RTX America, the American subsidiary of a Danish company, RTX Telecom, offers an interesting variation on the dual-mode cordless Skype phones we’ve been reviewing recently. Dual-mode phones let you make and take both Skype and PSTN landline calls on the same cordless handset.
RTX also has a SIP version of this product that works on standard SIP networks rather than on Skype’s proprietary peer-to-peer network. We tested the Skype version, the Dualphone 3088. It’s currently only available in Europe, where it sells for about $195 at the Skype site. RTX says it will be introduced later this year in the North American market as a branded product from a major consumer electronics vendor.
The interesting difference between the 3088 and other cordless Skype phones is that it does not require a PC.
Other products include a wireless base station that plugs into a USB port on a host PC running the Skype client software. The cordless phone system imports your Skype contact list and other Skype data from the host. With the Dualphone 3088, you plug the base station into a network router using an Ethernet cable, and the phone communicates directly with Skype over the Internet.
This is important because it means your computer doesn’t have to be running the Skype software—or even be on—in order for you make Skype calls. And if you’re computer isn’t on or running Skype, it can’t be used by Skype to route calls for other users, which otherwise can happen, resulting—theoretically—in scarce computer and network resources being appropriated.
The Dualphone 3088 worked as well as or better than other cordless Skype phones we’ve tried, and it was a breeze to set up.
Except for the one important difference, the 3088 is similar to products from other manufactures. It includes a handset with built-in Skype software that sits in a charging cradle when not in use, and a base station smaller than a paperback book.
The handset communicates with the base station using DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) wireless technology, which in America uses the 1920-1930MHz frequency band. RTX claims the handset will work up to 50 meters away from the base station indoors and up to 300 meters outside.
The handset is slightly larger than some we’ve looked at—closer to the size of conventional home cordless handsets than the cellular-size units in some of the other products. This is presumably because it includes additional electronics necessary for it to stand on its own as a network device.
The control panel is also a fairly conventional design. It includes a 1.2 x 1.2 inch color LCD that displays a small-screen version of the Skype interface. There’s a four-way navigator with a Select button, two soft keys directly below the screen, Start and End/Power keys and a phone keypad with numbers 0 through 9, plus # and * keys that can also be used to input special characters.
Making calls can be a somewhat tedious multi-step process. At the home screen, press the soft key for Contacts. Use the scroll keys to find and highlight the contact you want. Press the Select button. Press the Select button again to select Call from the next menu—other options are Send voicemail, View profile and Advanced.
At the next screen, you may have two or more choices: the contact’s Skype identity and his PSTN number or numbers if they’re included in his profile. The Skype identity is highlighted by default. If you press Select at this point, the call goes through Skype to Skype.
If you scroll down and select a PSTN number, more menus appear. On the first, you can select Call (highlighted by default) or scroll down to Edit for Call, which allows you to add or subtract area code or country code as needed. Finally, if you select Call, you come to a menu where you have to choose between Dial on SkypeOut or Dial on landline. (You can configure the phone to always choose one or the other.)
This clumsiness is partly a function of the range of options available—Skype to Skype, SkypeOut, PSTN—but also the result of a less than optimally designed menu system.
Answering calls—whether Skype to Skype, SkypeIn or PSTN—is the same: pick up the phone, press the green Call button and say Hello. You can set the phone up to sound different ringing tones for different types of calls.
Pressing the soft key for Menu from the home screen takes you to a main menu where you can choose Contacts, History, Add Contact, Intercom (grayed out unless you have multiple handsets registered on the same base station), Status (to change Skype presence status), Search (to search for a contact), Services (where you can check on status of SkypeOut credits, SkypeIn number and Skype Voicemail) and Settings.
The Settings menu lets you configure Call Divert options (call forwarding and voice mail), set Skype Privacy options, manage Blocked users, select ringing and alert tones, set time and date (including time zone), manage multiple handsets on the Dualphone network, set handset options (screen contrast, language, country code, etc.), get system information about LAN connection, MAC address, Skype account, etc., and access advanced settings for Internet and Skype ports and initiating firmware updates.
Set-up is remarkably simple—or was in my experience. Plug in the handset charging cradle and charge the phone’s batteries (two rechargeable nickel metal hydride AAA cells). Plug in the base station and connect it to an Ethernet port on your router using the supplied Ethernet cable.
The handset automatically discovers the base station when you turn it on the first time and then goes through a brief first-time start-up procedure. It asks you to choose a language (English, French, Spanish), click to sign off on the Skype Agreement, choose your country (only European countries in the model we tested), enter country and area codes and then sign in to Skype. That’s it—you’re ready to make and take calls.
You can create a new Skype account from the handset, but this requires tedious phone-style text input. Just entering a Skype name and password to log in is irritating enough—although if you tell it to, the phone will remember at least your Skype name.
In my testing, the Dualphone 3088 worked very well in PSTN mode. The other party’s voice was always clear and loud enough. People I called or who called me reported that my voice was loud and clear too.
I could not test it at the furthest end of the range RTX claims for it (too cold to test outside at this time of year), but moving as far away from the base station as possible in my small house, with ceiling and walls in between, made no noticeable difference in connection quality. In other words, the 3088 functioned as well as any cordless home phone, better than many.
Skype of course introduces a lot of uncertainty. It’s almost impossible to determine what causes poor connections. I had some Skype connections while testing this product that were as poor as any I’ve experienced at any time. I had others that were as good as any I’ve had. From this, and the consistently good performance in PSTN mode, I conclude that the poor connections were caused (as usual) by the vagaries of the Internet, my local connection to it and the Skype p2p network.
Like the other cordless Skype phones we’ve looked at, this one does not have wideband audio capabilities. The best voice quality is equivalent to a standard telephone. You still get the best quality on Skype calls using a headset attached to a computer.
The handset is easy to hold, although like any small handset, it will be a little uncomfortable for long conversations.
Bottom line: if you’re looking for a dual-mode cordless Skype phone, this one has a very important advantage over others currently on the market, it sets up easily and performs well. If you’re in North America, keep an eye on the RTX America site for news of retail availability.