Portable Wi-Fi/Skype phones have enormous appeal for Skype enthusiasts. Unlike the cordless DECT phones we've been reviewing here recently (see Related Articles)which are really only practical for use around a home or officea Wi-Fi phone also lets you make wireless low-cost or cost-free Skype calls at hotspots or other open wireless networks you find around and about. Or that's the theory.
The Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype ($199 list, about $170 online), was released in the U.S. in December. It's one of a few such units on the market. The other notable example, the Netgear Skype Wifi Phone, which came out a couple of months earlier, is similar but priced a little higher (over $200 online).
Aside from it's Wi-Fi connection capability, the other thing the Belkin phone has going for it is built-in software that allows it to automatically log in to any of 60,000-odd Boingo hotspots in the aggregator's worldwide networkassuming the user has a Boingo account and has set up the phone for auto log-on.
As with the cordless DECT phones, Skype software is also built in to this phone's firmware. It provides most of the functionality of the PC-based Skype software. You can make and take callsSkype-to-Skype, SkypeOut, and SkypeIn. You can access and view your contact list on the integrated LCD monitor and see Skype presence information for each contact. And you can change your Skype profile, add a Skype contact and so on. You can't use Skype's instant messaging, however.
In terms of call connection and voice quality, the Belkin Wi-Fi Skype Phone didn't quite come up to the standards of the best of the DECT phones we tested, but call quality was always acceptable and this phone does offer the additional benefit of being usable when you're away from your home or office.
The Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype is similar in size and weight to typical candy-bar style cell phonesmeasuring 4.53 x 1.93 x 0.71 inches. The company doesn't give the weight, but it weighs less than two AA batteries (and that's with the phone's rechargeable Lithium Ion battery installed.) Battery life is okay: three hours of talk time, 50 hours standby.
The tiny screen (about 1-1/8 x 1-3/8 inches) used for displaying menus, Skype prompts, contact lists, etc. is in color and reasonably high resolution (again, Belkin doesn't provide complete specs). It's quite readable. Lines of text that don't fit on the screen scroll across it.
The keypad is simple and familiar: 10 number/letter keys, a */shift key and a number sign key, plus two soft keys directly below the screen (with on-screen labels that change according to context), and Answer and Hang-up/Power keys. There's also a joy stick for scrolling menus and lists. You press down on the stick or press a soft key to make menu selections.
For experienced Skype users, there is very little new to learn. Setting up and making and taking calls on the phone is easy enough to masterexcept where you need to input text using the numeric keypad, such as when adding a new contact or signing into Skype for the first time. It is possible, nonetheless, even to sign up for a new Skype account using the phone.
You can certainly use this phone on your home or office Wi-Fi network (11b/g), but it strikes us as worth $170 only if you can also use it when out and about. Belkin agrees, which is why it hooked up with Boingo. Belkin says it is pursuing deals with other hotspot providers as well and will add log-on capabilities for them with or without providing a firmware upgrade.
The Belkin phone works on truly open and some secured networks. You can use it on networks that have no security in place (a reassuringly small number of the many I found while war driving in my neck of the woods), and you can use it on networks that have implemented WEP or WPA encryption (if you know and input the key) or Mac address filtering (if the network owner adds your Belkin phone's MAC address to his list of allowed devices).
The phone's "Networks in range" function will show you all viable network signals, marking with a padlock icon those that require an encryption key for access. Networks with no encryption are not necessarily open and available, however, as I discovered when trying to use the phone at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas recently.
Unencrypted networks may have MAC filtering in place (and your phone probably isn't on the list of allowed devices), or may require Web authentication. The operators of some free networks force you to fill in a name (and sometimes password) and/or an e-mail address. The Belkin phone can't use those networks because it doesn't have a Web browser with which to send authentication information.
My phone found many unencrypted networks at CES. It could connect to some but could not access network resources or services on any, presumably because they required Web authentication or had MAC filtering in place. I did find some completely open networks while war driving in my neighborhood and was able to make calls. (Hint: if you're not in a business district, look for an apartment building.)
On my own home network, once I'd added the phone's MAC address to the MAC filtering table in my router's Web management tool, the phone automatically connected. After the first time I entered my Skype name and password (laboriously on the numeric keypad), it also automatically logged me on to Skype when the phone was turned on and connected to a network.
As for Boingo, 60,000 may sound like a lot of hotspots, but if there isn't one where you areand there are none in my city (population: 350,000)it's not much use. The first time you log in, you have to input your user name and password. After that, the phone will automatically log you in as soon as you come in range of a Boingo site. It also automatically downloads updated lists of sites in the region.
In tests calls with the Belkin phone, I noticed more clippingdue to packet lossand more echo. It's almost impossible to pinpoint the cause of flaws in Skype calls. In some cases, these symptoms were caused by degraded Wi-Fi connections. Certainly the phone's range was somewhat shorter than the DECT phones I've tried, which worked well at over 250 feet from the base station, through outside walls. Call quality with the Belkin phone began to noticeably degrade (clipping, echo) at not much over 100 feet, though calls were still sustainable.
However, I did also notice clipping on some calls made from the same room as the Wi-Fi router. These could have just been sub-standard Skype connections. And even when making calls from an unsecured network in the field with a weak connection (two bars on a six-bar connection strength gage), I was able to have reasonable conversations.
One small quibble. Since this phone would be very useful for traveling to Europe and Asia (both for calling home and calling local contacts, who are more apt to be on Skype), it's too bad the product ships with only a North American plug on the power adapter. Other mobile devices such as the BlackBerry come with interchangeable plugs.
That said, it is at least a dual-voltage power adapter, and the phone, which is also available in Europe, is certified for use in Belgium (outdoors only, on one channel), in France (outdoors only, on seven channels), and in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, and Iceland.
Bottom line: The Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype works, albeit not perfectly. It can deliver real benefits for mobile users, especially if you're willing to buy a Boingo contract. It's probably too expensive for what you get, but prices will likely come down over the next year.