I’ve been keeping a close eye on the market for a computer-less Skype phone over the past six months or so. Both Lana and my family have taken to Skype as the easiest and cheapest way to keep in touch with each other. With familial outposts in both Ireland and Spain at the moment it works out quite well. The problem I have with Skype is that you are chained to a computer when using it. There’s no computer always on in our flat, and even if there was, the currently available cordless USB handsets only tend to work with PCs.
As such, I was excited to read about the Netgear SPH101 Wireless Skype phone midway through last year. However, once it made it over to the UK it came in at an expensive £160 or so. A number of other manufacturers have come up with similar devices and a couple of weeks ago, I picked up the Belkin Wifi Phone for Skype from PC World for £99.
The phone itself is a candy-bar design, much like a normal mobile phone. However the plastics are decidedly cheap feeling and the handset is quite light. The display is colour, but low resolution. Overall it has obviously been designed to be inexpensive and predominantly house bound. The keypad contains the usual numerical keypad (for SkypeOut use) as well as a joystick and two soft keys. In use the keys are a bit of a hit-and-miss affair and it sometimes takes a couple of presses for them to produce a result. There are also volume up/down keys on the left side of the phone. To finish off a description of the externals, the handset comes with a charger which plugs into a mini-usb port on the bottom of the phone, and a small port to plug in a hands free earpiece (not supplied.) The battery is removable and charges in about three hours first time around. Battery life seems to be reasonable, with it lasting a couple of days on standby, though calls do run it down fairly quickly, with maybe 2 hours of call time from a full battery.
As the name suggests, the phone connects to your wireless network and in this respect it can handle 802.11b/g networks and has a good level of support for WEP and WPA/WPA2 PSK security. The first time you turn it on it presents you with a list of networks and once you select the one to connect to you can enter the necessary WEP key or WPA pass-phrase. Once configured you can tell the phone to auto-connect to that network. After connection you can either connect to Skype using an existing account, or create a new one. At this point it is worth introducing the Skype client which comes pre-loaded on the phone. In many ways it acts in a very similar way to the one you are probably used to using on a PC/Mac. However it is a lot more basic, even compared to the Skype for mobile client. For instance, there is no support for viewing user’s pictures, instant messaging and of course, video. What is there however is the basic functionality you’ll need for making and receiving calls, including support for SkypeOut, SkypeIn and voicemail. However if you want to top up your account credit you’ll need to log onto the Skype web site.
Once signed in you can view your contacts and make a call simply by selecting one and pressing the green call key. On the Skype-Skype calls we’ve made so far call quality has been excellent, on a par with talking on a normal land phone. SkypeOut is acceptable quality, but not as clear. We’ve experienced call drops a few times, but that could be down to problems with our wireless or even on the other end. The phone makes the usual Skype noise when your contacts come and go. One thing the client does appear to lack is support for online awareness. That is it doesn’t appear to support the option to always show your Skype status which means things like Skype Buttons may not work properly. It does of course display your online status to your contacts. The client is also upgradable via download, though none has so far been made available.
One feature which Belkin promote is the ability to take the phone out and about and connect to public access points. However the phone does not have a web browser, so any access point must be truly open and not require browser based authentication. In the UK Belkin have done a deal with popular wireless provider The Cloud via their Ultra Talk package. However, this requires subscription at a cost of £6.99 per month. I don’t envisage that our one will be leaving the confines of the flat.
One feature which would be nice would be to support multiple Skype accounts logged in simultaneously. Prior to obtaining the phone both Lana and I had separate Skype accounts, but in order for this to be our only always on Skype device we had to create a new one for both of us and distribute it to our contacts. The option to have both original accounts logged in with a different ring tone would be fantastic, but I have no idea how practical this would be.
In summary, I’ve been impressed by the handset so far in terms of its ability to perform as an always on Skype to Skype device which doesn’t require you to be tethered to a computer or even have one on. The functionality provided is pretty good and easy to use.
One thing I’d be interested to try as well would be a combined DECT landline handset and on-phone Skype unit. The RTX Dualphone 3088 which recently launched provides this capability and looks interesting.