The Back Country Skiing Blog Compares Iridium 9555, Extreme and Spot Satellite Phones

Left to right: Iridium 9555, Iridium 9575 Extreme, SPOT/Globalstar GSP-1700. Iridium antennas slide in with thick area still protruding from phone, Globalstar is much more compact since the antenna folds completely into the phone.

I’ve been evaluating three satphones for a couple months: Iridium 9555 & 9575, along with SPOT/Globalstar GSP-1700 (which we will usually call “Globalstar” to prevent confusion of SPOT/Globlastar phone with SPOT emergency location device.)

Iridium is more expensive (see prices below) and has a much more extensive satellite network than Globalstar, yet surprisingly I found that the Globalstar gets me quicker connections in Colorado valleys where all satphones have a difficult time, and I get fewer dropped calls. On the other hand, Iridium works anywhere on the planet, while Globalstar only has voice coverage over or near major land masses, excluding far south and north latitudes. For example, at this time I would not recommend using a Globalstar phone on Denali, or for Antarctica adventures.

Iridium 9555 Weight: 9.7 oz, 274 gr — Globalstar is 7.2 oz, 202 gr (Globalstar is noticeably lighter)

Iridium sends text: 160 characters but difficult to use, Globalstar will NOT send text

Iridium receives text: 160 characters, Globalstar receives text, 35 characters (Iridium character count includes return address)

Iridium Battery life: about 30 hours standby, Globalstar claims 36 hours standby (a wash in my opinion, as life of battery and temperature will vary your mileage significantly). Spare batteries for both phones cost around $100.

Note, Iridium Extreme 9575 is mostly a cosmetic upgrade from 9555. It’s more water resistant, has an emergent message system, and weighs 8.8 oz, 250 grams so it’s about an ounce lighter than 9555, but still heavier than Spot/Globalstar. That said, you can not connect a charger to the 9575 without a big klutzy adapter that weighs .9 ounce, making the 9575 essentially the same weight as 9555. Disappointing to put it mildly.

Iridium 9575 satphone SOS button invokes persistent messaging via both text and phone dialing, hands off.

Extreme adds GPS and an SOS button, otherwise the firmware is nearly identical to 9555. (Built-in GPS is of course essential with an SOS button.) Seriously, it’s a satphone so the SOS button could be a gimmick. Or is it? Since Iridium phones are tough to text from and may not get immediate and reliable connections with satellites, perhaps the addition of an SOS button solves a big problem. Read on for more about that.

The SOS button can be set up to send your GPS coords and an emergency message to any phone number you want, but the Extreme does give you the option of registering with GEOS Emergency Response Center (just as an SOS from a SPOT emergency devices does). The beauty of having your emergency message sent to GEOS is you don’t have to have local EMS numbers available for making an emergency call — which can be a real gotcha if you travel much. But more importantly, since getting a voice call or text done on an Iridium can be frustrating due to dropped connections, the “press it and forget it” functionality of an SOS button could solve a big problem.

Indeed, I’m fairly impressed with the emergency functionality of the 9575, though in typical Iridium style they make it confusing.

First, Iridium 9575 has a red button under a cap on top of the phone. When pressed, this initiates “Emergency Mode” which causes the phone to persistently attempt to call one pre-programmed recipient and text to three pre-programmed recipients. The text message includes GPS coords. Strangely, the red button on my test unit did nothing, perhaps because I was using the SIM card from my 9555. Whatever, the manual says the red button does indeed trigger emergency mode, so I’ll take Iridium at their word.

Second, oddly buried under Settings/Location-Options in the 9575 firmware you’ll find an option for “Emergency Mode.” This triggers things the same way pressing the red button does. But it’s here in the firmware where you’ll find all your options for configuring Emergency Mode. Using these options worked for me and I was able to fully test Emergency Mode. It worked well, the only disapointment being that it doesn’t have an “OK” message option which uses the same persistent hands-off dialing.

For Iridium, who didn’t even have a question mark in their firmware character set till a few years ago, the way this all works borders on miraculous.

ridium Extreme seems like it might be a bit smaller and lighter — until you realize you need to carry around yet another piece of the phone if you want to be capable of charging it. Granted, it could be considered a bonus to have parts that come off to make the phone lighter, but in this case the peices and parts seem too finicky — and I don’t even want to think about how much that adapter costs to replace.

Names and technology:

As far as I know, Iridium phones are only branded as Iridium, though Iridium does contract out to texting devices such as Delorme inReach.

Iridium satellites talk to each other in similar fashion as ground based cell phone towers. If you have a fairly clear view of the sky, the Iridium sats pass your phone call off to each other for continuous talking. The Iridium satellites pass overhead quickly, so if you don’t have enough sky the sat you connect with will not be able to transfer your call before it goes out of contact behind the horizon. I’ve found this to be a real problem with Iridium, when in most valley locations I’ve tested my calls tend to be cut off within minutes, and it can take up to 6 minutes for the phone to establish a connection — that can feel like a lifetime in a medical emergency, since you have to stand there staring at the phone so you can invoke a call when it finds a satellite. The least Iridium could have done with this is to provide an audio chime connection notification. Nope.

Globalstar phones are sold under the Globalstar badge as well as SPOT. There is no difference in performance between the two. Unlike Iridium, completing a 2-way voice call on a Globalstar satphone requires both a satellite and a ground station the satellite can connect to. This makes global coverage problematic if not impossible (e.g., needing a ground station in Antarctica, or in the middle of the Atlantic.)

Handling and size: Spot/G-star is virtually the same thickness and width as the Iridium 9555, but significantly shorter due to the 100% stowable antenna as well as the unit body being 1 cm shorter. Iridium easily stands vertically on a flat surface, while Spot/G-star does not (with antenna raised, as it needs to be). Since it’s essential to have any satphone antenna oriented vertically while establishing a connection, you want to be able to set your phone on a table or whatever and not have to hold it. Very poor industrial design on the Spot/G-star in this respect, though overall the phone feels good in the hand.

SPOT Globalstar phone does work, but not without a few interface problems. Of greatest concern is how easily the raised buttons are pressed and triggered during storage — especially the power button indicated by red arrow.

Ease of use: The keys on the Spot pick up so much glare at certain angles as to be illegible. More, the illuminated numbers are so small and glow in such as way as to be nearly illegible to my eyesight (which is admittedly not perfect, but still, I shouldn’t need glasses for this.) Not so the Iridium, which has nicely raised keys featuring large white numbers and letters. Both keypads illuminate. One trick with backcountry satphone use is you want all possible numbers pre-installed in your phonebook. Hmmm, doing this on Spot requires entering number first, then saving it. Same with Iridium. Pass for both phones.

How the power buttons operate is another issue. Iridium’s power buttons are small and nearly impossible to activate through an accident such as how the phone is stored in your backpack. Conversely, the location of the Iridium power buttons is not intuitive and may take a non-trained user some time to figure out. Globalstar is opposite. Power button is similar to some brands of cell phones: on the keypad and obvious. But it can be accidentally pressed and powered up during storage, resulting in a dead phone when you need it.

Connection sensitivity and reliability: It is easy to know who wins this contest. My Iridium frequently connects inside my house — with the antenna collapsed. Spot/G-star just sits there displaying its “Looking for Service” message. That’s not saying you’d want to try and talk on a satphone inside a building (unlike how Hollywood portrays the situation), but it’s an interesting test. More, this is just a guess but my impression is that the Iridium 9575 has a better antenna than the 9555 as it hooks up from indoors much more frequently.

Cost: Iridium is incredibly expensive. There are too many ways to pay (pay, and pay) for us to detail here (see these charts), but figure you’ll need to come up with a minimum of around $300 a year if you want to keep the same phone number — but that’s the “Emergency Plan” with NO pre-paid minutes and $4.50 a minute!

You can buy prepaid Iridium cards but they expire, thus possibly resulting in an unbelievably expensive phone call if you use it once. For example, their least expensive prepaid is 75 minutes for $160.00 — that’s $2.10 a minute and it expires in just 4 weeks!

Keep your Iridium phone available for 12 months a year prepaid you’ll still spend nearly $700/year. Their best comparo to a minimal but still practical Spot/G-star plan is probably the Iridium “Annual 120 Plan” which has 120 minutes at $599.00, at $1.29 per minute once you run out of the prepaid.

If you want your Spot/G-star available 12 months a year, it’ll cost you about $300/year (120 minutes). With additional minutes at $1.99 instead of the stunning Iridium price of $4.50/minute.

Essentially, Spot/G-star will cost you about half what Iridium does for minutes, and about half for the phone. In other words it is significantly more affordable.

In summary: Using the minimal 12 month plan, carrying the Globalstar as an emergency rig will cost you $300 a year and you can even make the occasional call for a ride from a trailhead without the giant sucking sound you’ll hear if you try to do that with Iridium. In our view, as mentioned elsewhere in this review the biggest downsides of Spot/G-star is that it won’t function reliably or at all in many areas of the globe, including on Denali, and you can not text from it without additional equipment.

Accessories: Iridium accessories must be made of gold with embedded diamonds. Via Amazon, an Iridium car charger is $78.00. You could probably make one with Amazon sourced parts for about $6.00. Globalstar wants $50.00 for theirs (still, is it made of silver or something?). If you need multiple accessories (say, for being sure you have chargers at different locations), you could save quite a bit of money by using Globalstar provided you don’t need a divorced antenna. But if you do need an external antenna for that SPOT/Globalstar, well, read on and keep your hands on your wallet.

If you use a satphone much, you’ll find yourself wanting an external antenna you can mount on a car roof or outside a snowcave. Iridium does sell such antennas, and you can get them in the aftermarket, but the antenna connection on the Iridium 9555 is ghetto — fragile and you never know if it’s really connected or not. Extreme model is better, with a real though still tiny jack/socket.

Globalstar GSP-1700 is a big fail in the external antenna area. Yes, you can connect an external antenna but you need an incredibly expensive “car kit” to do it. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I couldn’t find anything that will connect an antenna for under $500! That is patently ridiculous, though if you do use their pricy kits you supposedly get a boost in transmit power for all that coin.

Data: Both phones are data capable to some degree, but require setup and a computer or other type of interface to do so (for example, the Redport Optimizer). Neither will web browse in valley or canyon terrain due to the high angled horizon blocking your satellite connections. You can email from either phone, again provided you’re hooked up to a computer running specialized software. Smaller images can be sent and received the same way, but don’t plan on transmitting larger graphics unless you’ve got a solid connection and lots of minutes available on your plan. Data connections through satphones are slow slow slow.

Important note: Iridium phones do not have persistent texting, meaning if you don’t have a connection your text will not be queued up for an automatic send once you do get connected. Instead, your text message will end up being archived and is quite hard to find and re-send unless you know the phone firmware quite well. This is incredibly annoying and even downright dangerous, as with limited voice capability a clear concise text is the best way to communicate in an emergency. (When hooked to a computer using third party connection software, you get persistent email or texting.) Adding to this tragic state of affairs, you can’t text from a Globalstar/Spot phone whatsoever! (Note that both brands will receive texts sent by various methods, most reliable and easiest way is to just use their website “send a message” page.

Conclusion: If you’re only planning on using a satphone in an area where you’re sure Spot/Globalstar will work, I’d tend to recommend Spot over Iridium simply because it’s so much more affordable. The fact that you can’t text from Spot/Globalstar (without a computer hooked up, anyway) is a huge black mark, and prevents me from the hands-down recommend I could probably otherwise present. On the other hand, due to the Iridium phone’s lack of persistent texting, I’m not particularly fond of it either.

Article originally published on The Backcountry Skiing Blog by Lou Dawson.

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