PRODUCT REVIEW: Skype handset makes VoIP calls a liberating experience
By JIM KRANE
AP Technology Writer
The Associated Press
If you live outside your home country or phone overseas often, chances are you've heard of Skype, the voice-over-Internet service that allows you to make free or cheap voice calls through your computer.
My fiancee and I have happily used Skype since installing broadband in our Dubai apartment six months ago. We've even got American and British phone numbers our friends use to call us, via Skype, in Dubai.
But I didn't take full advantage of Skype's admittedly wonderful capabilities until I got one of Linksys' $130 cordless handsets for testing.
The lightweight gray "phone" replaces what, for me, was Skype's biggest drawback: the microphone-earpiece headset that kept me tethered to the computer.
Since landing the Linksys CIT200 handset, we've been treating our landline phone like it's made of kryptonite. A week ago it rang and I jumped up in alarm -- I'd forgotten it was still there.
Other than a few minor bugs and a clunky menu interface, the Skype phone has proven as liberating to me as the dishwasher was for 1970s homemakers.
I enjoy chatting on the phone as much as the next guy -- but not if it means sitting in front of a computer screen and frying my eyeballs. Skype with the headset was a great tool, granted, but it needed the handset to set it free.
The company says the phone's range is 160 feet indoors, but I've never discovered the limits of its reach in our giant -- by New York standards -- apartment. I can chat while sitting on the balcony and watching kids shoving each other into the pool below, or wander into the far bedroom and kick back on the bed.
It beats the heck out of staring dopily at the screen while talking, which ends up distracting me from my conversation because I start noodling around on the Internet.
The Linksys handset operates like a mobile phone with a green "send" key and a red "end" key. Skype charges you for airtime from the moment you press the send button -- as long as you're phoning someone who isn't on the Skype network, in which case the call is free.
The handset integrates fairly well with the Skype features we'd already installed in our computer, including voicemail and the local U.S. and U.K. numbers we bought from Skype to receive incoming calls.
The home economics of this $130 investment are, of course, incontestable: in Dubai it costs more than one U.S. dollar per minute to call someone in Britain during peak calling hours using regular phone service; Skype costs 2.3 U.S. cents, or 0.017 euros, per minute.
But there are a few hiccups.
Our contact list of Skype member names and outside phone numbers was imported automatically into the handset, but navigating through the clunky interface is slow. It's easier to use the simple computer interface to launch calls.
Unfortunately, once I installed the Linksys software, I couldn't launch calls from the computer screen anymore.
The handset plugs into a wall jack via a charger cradle. It communicates wirelessly with your computer's Skype software through a USB base station. The base station is adorned with a groovy illuminated ring that changes color, including a seductive cobalt blue, depending on the phone's status.
If the Skype phone sounds too good to be true, it could be.
Etisalat, the Emirates' government-owned telecom and Internet provider, is reported to be interested in buying software that will block all Skype calls on its network -- apparently because free calls are luring away customers who are loath to pay its monopoly prices.
Etisalat already blocks access to the Skype Web site, forcing users to download the software elsewhere.
A British software firm, Bitek International, has announced that it has developed software that carriers can use to turn back the clock and block Skype calls. Papers here have reported that Etisalat was one of the telecoms interested in acquiring it.
I find myself hoping a white hat hacker somewhere will quickly develop a Skype-friendly workaround.
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