How to Make Free Calls with Your iPad

One complaint about the iPad in the lead-up to its launch was that it wasn’t a phone. This is arguably a little like complaining that a fridge is not a toaster. But it’s okay. It turns out the iPad is a phone after all.

Well, sort of. Read on.

Two different approaches

Early on, someone at Apple leaked the little secret or some smart cookie figured out and reported that it was actually possible to turn the iPad into a VoIP phone, by plugging in a USB headset using the optional Camera Connection kit.

The Camera Connection kit, a $29 accessory, includes two adapters that plug into the iPad’s lone connectivity port. One is a smart card reader, the other has a USB port. You plug in the USB adapter, then plug a headset into it.

We discovered that in fact you don’t need adapter or headset. With the right software—such as Skype or Toktumi’s Line2 for iPhone—the iPad’s built-in microphone and speakers turn it into a workable, if not great, speaker phone.

The whole notion of iPad as VoIP phone does beg a couple of questions, which we’d better deal with before going further. First, why would you even want to do this?

Who needs this?

We would argue that with the addition of a wireless Bluetooth keyboard, the iPad makes a viable laptop replacement for mobile workers with very light computing needs.

If all you need to do is check e-mail, do a little Web surfing and maybe review documents, the iPad is perfectly adequate. That it lets you watch YouTube, read e-books and listen to iTunes as well is a nice bonus.

It might not be able to do all of the business-y stuff really well, but it is a 1-pound device with a 10-hour battery life. What it lacks in functionality and performance, it makes up for in mobility.

Most mobile workers, it’s true, already carry cell phones. But many still want the option of using VoIP when in range of a Wi-Fi signal, to save money or, in some cases, access office PBX features.

The other big question: how well does this really work?

Does it do the job?

Dancing bears are impressive for a few minutes until you realize that, despite the tutu, they’re not ballerinas. The answer here is that iPad-as-VoIP-phone performs somewhere just short of ballerina class. Not too shabby at all in fact.

It does not work equally well with all VoIP services, and we only attempted it with free online services. If you want to use it with a hosted PBX service, it might be possible, given that CounterPath has an iPhone version of its flagship Bria softphone app, but we didn’t attempt this.

The test bed

We did test it with Skype, Toktumi Line2, Whistle and iCall, with varying results.

One thing to understand when trying this at home is that Apple doesn’t support the iPad as a VoIP phone. When you plug in a USB headset, you’ll see an error message saying, ‘The attached USB device is not supported.’ You can ignore that.

We initially tried a Plantronics DSP-400 headset, a four- or five-year-old collapsible bi-aural model designed for mobile use. It worked fine.

However, the iPad really doesn’t work with some USB phone devices. When we plugged in a Chat 50, the excellent USB speakerphone from ClearOne, the message was, ‘Accessory Unavailable: The attached accessory uses too much power.’

The power light on the ChatOne, which came on initially, went dark and the device simply didn’t work.

We had a similar result with an IPevo handset.

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