Experience with a Belkin Skype Wi-Fi Phone

First off, I want to apologize to Belkin. They took the time to ship me their wireless Skype phone and I fell so behind, it missed mention on the blog. I did show it off at MIX '08 as promised, though. Commence the rock throwing! Ok, that out of the way...

Skype, if you've been living under a rock for the past five years, is a piece of software that lets you call another user of the software for free over the Internet. You know, that voice-over-IP schtuff. Other features, of course, include video teleconferencing, a "SkypeIn" service that handles the translation of phone numbers to Skype users, and a "SkypeOut" service that basically allows the reverse. Oh and the software is chock full of obfuscated code to help prevent reverse engineering and keep bugs in.

I can't speak for the Skype software on Linux or Mac OS X, but I can tell you from first hand experience that on Windows, when it works, it works nicely. After a couple years of use, however, I've grown to loathe it. After learning about an opportunity to try out Belkin's Skype phone, I jumped right on it. I want Skype off my PC.

Belkin's Wi-Fi Phone for Skype isn't new, in fact it's nearly two years old, but it has been refreshed and can still hold its own today. Read on for my hands-on experience, chock full of pictures.

BoxedSemi-UnboxedOh, another box!

I received the phone in a cellophaned box, within the usual-colored peanut-filled box. Nothing special.

Unboxed x 2

BatteryAC AdapterMini-USB <-> USB CablePhone, frontBox Goodies!Expired Skype Calling Card, frontExpired Skype Calling Card, back

Emptying the product's box contents onto my table yielded some decorative writing on glossy paper, a compact disc with a soft copy of the manual, a male mini-USB to male USB cable (for data), a phone charger (male mini-USB to US AC prong), a battery, an expired SkypeOut card for 30 minutes and a month of free voicemail decoration, and finally - the phone itself.

Phone, exposed back

As with all electronics, I captured all the serial numbers and FCC IDs for Google search purposes. Take note this phone isn't actually a "real" phone. There is no electronic serial number (ESN), Mobile Equipment Identifier (MEID) or a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It's an 802.11b/g WiFi-only phone, so you get a MAC address instead.

Belkin WiFi Skype Phone vs. Blackberry 7100, fronts

Belkin WiFi Skype Phone vs. Blackberry 7100, front sidesBelkin WiFi Skype Phone vs. Blackberry 7100, thick sidesBelkin WiFi Skype Phone vs. Blackberry 7100, thick top

I'm a current Blackberry 7100t owner (for work) so it felt natural to compare it to the Skype phone, never mind the fact it's the only other mobile device I have. Shockingly, the Skype phone is longer than my Blackberry and almost just as thick. It is a bit narrower though, but not by much.

Belkin WiFi Skype Phone Blackberry 7100t
Height: 11.5cm 11.7cm
Width: 4.9cm 5.9cm
Depth: 1.8cm 2.1cm

The screen is nothing to write home about, but keep in mind I'm a spoiled RIM flashlight Blackberry user. It was a bit disturbing to see the small screen in the phone with a bunch of what looks like reserved screen space. Shame really because the device feels half empty. As with most mobile devices that get held to the face, the screen attracts grease and smudges very well. Expect to wipe after every call.

The buttons are small plastic push buttons with a high-gloss finish, which look just fine. The tactile feedback is also very good and not being a large fingered individual, the size of each button is just right. They're also backlit by some blue LEDs, whoo.

On the bottom, the phone sports a mini-USB connector for flashing/charging purposes and a mini-headphone jack, covered by some irritating rubber flaps. On the left side, you'll find a set of volume buttons. Nothing fancy.

Joining my wireless network

First time license agreeementFirst time language selectionList of access pointsWPA key input boxWelcome screenSigning into Skype accountContact list, some

The operating system on the phone, judging by the GPL'ed firmware on Belkin's website, is a stripped down version of a *nix that automatically loads a modified version of the Skype for Linux client, along with WiFi chipset drivers and other necessities. Although the documentation demanded that I recharge the phone before use, I started using the phone immediately. You'll see, by looking in the upper right-hand corner, the battery had half of a charge. Rafael: 1, Documentation: 0.

The menu-based user interface was pretty straight-forward and was very responsive, unlike Blackberry's Java-based kluge. Upon first use, I was greeted by Skype's legal dump and a language selection menu. After bypassing the legalese and selecting English as my preferred language, I began network configuration.

The phone immediately detected my high-powered local wireless access point (secured via WPA2/PSK TKIP+AES) and a neighbors low-powered wireless access point (secured via WEP). Entering my private key and Skype account information was painful, having been spoiled by the Blackberry's QWERTY keyboard, but after a few tries, I successfully logged in and was greeted by a online-sorted contact list and the familiar Skype wooooosh start up sound.

In a callDiagnostic Information

Not wanting to chat with a human at the time, I called the Echo / Sound Test robot. This user comprises of a recorded voice that greets you then records your input and plays it back, for quality testing purposes. Calling this special user quite a few times resulted in zero echo, drop out, or any unusual noise. Sound quality is of highest expected quality for a mobile device so no complaints there. I read users complaining about drop-outs, echo, and even disconnected calls, but I have yet to experience any of these problems, knock on wood. I attribute my success with the newer firmware (2.0.0.37), which strangely enough isn't on Belkin's US website. I can dump the phone's firmware if anyone really wants it.

The phone's software surprisingly comes packed with most of the commonly-used features found in the Windows thick client minus chat and the ability to start a conference call, for obvious CPU/bandwidth reasons. It does, however, support the receipt of conference-based calls, although doesn't display the participants.

Overall, it's not a bad phone. The cost of the phone had me wanting more and being WiFi-only prevents it from being a total Skype PC client replacement, but it's a positive sign of things to come in the near future. To summarize...

Nice

  • Stable, high-quality calls without a PC!
  • Barebones software keeps things nice and simple (i.e. no chat)
  • Supports latest mainstream WiFi standards (802.11b/g) and encryption methods (WEP/WPA/WPA2)
  • Package features necessary cabling for recharging via PC and outlet
  • Looks good enough to be carried around as a real mobile phone
  • Appears to be hackable (use of *nix, GPL software, etc.)

Not so nice

  • Price ($170 as of writing)
  • Ear piece support is weird. You can hear the conversation through the ear piece but sound effects play on the device.
  • No browser = cannot connect to most airport/hotel wireless (can't click through)
  • Battery life (~3 hours continuous use, ~2 days unused)
  • Screen size

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