Earlier this year 3 Mobile introduced a mobile version of the popular PC VoIP application Skype onto a selection of phones -- the Nokia E65 for example -- to be used exclusively with their network. The concept would no doubt have taken off in a big way had the cost of mobile data been inexpensive as compared to standard call charges. Now instead of tucking Skype into the applications folder of their phones 3 has taken a more direct approach, a new handset with Skype front and centre, known as the Skypephone.
Even if it does look like a giant "tic-tac" -- and maybe because of this -- the Skypephone should immediately appeal to a younger market. The glossy white faceplate of our test model looks more fun than chic and definitely aimed at teenagers. So while the lure of free Skype calls should appeal to business users, particularly in small business, the handset may not.
The lightweight, slim candy-bar design is exactly the kind of phone you want to take with you when you're on the move. During our testing the phone left the labs and found itself in a few bars and clubs, and comfortably passed the important in-the-pocket test. Though with our test model having metallic, hot-pink trimming we were careful to duck into the shadows before making calls.
At 176 x 220 pixels the screen is a lower resolution than most screens we encounter, and it is obvious on close inspection with some graphics looking chunky. This doesn't mean the screen is difficult to read, nor does it detract from the colourful user menu which was a pleasure to use, but it does add to the impression that the Skypephone looks and feels like a toy phone. The keypad has decent sized buttons, making use of all available space under the screen and each key is raised and easy to locate when furiously tapping out text messages.
The stiff, plastic shell of the Skypephone did have us wondering about its vulnerability to knocks and drops. It seemed sturdy enough in our hands but we suspect a short drop onto the pavement would have the Skypephone in pieces. Add to this the fact that the battery cover has no locking mechanism short of a gentle magnet and it's conceivable that this mobile phone may not last the length of your contract in one piece.
While we're nitpicking: the position of the microSD memory card slot under the battery is a major annoyance, and the memory card is held under a tiny metal brace which we suspect is yet another component that will come free if it's not treated with the utmost care.
Let's get straight to the big guns: the built-in Skype VoIP application. For those unfamiliar with Skype imagine an instant-messaging program, like Yahoo messenger, and add to it the ability to make phone calls using your Internet connection rather than your phone line -- that's the bare bones of it. The major difference between Skype on your PC and the Skypephone is that you can't make phone calls directly to other phones using the Skypephone, only to other Skype users who have to be online before you call.
Immediately this detracts from the overall usability of the Skype app as you will have to pre-arrange Skype-to-Skype calls or hope that the person you want to speak with happens to be logged in. Still, the possibility to speak with overseas friends or family interstate for free will have mass appeal. Add to this the savings a business could enjoy by having staff on Skype and the market for this phone grows significantly.
We initially imagined the Skypephone being a one-trick pony, a gimmick device that would fail on all other fronts. Where the Skypephone impressed us is in that it covers all the standard phone functionality quite well. The Skypephone's 2-megapixel camera records video and the pictures we took in well-lit environments looked good; though, without a flash, don't expect great pics at night.
The phone comes bundled with stereo hands-free headphones and 3 have thrown in a 512MB microSD memory card as well. The phone charges using a universal micro USB port and when plugged in can double as a USB broadband modem, using the 3G connection of the phone. This is a very handy feature, again for business users, but be sure to understand your mobile data package as excess data charges are incredibly expensive.
The Skype application worked great, it's simple to set-up and the call quality is good, even with a short delay between what's said and what's heard. In terms of basic mobile phone functionality the Skypephone performed well. The calls we made sounded good -- but not excellent -- and text messaging was easy with T9 predictive text software similar to that used by Nokia.
One unusual point we noted was that the battery got very warm, almost hot, during phone calls or when we were using Web services. While it's not uncommon for mobile phone batteries to heat up it was notably hotter than we'd expect, and we put this down to the thin plastic back-plate; another tick against the quality of the build of the Skypephone.
The official specifications estimate a stand-by battery life of nine days, with three hours talk-time. Our experience was disappointing with less than three days from fully charged to completely drained with light use of voice, text and some Skype. Battery life often suffers with devices that maintain a constant connection with a 3G network, but these results are still too low for our liking.
Even though it's not a brand name mobile phone, for the asking price of AU$179 outright, the Skypephone is great value. VoIP on mobile phones is something we'd like to see more of, and even if you don't currently having a Skype contacts list full of friends you wouldn't regret making the effort to rectify that fact.
The phone and some components seem delicate and we seriously hope 3 Mobile plans to stock replacement back-plates in stores as, with no lock or latch, these parts in particular are bound to go missing. All things considered, careful and dexterous people shouldn't be deterred from an excellent budget-priced mobile, klutzes and the heavy-handed should proceed with caution.