Skype has made a lot of progress in bringing VoIP to the general public and is very quickly becoming to VoIP as Hoover is to vacuum cleaners. However, much like the PC, it can still be a little too confusing for the average punter. The PC may be incredibly powerful and capable of anything your mind can fathom, but single or limited function devices are still incredibly popular because of their simple and reliable nature. Despite my affinity for the Linux console, even I’m a little guilty of the sin of simplicity.
When it comes to a mobile phone, I want something simple and reliable with a long battery life – yet instead I have phones thrown at me with Bluetooth, Cameras, 3D games and instant messaging. Although I’m using a Sony Ericsson k800i, I don’t use the phone any differently from the Phillips Savvy I was using five years ago.
Generally speaking, people don’t particularly want to know what VoIP is, or even Skype – they hear cheap or free phone calls and that’s all they want to know. But having to plug in a headset, or even having to have your computer turned on can be a pain, and not to mention costly. With the extra hassle, they would sooner pay the higher rates.
Asus is probably best known for its range of motherboards, but also produces notebooks, graphics cards, coolers, cases and pretty much everything else under the sun. You guessed it, it now makes a Skype handset.
Here you can see the AiGuru S1 sitting in its dock. A transformer is supplied with a mini-USB connection. To charge, this can be either plugged in to the phone itself, or in to the dock. When the phone is placed on the dock, two spring loaded pins contact with the phone to charge it. The battery is Lithium-ion and will provide 25 hours of standby time and 2.5 hours of talk time. If you ran out of battery mid-conversation, you can always plug in the charger and carry on talking.
The phone itself looks like a rather old mobile phone, but it’s hardly unattractive. The screen has a bright blue backlight and has a resolution of 128×64 pixels. That’s fine for displaying the essentials, and it does so quickly. There is nothing more annoying than an interface which is slow to react!
What really excited me about this product is that it connects using 802.11b/g wireless. This excitement was however, short lived. In a perfect world, this device would be able to connect to any pre-existing wireless infrastructure and bypass the need for a computer entirely. However, in this case, a USB wireless adapter is included with customised software that needs installing on the machine.
The dongle itself is nothing fancy, although it does come with a flexible USB extension lead that allows you to position the device around 360 degrees, for the best possible reception.
Once the software is installed, the phone must be plugged in using the supplied USB cable. The software then gives the wireless details to the phone, so that it can always connect.
The software on the PC then interacts with Skype and relays information to the phone. From the phone you can select one of your contacts and start a call, or just dial in a phone number.
Asus has also built in a voice mail and answer machine system which is accessible from the phone.
Although I had some strange issues at first, a reboot later and things were working fine. In our office we have security bars protecting our windows, and these tend to ruin any wireless signal outside of the office. Reception was fine inside the office, and even a few metres radius outside. In a bar-less household, signal strength should be more than fine (unless you happen to live here).
I found that I had perfect audio quality when chatting with friends over Skype.
On the back of the phone is a speaker, which is fairly loud and makes the speakerphone functionality quite useful. However, this also has another use, as does the headphone jack on the side of the phone.
Since Skype uses the phone as an audio streaming device (when you get down to the nuts and bolts), Asus has added support for streaming music from Windows Media Player, too. By selecting a pre-made playlist, you can then choose these songs from the menu on the phone, in the same way you would an MP3 player. Using the headphone output, you can either put on a pair of headphones, or output to some speakers. Sound quality isn’t bad at all, even through the speakerphone it is listenable! It might be nicely positioned in the bedroom for playing a couple of tracks while getting changed in the morning.
Functionality is rather limited for music playback – there is no way for fast forwarding through a track and skipping from track to track is slow. When you launch a song, it actually loads up Media Player and just streams the output to the phone. If you want to, you can just drag an album on to Media Player and it will start playing it – so strictly speaking, you don’t need a playlist for every album you own.
As a test, I got someone to phone me on Skype while I was listening to music on the headphones. It instantly cut off the music and I heard ringing instead. I continued to hear the conversation through my headphones and could still speak through the microphone. It might have been nice to have a microphone input also, then a headset could be used, but if you really wanted to do this, you would plug a headset directly in to the computer and not bother with the phone in the first place.
I was generally quite impressed with how well it worked with Media Player. For instance, I turned on shuffle and closed Media Player, which saves this as a setting for next time. When I went to play music, the Asus software automatically turned this off, as not to confuse the player.
The biggest disappointment about this phone is that it still requires the computer to be on and it needs a separate wireless dongle to work. If you look past this issue, it’s a solid phone that works reliably. The dock is a nice touch, and the streaming music could be really handy.
At the end of the TRENDnet review, I mentioned how costly it was and how there must be better alternatives. This hands down beats the TRENDnet, with more features, better looks and considerably better software. With an RRP of £69.99, we can expect it to be quite a bit cheaper than this when it hits the market. Well worth considering.
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