SIM card that’s normally included with the device, pay for airtime through the provider’s website, and extend the antenna when you need to use it.
There’s a power button and volume rocker for many of these devices; the design is quite familiar and reminiscent of older handsets with physical numeric keys on the front. The antenna is the one major difference here, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise that you need a little extra coverage to make satellite reception work.
Just how fast are internet bandwidths on a satellite phone?
Think dial-up speeds. Satellite reception services of any sort — TV, home internet, and phone plans — are all notoriously limited in their performance. This owes partly to the distance between satellites and the user in addition to the frequencies that must be used for orbital communication, which are suboptimal for carrying large volumes of data. There’s also the inconvenience and expense of developing and launching satellites versus constructing terrestrial cell towers, making satellite-based services less tenable as they are. Altogether, you’re not going to get a remarkable experience with a satellite phone, which is why they’re made for emergencies and limited-time expeditions into cellular dead zones.
What metrics should I look for in a satellite phone?
There are a few things to keep an eye out for when considering a new satellite phone for yourself:
- Durability: Does it have Gorilla Glass, water-resistance, dust- and shock-proofing, and a rugged chassis?
- Coverage: Does it cover the whole world or just specific regions of it?
- Battery Life: How long is the call time? How long is the standby time? How many mAh is the battery rated for?
- Compatible Accessories: Does this device only work with accessories of its own brand, or can it accept peripherals from others as well?
Generally speaking, satellite phones are uncomplicated devices when you’re weighing out what makes or breaks the investment. Unlike traditional cell phones, you’re not too concerned with RAM, CPU, display resolution and other “nice” aspects of your Galaxy or iPhone handset. You’ll focus on battery life, durability and coverage to maximize your connection in harsh environments.
We’ve reviewed some pricey solutions to wilderness connectivity although in all fairness, it’s not uncommon for people to spend $1,000 on a smartphone that only fills $200 worth of requirements. That said, satellite phones are anything but flagship-level in their own right; their durability and raw receptive power are everything that merits their usefulness. Nonetheless, they’re well worth the investment if you find yourself in places where it’s necessary to have that futuristic, Star Trek-esque communication prowess. It can be a real lifesaver at times.
It goes without saying that one day, cellular carriers will probably provide this level of coverage to regular smartphones. It’s possible that satellites may even become the norm for high-bandwidth transmission, and if there’s one thing we know about communicative tech, it’s never say never. Hey, Star Trek once predicted that we’d have tablets and smartphones, so what’s to say that interplanetary calls won’t become a possibility? Of course, in this lifetime, it’s better to keep your expectations tempered to the terrestrial side of life.
Bringing our discussion back down to Earth, we think that most people probably don’t need a satellite phone for their day-to-day lives, but they definitely fill an essential niche for those who are dispatched to remote locations or find themselves frequenting regions where cellular service is unreliable. They’re more prominent among technicians and field operatives who need to stay in touch with their superiors at all times. Of course, we’re not ignoring the mountain-climbers and wilderness-explorers of all brands who might need a line of safety back to friends and family.
There are currently satellite smartphone prototypes that are in works, and we hope that one day, these will become the norm for everyone. In a world where distinct routes of technology are unifying into all-in-one devices, this is all but inevitable.