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Inmarsat Isathub review: When better than nothing is very nearly priceless

Michael Brown | July 1, 2015
Remember those old FedEx commercials? "When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight." There was no talk of how much it would cost to get that package to its destination overnight. If you had to ask, speed obviously wasn't your first concern. It's the same idea with Inmarsat's IsatHub. This battery-powered device can connect you (and several of your colleagues, family, and friends) to both 3G mobile phone service and the Internet just about anywhere on earth--all you need is a clear view of the sky.

The removable battery was long dead, and I didn't have a spare, so I plugged it in to charge while I read the surprisingly thin user manual (it looks thick until you realize it's printed in eight different languages. A more in-depth manual is provided on a USB thumb drive.)

The battery pack serves as a pivoting foot for setting the satellite transceiver at the correct angle to link to the orbiting satellite. Once you power the unit up, you need to wait five minutes for it to achieve a GPS fix. Four arrow-shaped LEDs on the transceiver then guide you through the process of pointing the transceiver left and right and up and down. All four glow solid green once the transceiver achieves a solid connection. At that point, the IsatHub creates its own Wi-Fi hotspot (with a range of about 100 feet) that multiple notebooks, smartphones, and tablets can join. I was back in business, or so I thought.

I connected my both laptop and my smartphone to the new IsatHub hotspot, but I couldn't reach the Internet with either. I also didn't know how to make a phone call with my smartphone. Diving back into the manual, I discovered that I was stuck: You need to download a smartphone or tablet app (there are Android and iOS versions) to turn on the device's data connection. And you need a smartphone app to make phone calls. It was the classic catch-22: I didn't have the app I needed to get on the Internet because I couldn't get on the Internet to download it. I found out later that you can also configure the IsatHub by logging into it with a web browser, but doing it that way is much more complicated. Inmarsat would do well to put those mobile apps on the thumb drive along with the user manuals.

You can use the app to turn data connections on and off independently of the ability to make satellite phone calls, a valuable feature considering how much it costs to download data over a satellite connection. But it's not an all-or-nothing affair: You can also establish firewall rules that permit only email clients to download data, for instance, so no one in your party wastes your download budget mindlessly surfing the web. Actually, you can get much more specific than that: You can create all manner of rules governing incoming and outgoing data packets, you can restrict access to defined MAC addresses, and more.

Now that I'd spent some time with the IsatHub, my DSL connection having been restored in the interim, I decided that I should follow through and run some benchmarks. When I installed the apps on my Android phone and used the phone to make a few calls, I found the call quality to be acceptable but not quite as good as what I'm accustomed to.


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