VoIP and Skype have been hot topics over the past couple of years. It has been especially noticeable at trade shows with seemingly every company under the sun making VoIP gateways and Skype compatible phones and routers.
VoIP is more than just a buzz-word though. It can reduce telephone calls costs considerably and in many cases it can be free. This is something that affects everyone, as everyone makes phone calls. Eventually, I expect phone calls will be like e-mails – the only cost being that of the net connection, or the bandwidth used.
I have a mobile phone with 500 minutes of talk time a month, so the need for a land-line became so small that I opted to go with NTL cable internet and bypass the need for a land-line altogether. I know many people that only use their land-line for ADSL, so it’s quite irritating that the whole ADSL/land-line bonding hasn’t been metaphorically separated.
By going with NTL cable, it meant I didn’t need a land-line and reduced my monthly cost. This sounds like a great idea, but there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t regret this decision. The service I’ve had has been slow and unreliable and definitely not the suggested 10Mbit. I run an IMAP mail server on my Fedora Linux box at home, which I connect to from the office all day and the connection has been far from stable.
The big downside to my particular setup is phoning abroad. Although I can do this on my mobile phone it costs more and is outside of my inclusive minutes. My parents took the bold option of moving to Italy a few years ago to run a Bed & Breakfast so I tend to rack up a fair few international calls each month.
I’ve always been a bit of a Skype snob – as a techy I know full well that it’s nothing more than standard codecs in a pretty package and as such, I have tried to avoid it. So at first I used sipdiscount.com which had a very low rate to phone Italy. As I’m often on the move, I had this set up on my notebook and my desktop and the Firewall needed configuring especially to work with it. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to get going on hotel internet connections. I also found it very erratic on my NTL connection, with noticeable delay and often no signal getting through at all. I tried several different configurations using the X-Pro software phone as well as ExpressTalk, but to no avail.
I then decided to try Skype as I wanted to keep in touch with a friend of mine in America too. The rates to phone my parents weren’t as cheap, but still pretty darned cheap. As with most things, the technology is only one portion – it’s the package as a whole. I have to say, Skype has really impressed me. It didn’t require any special setting up, has excellent contact management, IM and has been really well thought out.
The only thing that was missing for me was a handset for that real phone call experience. So in comes to the TRENDnet ClearSky.
The ClearSky comes in two parts – the USB Bluetooth dongle and the handset itself. There is no dock and to charge you must use the supplied USB cable, which is a mini USB connection. It is worth noting that you can’t connect to the phone by USB, this is ”’only”’ used for charging.
Installing the device was pretty easy using the supplied CD. Part way through the installation you are instructed to insert the Bluetooth dongle and press OK. Upon doing so, it then goes through all the tedious driver install windows automatically for you, so that you don’t have to sit there pressing next 163 times.
Once the software was installed and the machine reset, I went into pairing mode on the handset and then it was all picked up and configured automatically by the software. Skype then told me that a device was trying to take control of it and then everything was working. A very quick and very easy set up that anyone can handle.
The Bluetooth adapter uses the Microsft stack, and we had no luck getting Trendnet’s software to work on a notebook we had using the IVT Blue Soleil chipset. If your notebook uses the same chipset, it is possible that you could get rid of the need for the Bluetooth dongle but I wouldn’t rely on it.
My initial thought on the handset is that it felt really cheap. Upon using it, I felt this again as the interface is really slow to react. Trying to type in a phone number at my normal pace caused it to miss most of the numbers. Instead, I had to verify each number had come up on screen before typing in the next.
One click of the contacts button and you have a full list of your contacts including their current status. However, there was no way to skip to a particular person by pressing a letter on the keypad, instead you must manually skip through each name on your list, which on this slow interface is a painful experience.
I tried adding a new contact while the handset was on the contact page and nothing happened, however going to a different menu item and then coming back to it was all it took to refresh the list.
The phone does pretty much everything that Skype does – including call history and the ability to change your current status. There is a selection of four unoffending MIDI ring tunes, and an option to use a 2.5mm headset.
Volume control is thanks to a rocker switch on the left of the device. There is no speakerphone, which I definitely missed.
As it is Bluetooth, in theory you can use the phone up to 100m away – but naturally this will vary depending on your set up. From experience I wouldn’t rely on being able to use it much further than outside of the room.
Charging was surprisingly quick and TRENDnet boasts a six hour talk time and 60 hour standby time. This seems like quite a lot, but when you think about it – all this is, is a Bluetooth audio handset – all of the encoding is still done on the computer.
Aside from the slow interface though, the handset works well and does everything that you need a Skype phone to use.
The Trendnet ClearSky (TVP-SP1BK) is very easy to set up and I found the audio quality to be satisfactory for phone calls. The slow interface is a real downside, but you can initiate the phone call from within Skype itself which is a lot faster. However, this begs the question of whether a handset is even needed. If you are going to use Skype itself to control the phone aspect of things – why not just use a Bluetooth headset? Not only are these cheaper, but it could also be used with a mobile phone when away from the desk.
At £78.99, this seems like a lot of money for what is a very simple device. For that kind of cash I would expect a lot more for my money and as such I’d look for alternatives.
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