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This review is for the Belkin Wireless Skype Handset and not of the Skype system as such but a brief overview is required. In 2003 Skype (rymes with "type") released an idea that allowed a user to make calls from one computer to the another using an already established network - the Internet. This allowed you to call your cousin in Australia "free of charge" - your obviously still paying for your Internet connection but if you already had this in place it was adding real value to your payments. At this time you generally had a microphone and headphone attached to your PC which if you where lucky was on a "fast" internet connection. After installing the software and registering with Skype you could connect to other Skype users around the world. The next generation was Skype "phones". These where USB devices that plugged into your PC with the look and feel of an actual phone but in reality not doing anything more than a headset or microphone. With the advent of most home broadband routers supporting Wi-Fi we finally now have a generation of Skype phones that are cordless and do not need to rely on a PC at all.
Having some previous Skype knowledge my interest in the cordless "phones" started when I got a massive phone bill due to a close friend who was on a different mobile network to myself. My initial investigations showed models made by Netgear, Belkin, Linksys and SMC amongst others. Having read a few reviews their didn't seem to be much in the different models so I decided to basically go for the cheapest. On Amazon.co.uk this turned out to be the Belkin Wireless Skype Handset which at £46.99 was a good deal cheaper than the Netgear SPH101 at £80.12 at that time. I believe all models are pretty much the same price again at the time of writing.
On arrival the box had a number of items. The phone, battery, charger, USB cable, CD and quick start guide. My first impressions of the handset was "plasticy" and light. However to be fair this is because I was used to a standard mobile phone.
The first task was to charge the phone. Taking the back of was a little fiddly but obviously this is just a one off task in theory. The charger has a USB end and plugs into the phone under a rubber flap at the bottom of the device. The batter needs to be charged for 3 hours at this point. What I found strange was no visible display to show that the phone was charging. After an hour or two I even held the phone to see if I could feel any warmth but found none. As it turns out the phone charged just fine and displayed a message when it was fully charged.
From that point onwards I was up and running with the phone within 10 minutes. After selecting my language and accepting a license agreement the handset started searching for wireless networks. Because my network is protected I proceeded to manually enter my network SSID and security settings - the phone has options for Open, WEP and WPA. To get this working you must obviously have a basic understanding of how your home broadband wireless network is setup. You then have to login to the Skype network. I had previously set an account up for my laptop so I merely had to enter my user name and password.
On my second phone I decided to experiment with creating a new Skype account with the handset as my own account had been created online. This turned out to be a lot quicker than I thought. After choosing to connect to the Skype network I was offered to enter details or create a new account. After choosing a Skype user name I was prompted for a password twice. And that was it. 2 minutes. This proved even for setup you don't actually need a computer at all.
From that point onwards I really don't need to spend anytime on connecting because it was so easy. If you have previously created a list of Skype contacts they are displayed or you can search for people. You just dial and once connected your off chatting away! As with Skype normally the quality of the call was very good but keep reading to find one of the drawbacks with this handset.
Also just one quick final note that is more Skype related than the handset. When I signed up for Skype I got a free "normal" phone call voucher. With this you can ring a standard telephone via Skype. I used this up on my handset and it worked fine, again good quality. Its important to understand you can call non Skype users via the Skype system.
The first drawback is the question of whether you can use the phone anywhere. The simple answer is no. The problem with this whole generation of Skype wireless phones is the interface. At the moment they only allow you to enter a wireless network SSID and security phrase. So you can only access a wireless network that is unprotected or you know the above information. You wouldn't for example be able to use it in a location that requires authentication through a web page to gain wireless access. The next generation of handsets from all of the main players are likely to have built in web browsers to alleviate this "problem". However if you are only going to be using one of these devices at home with your own wireless network it really isn't a problem. For me though it means still using a laptop with a headset and microphone at other locations.
Secondly and perhaps the biggest problem is echo. As I have said previously the quality of the call is normally very good but one thing I have found is that you hear the echo of your own voice. This happens on both of the phones I purchased. Firmware upgrades have not improved this. When using the normal Skype service on a laptop you generally do not get this at all. I would be very interested to hear if handsets from other manufactures suffer this problem also.
Taking everything into account I am going to give the device nearly full marks. Its not perfect but at the same time it was breaking new ground when it was released. If however you are thinking of using such a device outside of your home based environment it might be worth hanging fire and waiting for the next generation of device.