The Philips VOIP8411B is a slick-looking cordless phone that can make calls on your landline or via Skype--without the need to be connected to a computer.
Editors' Note: This review has been slightly modified since its original publication to include changes in the pricing of the hardware and Skype's service offerings, and references to additional competing models.
The vast majority of Skype users still make their Internet phone calls through their computers, employing the built-in mic and speakers on their PCs or, better yet, a headset. But as Skype's VOIP (voice-over-IP) service has become the dominant application for making cheap--or free--phone calls throughout the world, manufacturers are coming up with ways to untether you from your computer and bring a more traditional landline phone experience to making Skype calls. The Philips VOIP8411B ($225 list, far less online) is the company's first Skype phone that operates independently of your computer, though it does require a broadband connection to work. It also does double-duty as a standard cordless phone on a plain old landline.
The VOIP8411B "kit" comes in three pieces. The largest item--a black box the size of an average cable or DSL modem--is the hub, and must be connected via its included Ethernet cable to a broadband modem, router or switch/hub (we tested it with a Netgear powerline Ethernet adapter, for example). If you want to tap into your existing phone system, you'll need to have the hub close to a phone jack (there's a standard RJ-11 phone jack alongside the Ethernet port on the back of the hub). The box is powered by your typical oversized AC adapter, which can be a pain to deal with if your power strip is already full.
The other portion of the kit consists of a single handset and its small cradle/recharging station that draws power from a second, smaller AC adapter. The hub communicates wirelessly with the handset using something called Advanced DECT 6.0 (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) technology--it operates in a wireless spectrum (1,900 MHz) that shouldn't interfere with--or receive interference from--other technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microwave ovens, and cordless phones.
As far as handsets go, the VOIP8411B is sleek and compact and actually looks a little more like a candy-bar cell phone, complete with a 128x128-pixel color screen (65,000 colors to be exact), than a cordless phone. Once we had everything plugged in (selecting where you want to put the hub and handset can be something of a dilemma), setting it all up was pretty simple. The one little snag we ran into is that we had to sync the headset with the hub by hitting the Page button on the hub; the button also acts as a headset locator. The ringer on the handset is quite loud--you can choose from a variety of polyphonic ringtones--so you won't have any trouble finding the phone if you misplace it.
A wizard on the handset asked whether we had an existing Skype account, and after we said we did, it instructed us to input our account name and password (you can choose to store your password and be automatically logged in, or input it manually each time). Inputting the info is just like text messaging using a dial pad, so if you're proficient at that it'll seem like a snap.
After logging in to Skype, you can bring up your Contacts list, which also incorporates the familiar Skype icons that let you know whether a contact is online and potentially available for a call. Making a call is as simple as navigating down your contact list and selecting that particular contact; the person is automatically dialed and the call goes through with virtually no delay. What's impressive about the process is that feels very much like you're making a speed-dial call using a standard cordless phone. (It's also worth noting that can speed-dial any phone number attached to a contact using your landline).
We won't spend too much time explaining Skype's rates, but when you're calling a fellow Skype member, the call is free--anywhere in the world. To call other phone numbers, you can opt for an a la carte Skype Credit plan (you add money to your account and have it deducted as you make calls) or purchase an unlimited minutes Skype Pro plan for the region you're in. For example, the current rate for unlimited calls within the U.S. and Canada is $36 per year, which is a much better deal than other VoIP services out there. If you don't have a landline number from your phone company or VoIP provider, you can purchase a SkypeIn number that allows people to call you at a specific number from any phone.
We found call quality to be fine for a VOIP phone, though we thought the volume could be a touch louder (naturally, call quality varied from caller to caller). Like your typical Skype call, you will get some clipping if your broadband connection--or the broadband connection of the person you're speaking to--is hit with any sort of congestion.
Was quality any better compared to using a basic USB headset connected to your computer? Not to our ears. But that's not really the point. The real key is that you can use the VOIP8411B just like you would a normal cordless phone. As you talk, you can walk from room to room and there's a built-in speakerphone on the handset if you want to go hands-free. That said, from a features standpoint, the VOIP8411B is geared more towards being a Skype phone, with most of its advanced features (call forwarding and voicemail, for example) designed for customers using Skype's optional services.
As a landline phone, the VOIP8411B is pretty basic. You do get support for caller ID (you can store Caller ID numbers to your Skype contacts list) and a flash button for call waiting. But you can't toggle between a Skype call and a standard call--taking one call disconnects the other. However, it's simple to put a caller on hold, mute the line, and then resume the call with a press of a button.
Philips says you can get up to 12 hours of talk time and up to 120 hours of standby time from a fully charged handset (a pair of AAA 750 mAh NiMH rechargeable batteries are included). We didn't run any rigorous battery tests, but we unplugged the whole system for five days and the battery was completely dead when we went to fire it back up. In other words, the handset doesn't seem to hold a charge like a cell phone can if you have it completely turned off. Of course, if you place it in the recharging cradle between calls, you'll be fine.
Like most competing dual-mode Skype phones, the Philips system can be expanded. Up to three additional handsets (model VOIP8410B ) can be added throughout the home for about $70 apiece. (We complained earlier in 2007 that these were hard to find, but the supply problem seems to be a thing of the past.)
As with all cutting-edge technology, you can expect to experience a few quirks with the VOIP8411B. For instance, we had trouble with the time zone of Skype contacts being off. This reviewer has a brother in Paris and the time zone for his contact info was correct, as was the time for our local time zone (the time is automatically set via the Internet). The phone does appear to be firmware-upgradeable, so there's a good possibility Philips will makes some tweaks as time passes. Obviously, it would be nice if the phone automatically updated its firmware when a new version became available, but this doesn't seem to be the case.
All in all, despite a few small shortcomings, there's a lot to like about the Philips system. While it delivers nearly all the same features as competing dual-mode Skype phones, the Philips is arguably the best-looking of the lot. The only real knock is that it lacks the ability of the GE 28310EE1 to toggle and conference between the landline and Skype line numbers. Otherwise, the Philips VOIP8411B is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for a PC-less Skype experience.