The new generation of Wi-Fi-enabled Skype phones promise to unchain users from their PCs while providing the same cheap and accessible voice-over-IP service that users have come to expect from Skype.
Unfortunately, two of the products eWEEK Labs reviewed failed to deliver much in the way of useful mobility.
They may work adequately for a user sitting at a desk or on the couch, but trying to use these phones around the office or out in the world is out of the question right now. And the third product we reviewed has too little battery life to be useful.
We tested the Netgear Skype WiFi Phone (SPH101), which lists for $249, as well as a pair of phones based on Acctons VM1185T design (SMCs $190 WSKP-100 Wi-Fi Phone for Skype and Belkins $189 Wi-Fi Phone for Skype Model F1PP000GN-SK).
Both the Netgear and SMC phones are available now, while Belkins device is expected to be available in November.
Our opinion about the SMC and Belkin phones was ultimately shaded by their complete inability to roam in an enterprise or campus wireless environment. Only Netgears SPH101 could maintain an active call during a roam. With the Accton-based devices, any active call would drop as our connection handed off between different access points in the same network with the same SSID (service set identifier) and security information.
Even with the devices on and ready to accept or make calls (but not during an active call), both Accton-based phones were sluggish when roaming from one access point to another. We also were dismayed to find—again and again—that we had lost network connectivity to an access point. The phones didnt reassociate to a closer access point with a better signal, which often meant that we had to manually reconnect to a network.
The Belkin phone would eventually connect to a network within 30 seconds or so, while the SMC phone sometimes took minutes to do the same. On the other hand, Netgears device performed these non-active-call handoffs fairly seamlessly, so we experienced far fewer network outages with the SPH101.
When searching for nearby wireless networks, we immediately could see the difference in the three phones implementations. Each of our three SSIDs included five access points. The Netgear SPH101 reported the three available networks, but the Accton-based phones broke the list down by SSID and access point.
So, if the Accton-based phones detected two access points for each of the three networks at the time of a scan, they would then list six available networks. The Accton phones were using the BSSID (Basic Service Set Identifier) as a criterion for determining a distinct wireless network, which is more likely to be the case for a home network but not for a large corporate network.
Only companies that have deployed a wireless network that mimics the same BSSID across all the access points—such as nets based on Meru Networks technology—will have a chance at getting the SMC or Belkin devices to roam successfully without dropping a call. Whereas most wireless vendors use a distinct BSSID for each access point, Merus solution would essentially fool the Skype phones into thinking they were associated to the same access point at all times.
Each of the phones we tested includes an 802.11g-compliant Wi-Fi radio and a USB connector to recharge the battery or perform certain actions via a PC (such as upgrading the firmware), plus a headphone jack and volume-control buttons. The Netgear phone also includes a speakerphone, a feature we found quite handy at several points during testing.
We found that all three of the phones connected easily to open-wireless networks or to secured networks that leverage WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) or WPA-PSK (Wi-Fi Protected Access-Pre-Shared Key) encryption. Businesses should be put off by all three phones lack of support for 802.1x authentication or AES (Advanced Encryption Standard).
From each devices keypad, we could scan the airwaves to identify and join nearby networks, or we could manually configure and prioritize network settings. We found the task of creating network profiles tedious and prone to mistakes when entering long WPA keys, particularly when we switched among screens to enter numbers or special characters. (For better security, WPA keys should be at least 20 characters for this value.)
In addition, none of the phones includes a Web browser, which means we could not use the phones in wireless networks that require a Web log-in or payment. This will make it more difficult to use the devices on the road.