Every time I think all the possibilities of moving Skype off the PC have been exhausted, some enterprising vendor proves me wrong.
In this case, the vendor is Taiwan- and San Jose-based IPEVO, which recently released its WiFi Skype Desktop Phone SO-10W. The SO-10W actually had a predecessor, the SOLO, but this sleek black instrument communicates with the broadband network over 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. (Those who wish to, can also use a cabled connection to the LAN or the WAN.)
For someone who lives and dies by Skype, this may be an excellent solution especially if s/he really prefers a traditional desk phone with a traditional corded handset to a headset, say, or a mobile phone, and works in one location. It's a comfortable form factor, and it functions like a familiar phone.
While it operates in a way that any PC-based Skype user will intuitively understand contacts and setup and operation menus are displayed on its full color screen, there are Call and End call buttons, etc. it brings some features and refinements that aren't available on a computer.
First, this phone rings when a Skype call comes in. Skype users who rely on a headset rather than a microphone and speakers have to be looking at the computer screen to know when a call comes in unless they wear their headset all the time.
Moreover, the SO10W has a high-quality built-in speakerphone, which to some degree compensates for the fact that the handset is corded (i.e., you can move away from the phone, at least to some degree). Just touch the Speaker button to toggle it on and off. There's also a Mute button, although actually putting a call on Hold is a two-step operation off the Options menuas is Resuming the call. For what it's worth, there's a Redial button (I have no idea what percentage of Skype calls are dialed by actually keying in the digits, but I'd guess it's pretty small). Finally, there are three programmable speed dial buttons, located below the three columns of dialpad buttons.
The remaining controls consist of a directional navigation ring with an OK button in the center, Call and End call, as mentioned, and right-hand and left-hand 'softkeys' for selecting commands from menus.
The physical design of the phone is high-style and decidedly elegant. It's got enough heft to stay put on the desktop, but it's not cumbersome to move, if need be. The handset is attached to the phone by a conventional coiled cord that is long enough for comfortable conversation. There's an interesting cutout in the lower portion of the handset that fits over a slight extrusion on the body of the phone to hold it in place. Perhaps this has some acoustic significance?
The Wi-Fi adaptor (or 'dongle') is a separate unit that connects to the phone via USB cabling that measures about 4 ½ feet long (eyeballing). This gives you some flexibility in locating the dongle relative to the phone, for optimizing the Wi-Fi connectivity. The Wi-Fi adaptor for the SO-10W appears to be at least as sensitive as that on the unit's mobile counterpart the SO-20, which struck us as being quite good. In any case we were able to get a strong connection to an access point two floors away.
Setting up and configuring the WiFi Skype Desk Phone was a piece of cake. Having set up the SO-20 not all that long ago, we were able to get the SO-10W up and running without reference to the Quick Start Guide, or the nicely printed User Manual. It took about 15 to 20 minutes, all told, including unpacking, connecting the hardware, and configuring the Skype account.
The SO-10W remembers your profile (Skype login and password) for automatic sign-in, and once you've got your Wi-Fi network encryption key entered, it remembers that as well, so getting online is painless. Oddly, when you lose the Wi-Fi connection, for whatever reason, you'll need to re-enter the time and date. Fortunately, you do not have to re-enter the Country Code, which requires scrolling down to the end of a very long list of possible codes.
IPEVO touts the sound quality of the SO-10W as exceptional. Our experience was mixed. At its best, I would rate it somewhere between the Skype-with-headset high-definition sound and a standard phone on the PSTN. This is not, technically, a 'wideband' phone; it supports the G.239AB codec rather than Skype's true wideband SILK codec. The handset appears to have a bigger speaker and probably a better microphone than many of today's miniaturized mobile phones. But the best sound we got from the SO-10W was with the speakerphone. It sounded downright lifelike and conveyed some of that feeling of spaciousness you get with a headset.
This is not to say we didn't have some lousy connections, but, we hasten to point out, in a normal Skype call even before you add Wi-Fi into the mix there are so many variables it's impossible to pinpoint the source of audio problems. While we experienced what felt an unusually high proportion of bad calls the usual VoIP bugaboos of jitter and packet loss testing this phone, we also had excellent ones.
There was one consistent problem that we were able to fix based on our previous experience with the SO-20 phone: People on the other end of the connection head a distinct echo of their own voices. As we reported in that review, this is a known issue, and is correctable by lowering the Volume setting. Lowering it to three of a possible four signal-strength bars diminished the echo; dropping it to two of four eliminated the problem, while audio levels remained comfortable.
All in all, taking into consideration the vagaries of Skype (which we can reasonably expect to diminish over time), we think this phone is a good performer. At $169 (from the IPEVO Store), is it for everybody? For those that do most of their phoning on Skype and we're told that there are more of these every day it seems like a reasonable investment perhaps just what many of them are looking for.