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.
According to Belkin officials, the Skype organization is very specific about how a GUI should look and how a keypad should behave for a device to be Skype Certified. Indeed, we had a nearly identical experience while configuring and using each of the phones we tested. However, we found Netgears SPH101 much more responsive than the Accton-based phones, with screens quickly painting and commands quickly executing.
Part of the reason we liked Netgears overall experience was its superior TFT (thin-film transistor) LCD screen, which was much brighter and cleaner than the CSTN (color super-twist nematic) screen in the Accton-based devices.
Each phone we tested automatically downloaded our Skype contacts from Skypes servers within minutes of connecting to the network. The process of navigating each phones interface to find and dial contacts or to dial a SkypeOut number from scratch was intuitive.
In fact, each of the phones left us satisfied—we found sound quality and radio coverage up to our expectations. But our level of satisfaction dropped like a stone when we started moving around with the phone—a rather critical problem for mobile devices.
We consider the lack of real mobility, both inside and outside the corporate WLAN (wireless LAN), a deal breaker with these phones. When considering the price versus capabilities of these devices, wed prefer to get a little more bang from a mobile device—something more along the lines of Paragon Wireless GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and Wi-Fi dual-band Pocket PC device, the Hipi 2200. We could install Skype on the Hipi 2200, but we also could use it with cellular and SIP networks.
Its also worth noting that none of the phones we tested for this review supports Skype Chat. Anyone who attempts to start a chat session on one of them will get a message indicating that the recipient does not support chat and cannot join the conversation.
As they are based on the same model, the SMC and Belkin phones are practically identical in form and function, although our Belkin device came in glossy black finish while the SMC device had a white finish. Both phones measure 1.93 inches wide, 4.53 inches long and .71 inches thick and weigh 3.7 ounces with the battery installed.
The SMC phone we tested used a slightly older firmware revision (0.9.02) than the Belkin phone did (18.104.22.168). This difference likely accounted for the SMC phones “stickiness” in tests: We found that the Belkin phone was quicker to identify when a network connection dropped and the Skype connection timed out. The SMC phone, in contrast, would fail to recognize that the Skype connection was gone and would then hang for a short period once we attempted to access a Skype function.
In our battery tests, we connected all three phones to a Trapeze Networks-powered unencrypted WLAN, with each phone placed about 3 feet from our access point. To measure battery life, we booted each fully charged phone (preconfigured to attach to the network and log in to Skype) and then received an incoming call from a second Skype client configured on a PC. The results provided below represent the entire duration of an active call with music playing constantly in one direction.
The SMC phones 3.7-volt 1,200-mAh (milli-Amp hours) battery is rated for 3 hours of talk time or 30 hours of standby time. (We expect the Belkin devices rated times to be the same, but we did not have access to the devices technical specifications). However, we were pleasantly surprised by performance that surpassed these numbers: The Belkin phone had a talk time of 4 hours and 51 minutes (although massive dropouts started occurring around the 4-hour, 42-minute mark), while the SMC phone turned in 5 hours and 3 minutes of talk time before shutting down.
Netgears SPH101 is slightly smaller yet heavier than the other devices we tested: It measures 4.33 inches long, 1.81 inches wide and .75 inches thick, and it weighs 4 ounces with the battery installed. The SPH101s 3.7-volt, 840-mAh battery does not promise quite as much kick as that of the Accton-based devices—its rated for only 2 hours of talk time or 20 hours of standby time.
In tests, the SPH101s battery performance did lag significantly behind that of the Accton-based devices, delivering 1 hour and 59 minutes of talk time. We tested the SPH101s talk-time performance when connected to a WPA-PSK-encrypted WLAN, and the battery performance dropped slightly to about 1 hour and 40 minutes. The SPH101s battery shortcomings are a shame because the device was superior to the Accton-based phones on almost every other front.
We noted that all three phones black out the LCD panel during a long call. In addition, none of the phones shows the battery level during an active call, which could lead to some anxiety when you dont know if you have enough power to make it through an important call.
Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected].