The PC is both a strength and a weakness in Skype’s incredibly popular Web-based VoIP service. Strength in that it gave Skype’s creators the technical tools that allowed them to build a high-quality voice transport service that fundamentally altered the telephony landscape. Weakness in that it required people to be sitting in front of a computer when they wanted to use that service.
Taiwan- and San Jose, Calif.-based IPEVO last month joined the ranks of companies that have developed ways to cut the cord the binds Skype to the computer. The So-20 WiFi Phone for Skype is a compact, light-weight device that connects to the Internet over Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11 b/g) networks, and has all of Skype’s telephony functionality built into its firmware.
Let’s start with the physical specs. The So-20 measures 4.13 x 1.7 x .7 inches (roughly 4 1/8 x 1 5/8 x 5/8″) and weighs in at 2.8 ounces. It has a bright 1.8 x 1.2-inch color screen and an alphanumeric keypad that will be familiar to any experienced mobile phone user. Navigation is accomplished with a cluster that includes power/end and call/answer keys, two “softkeys” tied to on-screen prompts, and a central “joy stick.”
Setting up the phone is pretty straightforward. (Incidentally, all the documentation that comes with the unit is a single 8.5 x 11 Quick Start Guide. The User Manual, which you can download from the IPEVO website, is a three-page PDF file.) You insert the Lithium-ion battery and charge it. The So-20 comes with a charging cradle, but the charging cord can also be plugged directly into the phone.
When fully charged (there’s an on-screen indicator), IPEVO says the battery is good for 4 hours of talk time and about 30 hours of standby. We did not stress-test the battery’s life.
Configuration involves having the phone search for a Wi-Fi network, which it does automatically. If the network you connect is secured by WEP or WPA/WPA2-PSK encryption technology, you can enter your security key, which the phone will store and use to automatically log you on in future. You can store keys for multiple “preferred networks.” More on this below.
|The IPEVO WiFi Phone for Skype|
Once connected to a network, you log on to Skype, entering your Skype name and password using the keypad. There’s a key for switching between uppercase, lowercase, and numeric input. You don’t have to use an existing Skype account; you can open a new one just as you would using a PC—only the typing is a bit more of a hassle. Again, the phone gives you the option of remembering your name and password for automatic Skype login.
You are now set up to make and receive Skype calls. The display shows your Skype contacts together with their presence information. Text too wide to display in its entirety scrolls right-to-left for easy reading. (Note: The first time you connect using the IPEVO WiFi Phone for Skype) it may take quite a while for your contacts to download. Don’t panic; they will show up in due course.) To make a call, scroll to a contact icon, hit the call key, and you’re up and talking.
For the record, all call functions—Skype-to-Skype calls, SkypeOut and SkypeIn—work on this phone. You can access voicemail, etc. But understand that non-voice functions—instant messaging, video, file transfer—are not available on the IPEVO phone.
So, how’s the sound quality? Making allowances for the fact that one of the strengths the PC brings to Skype VoIP—”wideband” audio quality—just isn’t going to work on a tiny handset, we’d have to say sound quality is pretty darn good.
We called contacts on the other side of the continent and as far away as Sicily, both on direct Skype connections and using SkypeOut. While this is a subjective evaluation, not based on hundreds of hours of testing, we were satisfied with the phone’s audio. (Your mileage may vary.)
In all fairness, we must report that a number of people we called complained of hearing their own voice echo on an approximately a one-second delay. Was this the phone?
|The So-20 with Charging Cradle|
We spoke to an IPEVO technician who acknowledged that this is a known issue. The fix is to “lower the volume level”—something we had discovered empirically on our own. There is a handy rocker switch on the left side of the phone, and when you’re at the “home” Skype screen pushing the switch either on the up side or the down side causes a volume indicator to pop onto the screen. Anything below the top volume level (five bars) should fix the problem.
So, all in all, this little phone is—we would say—easy to set up and use, and of acceptable audio quality. To what degree, then, does it free you from the umbilical connection to the PC? IPEVO is at some pains to convey the idea that the WiFi Phone for Skype is principally for cord-free use around the home or office (hence the multiple security key storage capacity, mentioned above).
Explicitly, the phone will work with any 802.11b or .11g network that’s protected by WEP or by WPA/WPA2-PSK –for which you know the security key. But it will also work with any open, unsecured network that doesn’t require authentication using input (SSID and/or login/password) from a Web browser.
As you move around the community, the phone will spot lots of networks. The encrypted ones are marked with a padlock icon. Those not protected by WEP or WPA are displayed without the padlock. Some of the latter you will be able to connect to, some you won’t—due to MAC address-based security or the need for browser input.
Some of the unprotected networks you find will be private ones that nobody bothered to protect. Neither IPEVO nor VoIPplanet.com would suggest it’s ethically acceptable to use such a network for making your personal phone calls. But others, in restaurants, libraries, coffee shops, and such public places are just for the convenience of whoever’s there—and perfectly fair game for your Skyping activities. So, in reality, the world in which you can put the So-20 phone to use is pretty extensive.
As to using it outside the U.S., the phone is also sold in China, and presumably comes with charging equipment that works there. If you’re taking the So-20 to Europe, however, the U.S. charger won’t work. Nonetheless, you can charge the phone off a USB connection on a computer (assuming you’ve managed to find an appropriate adaptor for it) using a standard mini-USB-to-USB cable.
As mentioned, IPEVO’s So-20 Wi-Fi Phone for Skype was announced in February 2009. A quick scan of the World-Wide Web showed it for sale at its list price of $129.95, but as of yet, we did not find any significantly discounted offers.
Bottom line: We would rate this product as Very Good, and would recommend it to people who make frequent use of Skype—especially those who do so in multiple locations and/or are out and about a good deal.