REVIEWED: GlobalStar GSP-1700 satellite phone

Leave the dodgy mobile network behind with this ‘eye in the sky’, but check a map first

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Satellite phones aren’t about looks, and nor are they about features. Only one thing matters; they get a signal wherever you are without having to rely on the often dodgy mobile phone network.

Outside edge

There are, of course, two reasons why we don’t all use satellite phones as standard. They must be used outside if they’re to get any reception at all and they cost a lot of money for what they are. While a smartphone, which increasingly resembles a computer in almost all regards, can cost as little as £200, the GSP-1700 comes in at £349 despite looking like a mobile phone circa 1997. The backlit colour display with 4-line, 12 character LCD screen, fold-out 210mm antenna and bulky 134x55x35mm is almost ridiculously basic compared to a smartphone, though at just 203g it’s not exactly heavy. But that’s not the point of the sat-phone.

Globe-trotter

That lightweight design is key because the GSP-1700 is only ever going to be used as an emergency back-up for outdoorsy types (a fleet of GSP-1700s were used by the organisers of last year’s Tour de France). However, coverage is surprisingly patchy; we had to leave the GSP-1700 behind for a trip to the Faroe Islands just north of the Hebrides. Aren’t sat phones supposed to be for remoter areas of the world? Sadly, latitude problems, and a lack of satellite coverage, interrupt that ambition.

Questionable coverage

If anything’s lacking, it’s Globalstar’s 32-strong satellite constellation. Look at a coverage map and there are big gaps (no Africa? Or India? Seriously?). So make sure your area of influence has a signal before investing – it’s no more than 50/50. You can compare the coverage maps of the three big players in the sat-phone market, Globalstar, Iridium and the IsatPhone, here. It’s by far the most important consideration.

Emails & calls

Is the GSP-1700 pricey? If used solely as an emergency phone, not really. Airtime plans start at €10 per month, and it’s also possible to buy pre-paid airtime. Though primarily being for making calls, the GSP-1700 can also be used to send texts, too. Absolutely essential is a good view of the sky; you’re looking for three bars to appear on the tiny screen for it to work. Voice quality was good in our tests, but the battery is limited to four hours and just 36 hours on standby. That’s a pretty short trek to the outback, then, though perhaps enough for conversations with emergency folk looking for you.

Bulky battery

The extendable antenna is tough, hard-wearing and tricky to break, and it folds-up to stow away easily. Sadly this phone comes with a giant-sized separate charger for refuelling the GlobalStar GSP-1700BATT lithium-Ion battery inside a large compartment protruding from the phone’s backside, which really isn’t welcome for travel. I would much rather have a built-in system rechargeable over microUSB; that way the GSP-1700 could be recharged while out in the field using a standard portable battery. That four hours charge is starting to look pretty poor.

Old-fashioned & functional

What the GSP-1700 needs to do, it does well – we made calls around the remoter parts of mid-Wales without problems – but its bulky, dated design needs a refresh; this phone has been around for three years and pre-dates the portable battery revolution. Aside from its bulky battery and accessories, the GSP-1700 is fit for travel, but with Africa, India and South-East Asia off the map for now, the service is oddly restricted to populated areas of North America, Europe, Japan and Australia. While we’re sure it will come in handy in remote locations within those areas, the GSP-1700 needs to call on extended coverage in remoter regions to counterbalance its poor battery arrangement and basic handset design.

Price as reviewed: £349

Buy the GlobalStar GSP-1700 satellite phone