Pharos Traveler 137 GPS Smartphone – Is This the Smartest?

I think of Torrance, CA-based Pharos Science & Applications as “the little tech company that can.”  I’ve followed them for years and been continuously impressed by their mobile GPS solutions.  Now, they have combined their proprietary GPS technology with a classy Smartphone that, arguably, packs in a small package everything a serious mobile warrior could need and want.

The more I use, explore and learn about this little gadget, the more I like it!  The product is deceiving in that it looks like just another slim, big-screened mobile phone.  The reality is something quite different, and very pleasing.

Packaging and executing well are different issues.  Pharos has risen to the challenge.  The Traveler 137, available for as little as $350 after rebate (see details following), is a slender, unlocked Windows Mobile-based touch screen GSM Smartphone.  Mobile warriors want it all, of course.  To that end, the Traveler 137 has it all.  Before getting into operational characteristics, let’s review its pedigree and translate it for all of us to better understand.

Unlocked means it is not tied to any carrier.  As an unlocked mobile phone, the manufacturer has the opportunity to make it best for the user and not best for the carrier.  You win in this deal.

The compact handset sports a crisp 3.5-inch WVGA touch screen that looks great.  Under the hood is a 528MHz processor for the 3.5G communicator.  It is tri-band UMTS/HSDPA/HSUPA and a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE cellular modem on 1700/1900/2100 MHz. The phone is quad-band 850/900/1800/1900 MHz. Translation:  This is a world phone with an outstanding, clear and sharp screen that, in the US, can operate on AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile networks.  Worldwide, the Traveler 137 should operate in nearly all GSM markets. Capable of industry-leading 7.2Mbps download and 2Mbps upload speeds, the Traveler 137 should speed through shuttling data in and out for Internet browsing and email.  Important to note, data speeds are also dependent upon the network and its traffic at any given time.  Wherever in the world the user wakes up, the chances are excellent that the Traveler 137 will operate with both voice and data!

GPS is quick and sensitive, as befits the company’s heritage in this business.  To that end, the Traveler 137 is described as a hybrid because much of the GPS and points of interest data resides in the phone AND it goes out through Pharos servers to get even more robust and current data seamlessly integrated into the user experience.  For example, let’s say the user is looking for a McDonald’s along a route.  Doing a search, the unit will call up what is already loaded AND look for more recent, up-to-date McDonald’s listings via the Pharos servers (using the phone’s radios and the user’s data plan) to find if more exist.  In addition, the data search reveals the latest information that, on a stand-alone GPS unit that is not an Internet-connected device, is frequently not only incomplete but also incorrect because of changes since the data were loaded on the device.

Inside is a G-sensor to auto-rotate the screen as needed so what’s on the screen is properly oriented as you change from portrait mode, that is, up and down, to landscape mode, side to side.

Of course, there is Bluetooth on board with the current v2.1 specs that include enhanced data rate.  Bluetooth is there for hands-free voice communications as well as data transfer between computer and the handset.  Read later on about options for near total hands free operation while driving.

The Traveler 137 can use Bluetooth or USB to connect to a Windows PC and share the Internet that is part of the phone, using the phone’s data plan. Internet Sharing software is already loaded.  Users are cautioned to check with their carrier to avoid any data transfer limits when using their wireless plan.  Learn about your plan.  Overage penalties can be stiff!

Wi-Fi with 802.11b and g allow users to tap local networks and hotspots for Internet connectivity when it is more convenient or less expensive than using the handset’s carrier-related services for fun and productivity.

There are two cameras on board; a 3.1-megapixel digital camera for photos and video features autofocus and up to 6x digital zoom and a .3-megapixel camera facing the user from the touch screen side for video conferencing, which is a feature that is dependent upon the carriers.  Combining the main digital camera with GPS technology allows for easy geotagging of photos, letting viewers know the precise location of the photo.  The user-facing camera is currently disabled when the 137 is used domestically due to US carriers’ rules, but the camera is allowed to operate when abroad and using local SIM cards from carriers that support the capability.  I am told it is fun to use the feature, similar to using a web cam on your PC.  Let us hope our backward-thinking US carriers start allowing this and other services routinely enjoyed by consumers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.  Pharos is looking into a workaround plan for domestic use. My guess is that they may find a way using Wi-Fi so it does not use the carrier network.  They’ll let their users know if and when they’ve figured it out.

With Pharos’ proprietary Smart Navigator software, you WILL get to your destination as quickly as GPS technology allows. Pay-as-you-go server-based services include additional area maps while traveling to foreign destinations. Let us say the user is visiting France.  Instead of purchasing the full set of maps for France when the visit is for a short while, the user may elect to get either area or corridor maps based on his or her needs for $1.50 per day, $5 per week or $9 for the month through Pharos.  Once the user pays the fee, even over the air, for the specified time period, the maps become available for the period chosen. Maps and area data are accurate and served up on demand.  Pretty cool, I say!

Icing on the cake is in the form of a built-in FM radio that requires the supplied headset whose wire becomes the antenna. Users may also use the included Microsoft Notes software to jot notes AND to record audio notes, even lectures.  There is so much to learn by exploring the capabilities!  I should note that, as with many of the features, these are common to Smartphones, in general, but few users realize the possibilities.  On the Traveler 137, there is a wonderful combination of proprietary as well as common software that come together to make this the unique product that it is.

There is a Micro SDHC card slot fitted with a 2GB card on which are the mapping and points of interest data.  This can be expanded to a very high, let’s say 8GB or higher card that can combine the original data as well as user-specified storage for photos, videos, software and more.  The user would need to transfer the original card’s contents to a PC and then from the PC to the new, larger card to then be placed into the Traveler 137.  It’s easy with commercially available card adapters that connect to the computer via USB.  The included software can also allow users to play full movies that have been properly encoded and transferred to one of those massive storage cards.  Just be sure to NOT erase the GPS data!

With its powerful processor and provided Remote Desktop software (from Microsoft), users can remotely access their home or work Windows PC.

Because this is a Windows Mobile-based device, it comes with a host of goodies.  These include Windows Media Player software as well as the full Windows Office Mobile suite of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and One Note. MSN Messenger and Windows Live are installed to allow live and local searching on the go.  Using Microsoft Active Sync with a Windows PC, users can backup and sync email, SMS and personal data.

Traveler 137 is powered by a rechargeable Lithium-ion battery, which provides up to five hours of talk time or 200 hours or standby time.  In use, it is necessary to plug into the vehicle power adapter during GPS use to preserve and extend per-charge battery life.  Yes, the device is powerful, and yes, it requires power to run all its functionality.  Pharos has struck a fine balance between functionality and power management.

In other words, it is a difficult task to produce a very small and feature-rich device AND provide a day’s power, the electricity to perform all the functions one may want to do.  Such activities as GPS, 3G connectivity and other functions are power hungry.  Pharos executives have told me they continue to tweak and make improvements in power management, but the practicality of it all is that serious, heavy daily users will likely need to supplement the battery during a typical day’s usage.  This is not unlike other full-featured mobile devices that rely on more than messaging and light Internet usage. Fortunately, mobile users are often in a vehicle during part of the day or in an office environment where they can plug in for power.  Mobile options include purchasing an additional battery or plugging into vehicle power or another outboard source, such as external and rechargeable power supplies. Examples of outboard power are the Innergie mCube products and the Xantrex/Duracell PowerSource 100.

In my experiences with the review sample, it’s tough to fault Pharos for anything with this product.  It is also important that to get the most from all it offers, users will need to spend the time needed to learn and set things up, you know, personalize the phone and explore to discover more useful features.  The most important and most often-used phone and nav features all worked as expected – nearly flawlessly.  Isn’t this what we want:  Feature rich without unneeded complexity?  The Traveler packs a lot into its pint size, to be sure.  An unlimited data plan is essential for any time, anywhere access to all the features.  The process of discovery is essential for a happy experience in day-to-day use.  It becomes a matter of how to do things combined with learning just what the product can do and then deciding what are the important capabilities each user.

Speaking of each user, another interesting feature I like is something Pharos calls Carousel.  Similar to features on other handsets, the appearance of the “desktop” can be customized in a variety of ways with “shells” already included.  With a “touch and sweep” motion, users can sweep through many choices and touch to make a selection of the one desired at that time.  Functionally, each user, mom, dad, children, for example, can all have their favorite look face them each time they use the Traveler 137.  If mom wants to focus on business contacts and calendar to keep track of appointments, icons that are direct links to these and other functions can be set on that “home page” of the desktop.  When another user has the Traveler 137 in hand, then it’s “touch & sweep” to the desired, pre-set style in the Carousel to get everything close at hand for instant access.

I’ve tested it while driving and found that, unlike some other products that mute the ability generate and take calls during nav functions, the Pharos Traveler 137 allows both to occur simultaneously.  I’ve paired it to my Bluetooth headset for hands-free speaking at the same time I have asked it to route me to a destination.  I can conduct a call and also hear the nav instructions.  The other party hears only my voice, but in my ear, I can hear the nav instructions while conversing on my call.  I’ve tried the same thing with a wired headset including my favorite theBoom models from UmeVoice with the same result.

Users who wish to be able to functionally use the Traveler 137 in truly hands free mode are recommended to purchase optional Microsoft Voice Command for Windows Mobile software. This is the coolest!  Using just the user’s voice, make calls by the name in the phone’s directory. Make calls speaking the digits to be dialed and much more.  These two features alone make your Traveler 137 comply with rigid hands-free laws now in effect in many states.  Using any hands free headset or visor-mounted speakerphone, one click puts the Traveler 137 in listen mode to respond to your command so you do not need to touch the phone while calling when driving.  Amazing!  The software costs about $40.  Click HERE for information.

Traffic reporting and rerouting is available at no additional charge directly from the nav screen.  Traveler 137 purchasers may sign up for this free service directly from Pharos when they call to register the phone.  Others charge a monthly, annual or one time fee for these services.

How and where will users place this “device” while in a vehicle?  Because it is a mobile phone AND a portable navigation device (PND) all in one, when in GPS mode, it is best to have a clear view skyward in order to receive satellite data for accurate navigation services.  Toward the end of June 2009, Pharos will make available its in-vehicle mounting options to best serve its users.  If you purchase a Traveler 137, be sure to check on the company Website for these options.

What I have in my hand with this Pharos Traveler 137 is a mini-computer and mobile world phone coupled with a hybrid GPS device that allows me to communicate and navigate at the same time in an elegant, integrated manner.  Boy, that’s a mouthful, but so true.  The company has packaged features and capabilities, some proprietary and some freely available in a neat little product.  It works and it works well.

Is this a product for everyone?  Clearly, no.  It IS for everyone and anyone who values the ability to have so many useful features and functions in a single small and elegant package.  It IS for the busy businessperson, especially world travelers, who want a single device to do so many things well.  It IS for the consumer who wants to rely on a personal handheld device with built-in class-leading GPS capabilities coupled to all the other communication needs on a daily basis.

Don’t miss the following information about pricing

The price?  The retail price is $600 for this unlocked mobile phone that does so much.  You don’t need to pay that much, however!  Purchase the Traveler 137 through www.Dell.com, www.pharosgps.com or Amazon.com, and later this year through major retailers.  However, once purchased, users who call Pharos at 1-877-7-PHAROS (774-2767) to activate voice and data service at a minimum level from T-Mobile with a two-year contract will receive a rebate of $250 bringing the price down to $350!  Please don’t miss this offer!  It is in effect for the product’s introduction starting June 1, 2009, but I do not know how long it will be in effect.

In addition, users will receive FREE updates directly from Pharos over the air direct to their Traveler 137, FREE real-time traffic service (where available), FREE assisted GPS data to expand searches for local and along-the-route points of interest, FREE gas prices and more.  Of course, while services may be provided at no charge or even with a charge, applicable data rates from the carrier will apply. This is why is it so important that consumers of ANY voice and data plans on any handset know limits, restrictions and any other relevant cost and fee information about the plan they have selected.

Pharos is not resting on its proverbial laurels.  As more services can be provided, both free and as paid options, users will be notified. I admire the company for always seeking to improve and offer greater value to its customers who support the company.  It’s that little company, personalized service mentality that keeps them relevant as compared with the seemingly monolithic structure found in most large companies.  Pharos can make decisions and frequently act quickly.  I like that!

My wish list is pretty sparse.  I would like to see speed sensitive volume during navigation so that prompts are louder while traveling at freeway speeds as opposed to on city streets. This and a few other suggestions I made to Pharos management have been well received and will be offered as running changes in the future at no cost to the consumer.  Thank you, Pharos, for being interested in your customers’ wellbeing and their enjoyment of your products. You just have to admire a company that listens and acts in this manner.

Now, dear readers, check out this cool new Pharos gadget!