Electronics giant Philips introduced a couple of VOIP (Voice Over IP) cordless handsets this year, and they have just arrived in New Zealand, after being available in the U.S. for a couple of months.
These devices operate with DECT (Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telephone) technology. Users can make and receive calls on both Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and IM networks from a single handset, giving users freedom to move away from a computer but still be able to communicate via IM platforms using voice. Both will still require a PC on and connected to the Internet, but that's about it.
The hardware installation is very simple: you plug the base station to a phone jacket and simultaneously to your PC via USB. Using the handsets and features available though is different in each case.
The Philips VOIP433 (below) allows users to place free voice calls via Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger to other users of the same service.
The most interesting feature on this phone was the completely transparent installation. There is no driver or software to install, providing you already have Windows Live Messenger up and running on your PC. Truly plug-and-play experience.
You can see and set your status following the on-screen menu, as well as see your friends' status through icons on the screen. Simply click the dedicated Windows Live Messenger key, scroll through your on-line contatcs list, highlight a friend and click to call. Providing they have means for voice calls (at least a microphone and speakers on the other side) you are ready to talk for free.
The menu options are ok, but the screen is certainly one of the worst I've seen on a handset. It's 98 x 67 pixels colour LCD, capable of showing only 4096 colours. The low resolution makes it a bit of a pain to read and the status icons for contacts are not as nice as you'd expect.
Another interesting feature though is the automatic contact book. You can select a menu option to download telephone numbers from your contacts' details - providing they keep this up-to-date on Windows Live Messenger this is a really nice feature.
The phone supports standard landline features such as call on hold, call transfer, call waiting, and if you have more than one handset paired with the base station you can page and talk between those handsets.
Battery life is not bad for a device like this. You can expect about about 10 hours talk time and 100 hours standby.
The Philips VOIP321 (below) is a Skype phone. This model requires the installation of a driver and small application program, that will run in parallel to Skype on your PC and provide the interface for it. After installation it's almost invisible, except for a small icon in the system tray.
They keys are a bit bigger than the ones on the VOIP433, and the screen is better - even though is just a black and white, two lines LCD. Perhaps being black and white makes it easier to read, but I certainly felt more comfortable with this one.
Like the VOIP433, the VOIP321 is quite easy to use and also provides a dedicated Skype key. When pressed this key will initiate or answer a call - be it Skype, SkypeIn (from standard phones) or SkypeOut (to standard phones).
In terms of battery life you can expect about about 10 hours talk time and 100 hours standby, like the VOIP433.
Both handsets offer a speakerphone option, very handy for long calls or when you want the whole family and friends around to interact on a call.
At first I thought the design of these devices was a bit strange, with two power cords being required (one for the base station and one for charging the phone itself on its own little cradle). Other solutions have a single power cord and charge the device directly from the base station. But this approach requires your handset to live very close to your PC. With the Philips handsets you can have them permanently located in your lounge for example, and always charged, while the base station is permanently connected to a PC in the office or some other room. Not a bad design after all.
This is the main difference between the handsets functionality, albeit not a handset feature but rather a service feature: with Windows Live Messenger you only have the call to landline feature if you are based in the U.S., while with Skype you have SkypeIn and SkypeOut services almost anywhere in the world. This and your choice of Instant Messaging platform may be the deciding factors when selecting which one to use.