Need an always-on mobile phone with access to the Internet regardless of the patchwork of cell network coverage? The TerreStar Genus is an innovative smartphone that can not only make and take regular cell calls, but also connect with a satellite anywhere in North America, all with one phone number.
At 5.4 oz. (7.9 oz. together with its small AC adapter) and 4.7 x 2.6 x 0.8 in., the Genus is surprisingly petite. It's lighter and smaller than either the Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone or Globalstar's GSP 1700 voice-only satellite phone.
The phone can connect with the company's TerreStar-1, a 15,000 lb. satellite that is orbiting 22,000 miles above the Earth. The satellite uses "spot beam technology" to independently aim about 500 radio wave beams, each of which is about 125 miles across. It uses about 225 of them to cover the continental U.S. along with Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Canada and up to 200 miles off the U.S. coastlines.
The Genus uses AT&T's network for ordinary calls and data. If you find yourself outside the network, you simply press "Switch to Satellite" on the phone's touch screen (the system can't automatically switch to satellite mode when cell service is lacking). You then make sure you're holding the lower half of the phone only (to avoid covering the phone's internal satellite antenna) and aim the back of the phone at a clear view of the southern sky.
Connecting via satellite
In tests, I found that the Genus took two to three minutes to connect via satellite -- and it could be finicky. Moving a few feet in one direction or the other could help or hinder getting the call through. If there was a mountain or large building in my way, I needed to move. For areas with a weak satellite signal, like Alaska and Hawaii, TerreStar offers an optional ($265) snap-on external antenna that, unfortunately, covers the phone's camera lens.
Over the course of several dozen satellite calls, the Genus connected in cellular dead spots in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. I was able to make calls in dead zones on a ferry, along the coast and in cell-starved mountains of central New York state.
Once I had connected with the satellite, calls took about 20 seconds to get through and the quality was quite good, considering how far the call had to travel. The calls were static-free and voices sounded lifelike, but there was an annoying delay that could be frustrating for fast-moving conversations.
The Genus can also get online with its satellite, but it's slow going. It took several attempts to load the Computerworld site, which eventually opened after more than five minutes. I had more success sending and receiving text messages and e-mails without attachments. The company plans to release an upgrade later this year to handle 130Kbit/sec. connections.
The phone itself is fairly typical of a BlackBerry-type smartphone. At 2.6 in. and with a resolution of 320 x 240, the Genus' screen is a little small, but manageable. I found the touch response to be good and only occasionally used the included stylus; it can't handle multifinger gestures.
Based on Windows Mobile 6.5.3, the Genus comes with apps for e-mail, calendar, photos, Web browsing and more, but it lacks anything close to the variety of downloadable apps that are available for the iPhone or Android devices.
Inside, the Genus has a 333-MHz ARM 9 processor, 100MB of RAM and 238MB of storage, 100MB of which is available for use. A microSD card slot can help you expand its storage potential by as much as 16GB.
It can connect to an 802.11b/g Wi-Fi network and Bluetooth. The Genus also has a built-in GPS chip for showing where you are, but it doesn't include digital mapping software.
If you're not comfortable using the touch screen, you can activate your selection by pressing the center of the Genus' four-way navigation button. There are dedicated buttons for turning the phone on and off, an "OK" button, a Windows key, a volume control and a button to turn the screen on and off.
The mini-QWERTY keyboard's 5.5mm keys are excellent for entering short e-mails, notes or Web addresses; it has a convenient "@" key. The number keys, though, are too small for quick dialing.
On the back of the device is a 2-megapixel still camera that can capture 320 x 240 videos, but it takes upwards of two minutes for the clip to be viewable after it's been shot. The phone can play a variety of audio files, including MIDI, MP3, AAC(+), WAV and WMA, as well as the adaptive multirate AMR formats. It can also play WMV video files.
Using a mix of cell and satellite service, the Genus' 1,400 milliamp-hour battery lasted for 26 hours of on-and-off calls and Internet access. It remained ready for three days in standby. In satellite-only mode, the battery was drained in less than five hours of occasional use.
Counting the cost
At $US1,069, the Genus costs more than Globalstar's GSP-1700 ($500) but less than Iridium's 9555 ($1,300). There are differences, though. To begin with, the Globalstar and the Iridium are both satellite-only phones. On the other hand, while the Genus works in North America only, Globalstar covers North and South America (and is adding Europe later this year and Australia in 2012), while Iridium covers the world.
Of course, the cost of the phone itself is just the beginning. Along with an AT&T account, use of the satellite requires $25 per month plus 65 cents per minute of satellite time. This can add up quickly -- but will be less expensive than using Globalstar or Iridium satellite phones for all calls, since they can't use the cheaper cell network.
At a Glance
Prices: $1,069 plus $25 per month and 65 cents per minute of satellite use and an AT&T voice and data plan.
Pros: Combination satellite and cell phone, North American coverage, handles voice and data via satellite.
Cons: Thicker and heavier than other smartphones, small number buttons, AT&T only, expensive, coverage is North American only.
There's one more factor to consider: TerreStar's financial future. The company went through a voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in October 2010 to reduce its debts and provide interim financing. While this is a concern, several earlier satellite-phone companies went through similar financial machinations and survived. For example, Iridium went bankrupt in 1999 but is thriving today.
It may be expensive, frustrating and finicky, but TerreStar's Genus is the only phone to get if you occasionally need a satellite phone that can handle both calls and data.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.