All over the world, people are increasingly using the Web to make phone calls, if not free, then for a few pennies a minute. One of the most common ways of doing so is with Skype, the free software whose parent company was bought last year by eBay.
In fact, Skype has become so popular that electronics makers have begun selling cordless or lightweight phones specifically designed for making Skype calls without having to be chained to a computer. But only for Skype calls; these models don’t work on regular phone networks.
I tested three of these new Skype-compatible phones: Belkin’s Wi-Fi Phone from Belkin, Free-1 Skype USB phone from Ipevo, and SkyTone RST501 cordless USB Internet phone from Radian Technologies. Overall, the three phones worked well, though often the sound quality on domestic calls to cellphones could have been better.
The Belkin phone costs $189.99, and looks like a regular cellphone. Unlike the other two phones, it doesn’t hook into a computer, but instead, connects to Skype via a wireless network. That means, of course, that you need to first be in a wireless “hot spot.”
The Belkin phone is shiny black and slightly bigger than an iPod mini. I toted it around New York City and used it wherever there was a reliable — and fairly powerful — wireless connection.
The phone has a textured back that gives it a nice grip. However, removing the back cover to insert the battery proved difficult. Charging the battery took three hours the first time, longer than I would have liked.
Unlike Free-1 and SkyTone, Belkin didn’t require me to install any software on my computer. To start using it, I just turned it on, selected a language and accepted the user agreement. Then the phone searched automatically for an open Wi-Fi access point.
Logging into Skype on the phone happened just as it did on my laptop. I typed in my user name and entered my password using the keypad. I was able to view my Skype contact list, scroll up and down to select a contact, and place calls to one of them by clicking on a single button. I also used SkypeOut to call regular, non-Skype phone numbers, though that meant dialing a few more digits. I couldn’t use the phone to buy SkypeOut credits to make cellphone and land-line calls, though. For that, I had to return to my PC.
I used the phone in a friend’s Wi-Fi-connected apartment in Midtown Manhattan, making Skype-to-Skype calls to friends in London and Cairo. The quality was decent, a lot like making the same calls with Skype on a computer. I was also satisfied with the quality when I made land-line calls to friends in Montreal and London. And sound quality was very good when I called my family back in Baghdad.
But calls to domestic cellphones were complicated by a bit of static and a distant-sounding echo. And I could barely hear a friend in Montreal, so I had to hang up. Sometimes, it took several tries to connect to a cellphone. The problem had to have been with the Belkin, because the network was as fast as it needed to be, and because these cellphones sounded fine when I called them with regular phones.
Ipevo’s Free-1 is a thin, long and light corded phone that you plug into one of your PC’s USB ports. It costs $34.99, and unlike the Belkin, uses your computer’s Internet connectivity to access the Skype network. Installing the Free-1 driver took less than a minute on my iBook, and figuring out how to use the phone took not much longer.
I used Free-1 to call other Skype numbers all over the world. In general, the sound quality was very good. There was also decent quality when calling cellphones; the echo and static from time to time in the background wasn’t a big problem.
Because the phone is screenless, you do have to check a Skype sidebar on the computer screen to see if your calls are going through, but that’s not a hassle.
SkyTone, launched last month, is a $99.99 cordless phone that comes with a base, which also is a charger. The base, in turn, connects via USB to your computer. As with the Free-1, you use your computer’s Internet connection to access the Skype network. Installing SkyTone’s driver took about the same time as with Free-1.
I made SkyTone Skype calls to a friend in Spain, and received Skype calls from her. The sound quality was good, though her voice sounded faint at times. Calls placed to cellphones in Montreal, Cairo, and locally to New York, were decent, but with occasional static.
The phone’s buttons seem to be poorly made; you have to press hard to dial a number. Another annoyance: If you unplug the SkyTone’s cord from your USB port and plug in another phone, you’ll have to reboot when you plug in the SkyTone again.
I liked the Belkin best for its ease of use and its mobility. Glitches aside, it lets users take Skype with them to roam the world without being tethered to their computers.
In general, all these phones are best suited for tech-savvy talkers, especially Skype customers, whose ranks continue to grow.