Thuraya SG-2520

The Thuraya SG-2520 satellite phone offers GSM network access and smartphone features. It also has a fair price tag.

The Thuraya SG-2520 is a satellite and tri-band GSM smartphone that bundles features like a camera and a 1.9in colour LCD into a light and portable package.

Modern satellite phones are no longer the large and clunky backpack systems that they once were, even though they are typically chunkier than regular mobile phones. The Thuraya SG-2520 satellite phone has a candy bar form factor and it isn't too much larger than an average GSM mobile phone. It weighs a relatively light 190g with the battery included, so you'll barely notice it in your backpack.

Although the Thuraya SG-2520 satellite phone isn't ruggedised or waterproof, the gunmetal grey chassis feels very solid and should stand up well to everyday use — just don't drop it from a height or dunk it into water.

Satellite phones can be a must if you're travelling between townships, live in a remote area or work on a large property, but call costs are expensive when compared to regular mobile phone plans. Traditionally, many regional users have opted for two phones — a regular mobile for when normal network coverage is available (such as Telstra's Next G network), and a satellite phone for when they're out of range of a network.

To make things simpler, the Thuraya SG-2520 uses a dual-service system with both satellite and tri-band GSM capabilities, so you can switch between satellite and GSM services. Swapping from satellite to GSM reception took the handset an average of 1min 15sec. Unfortunately, the Thuraya SG-2520 doesn't tell you when GSM networks are available, so it is a matter of trial and error when you want to change systems.

Trying to find satellite coverage for the handset is a slower and more involved process. The Thuraya SG-2520 uses the Thuraya-3 satellite launched in January 2008 and currently in orbit over Singapore. That means people in Australia have to extend the antenna and aim the handset in a north-westerly direction at a 45 degree angle. We found that acquisition took at least 1min 38sec in an open area when pointed at the optimal point.

Unfortunately, the reliance on a single satellite means that if you have mountains, a tall building or medium to heavy cloud cover blocking your north-westerly line of sight, you won't be able to connect.

We tested the handset in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and found that the cloud cover prevented the Thuraya SG-2520 handset from finding a signal. While this is a common problem with satellite phones, it's exacerbated by the lack of other satellites with different lines of sight.

Unlike GPS navigation units, satellite phones require a lot of bandwidth to maintain a call connection, so even a few degrees of deviation will result in decreasing call quality and more frequent dropouts. This means you'll often need to use the bundled headset for conversations while aiming the handset at the optimal point in the sky. Bluetooth is built-in, so compatible headsets can be connected to the Thuraya SG-2520.

Fortunately, when the phone is aimed at the best point call quality is very good, aside from a very slight muffling effect when using a satellite signal.

The Thuraya SG-2520 satellite phone uses the WinCE 4.2 operating system and has a simple icon-based menu. Menu navigation is easy and suffers from very little lag; messaging, a calendar, alarms and a media centre are all available.

The 1.3-megapixel camera phone can capture both still images and movies. Videos are limited to a resolution of 320x240. The SD card slot on the right side provides expandable memory and Thuraya includes a 128MB SD card in the sales package.

The Thuraya SG-2520 satellite phone has a talk time of 144min and a standby time of 40hr when in satellite mode and a talk time of 240min and a standby time of 75hr when in GSM mode.

The phone doesn't come cheap, with Optus offering the handset for $1650. Fortunately if you're an Australian citizen, permanent resident or registered business and live in an area without regular mobile phone coverage, you're eligible for a government subsidy of 60 per cent of the retail price up to $1000.

The Federal Government is increasing the subsidy to 85 per cent with the same $1000 cap. According to the office of Stephen Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, this will be in place from July 1, 2009, at the latest. Alternatively, if you live in an area with mobile coverage but spend more than 120 days per year in places without 2G/3G coverage, then you can claim a 50 per cent rebate of up to $700.

If you're looking for a single phone that can make satellite and GSM calls while maintaining a relatively small form factor, the Thuraya SG-2520 offers plenty of features that aren't traditionally found in satellite phones.

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